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home : • politics : • government
January 26, 2020

1/2/2014 11:46:00 AM
Eye on Augusta: Proposal to Mitigate Electromagnetic Fields from Powerlines Sparks Debate
Map of the Maine Power Reliability Project to upgrade the state’s electrical grid. Map courtesy Maine Office of GIS.USGS.CMP
Map of the Maine Power Reliability Project to upgrade the state’s electrical grid. Map courtesy Maine Office of GIS.USGS.CMP
by Andy O’Brien

It's been three years since Central Maine Power started work on the Maine Power Reliability Program, a five-year, $1.4 billion upgrade of the existing electrical system, constructing and rebuilding nearly 440 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and substations through 75 communities from Eliot to Orrington. Some worry that the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by high-voltage lines might pose a threat to public health, and last year Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) submitted legislation that would require all new power lines capable of carrying over 5,000 volts to be set back at least 300 feet from homes, schools, hospitals and other sensitive areas. The bill was held over until this January, when it will be reconsidered by a legislative panel.

Maine's electric grid consists of two voltage levels: between 34,500-345,000 volts (345 kV) for transmission lines and 4,000 to 115,000 volts (115 kV) for distribution lines. The 345 kV lines are considered the "backbone" of the bulk transmission system and connect to Canada and the rest of New England. There are currently nine 345 kV substations in Maine. The low-voltage 115 kV distribution lines transport electricity from power generation plants to areas that need electricity throughout the state through towns and neighborhoods. Small transformers on the poles reduce the electricity to 120-240 volts for each home.

Chelsea resident Wanda Curtis, who asked Sanderson to submit the bill, said she first became alarmed when she learned that CMP had plans to build a 345 kV line right through her neighborhood. She points to several studies, including some by Dr. David Carpenter, the head of the University of Albany Institute for Health and Environment, that suggest children who are exposed to high-voltage power lines are more likely to develop serious diseases like childhood leukemia.

EMFs are measured in milligauss, and Dr. Carpenter says he is concerned that high-voltage lines producing over 3 milligauss could pose a public health threat. Curtis said CMP projected readings in her neighborhood of 100 to 200 miligauss once the new transmission lines are built.

"My sister died of leukemia and I know what that's all about," said Curtis. "I went through the chemotherapy treatments with her ... and I don't want any child to have to go through that. I think they're putting it way too close to homes, and I was hoping the bill would prevent that from happening and perhaps other places, too, where it hasn't been constructed yet."

Curtis also points to a 2007 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) which stated that there was a possible link between EMF exposure and childhood leukemia and recommended precautionary measures to reduce EMFs when feasible. However, the report also stated that the evidence related to childhood leukemia was "not strong enough to be considered causal." The National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institute of Health, has maintained that there is limited evidence that magnetic fields cause childhood leukemia.

Critics of Sanderson's proposal - including CMP and the Public Advocate's Office - say that the harmful health effects of EMFs has not been proven and the 300-foot setback for new 5,000-volt projects would be too cumbersome since it would potentially impact all future low-voltage distribution lines as well as the higher voltage transmission lines. According to a report released in November by the PUC, nine other states have laws regulating public exposure to EMFs, but none go so far as to require a 300-foot setback for as little as 5,000 volts. The PUC estimates the cost of implementing such a requirement at approximately $950 million for the transmission line setbacks alone.

"You're going to get more exposure to EMFs from your own household wiring and appliances than you're going to get from any power line," said CMP spokesperson Gail Rice. "These lines require maintenance and upgrades from time to time to ensure service remains reliable, and to require a 300-foot setback should we need to upgrade a line is not practical for a number of reasons."

Rice said that CMP currently follows the WHO recommendation that as long as "the health, social and economic benefits of electric power are not compromised, implementing very low-cost precautionary procedures to reduce exposures is reasonable and warranted." Rice said there is currently no specific level of EMF that would trigger such an action, and the company handles EMFs on a case-by-base basis.

However, Curtis maintains that CMP is not applying the precautionary principle to other parts of the state where high-voltage lines are being constructed. She said she asked for taller steel poles to pull the lines higher or move the lines to an area farther away from homes, as the company did in the Yarmouth area, but the company refused.

"Why has the PUC approved that money for certain communities and they're doing nothing in other communities?" said Curtis.

According to CMP, the Yarmouth-area decision had nothing to do with EMFs.

"We shifted the line within the corridor a bit to preserve a tree buffer between a number of homes and the line," said Rice.

As for the future of the proposed legislation, its sponsor says it's a tough sell.

"As written with the 300-foot setback, it's almost impossible to accomplish," said Rep. Sanderson. "However, perhaps this effort will encourage power companies to take all necessary steps to reduce the level of EMFs in residential areas where families live within close proximity to power lines."

In the midcoast leg of the MPRP, crews were recently working in Washington and are set to begin work early this year in Whitefield and Somerville. They have finished projects in Searsmont, Liberty, Appleton, Montville, Morrill, Waldo, Brooks, Swanville, Monroe, Frankfort, Winterport, Troy, Prospect, Stockton Springs and Searsport. According to CMP, most of the communities are receiving new 115 kV lines; 345 kV lines have been constructed in Monroe, Frankfort, Troy and Winterport in Waldo County. Residents whose properties abut the areas where lines are under construction can request projected EMF readings for all of the lines combined near their property.

For up-to-date information about the project's progress, visit

Related Links:
• Central Maine Power, online

Reader Comments

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Article comment by: E N

Live in Long Beach. EMF reading inside home was 400mG 02/15, today 02/16 it is well over 5000mG. Only electric appliance here is fridge, cell phone and clock.

Posted: Friday, January 3, 2014
Article comment by: John Kristensen

If these lines were buried, it would save a lot of money in repairs and essentially eliminate the well-documented negative health effects of overhead power line EMFs and corona effect. When you combine the capital, transmission loss and maintenance costs over the life of a line, underground lines can be cheaper than overhead lines. Look at the millions of dollars being spent to repair power lines downed by the recent ice storms in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. Visit for the facts. (Sherwood Park, Alberta)

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