Tensions ran high at a meeting Tuesday night, during which state officials tried to allay concerns of Carderock Springs residents about plans to build a 180-foot tower near the local elementary school.
The tower’s main purpose would be to provide emergency first responders with better coverage, especially on the Potomac River, said representatives from the State Highway Administration, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Department of Transportation. Secondary to that is to improve cell service in the area.
But residents said they feared having a tower that emitted electromagnetic radiation or electromagnetic fields so close to Carderock Springs Elementary School, a concern dismissed out-of-hand by officials.
The exchange became heated when residents pressed for the names of schools that had towers built near them, and when they asked for a detailed analysis on any potential health impact on school children.
Officials said no specific analysis had been done for this site.
“We don’t want our kids to be case studies 10 years from now, for cancer and other things,” said Bettina Guevara-Timms, who moved to Carderock Springs recently.
“Any connection between RF emissions and cancer of any form has been totally inconclusive,” said Phil Lazarus of the State Highway Administration. He urged those concerned to visit the Federal Communications Commission’s website to read up on safety issues. “I’m not making this up.”
But the word “inconclusive” sparked audible disbelief and anger among some of those present.
“Why would you take the risk?” asked Christopher Roscetti, who has a 4-year-old son. “They said that about the Love Canal too, right?”
Building communication towers on or near schools is not a new idea in Montgomery County. Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Springbrook High School in Silver Spring and Tilden Middle School in Bethesda are among the 12 county schools that have cellphone towers on their property.
The tower would be a single steel pole, about 8 feet in diameter at the base and 180 feet tall. On top of that would be an 8-foot lightning rod. At the base of the tower would be a 50-foot compound, surrounded by an 8-foot-tall fence topped with barbed wire. The FCC requires any tower above 199 feet to have a strobe light and a red light, said G. Edward Ryan, II, director of wireless communications at the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
The tower would be located on state property, just north of I-495 and south of Eggert Drive, and would loom above the existing trees in the area, which are about 60 to 90 feet tall. The school is about 1,000 feet away at 7401 Persimmon Tree Lane. It would take about 60 days to build and would cost approximately $300,000. The state’s department of transportation will hire a contractor for the work, said Peter N. Arrey, chief of technology contracts at the Maryland Department of Transportation.
No agreement has been finalized, but if everything goes as planned, construction would begin in the summer of 2015.
While the primary purpose is radio communication for law enforcement, Arrey said, the state is also looking to partner with AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The state could rent space on the tower to the cellphone carriers for about $50,000 a year, he said. Each additional “co-locator” would require another batch of antennae, he said.
Carderock resident Wei Lu, who has a background working with cellphone towers, said he recognized there was a need for public safety but argued this was not the right location and would provide only spotty coverage for the river.
“But I have zero coverage now,” Ryan said.
“That’s why I say this is not a good solution. There are other options and it doesn’t involve putting up a tall tower,” Lu said. “It will not solve the problem, it will create new problems.”
Some residents asked whether the complaints aired at the informational meeting would have any effect on decision-makers.
“This meeting is for us to let you know about what are intending to do,” Arrey said. “We come to let you know.”