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Community Opposition To Telecom 3G Masts Grows

Communities vs. Big Business:

Telecom, Phone Towers and Profit-driven Agendas

Local residents in Nelson, who organized to block Telecom's proposed 22 meter, 3G phone mast above a play-centre and pre-school, want to kick-start a national dialogue on the safety, standards, placements and even the need for the proliferation of telecommunications equipment in New Zealand.

In a David v Goliath face-off, a group of concerned parents have come together, working day and night, to highlight the utter lack of protection of communities from the profit-motivated agendas of big businesses, in this case, the most powerful corporation in New Zealand.

(Telecom is the largest company by value on the New Zealand Exchange (NZX) and movements in its share price have a great influence on the index of movements in the top 50 companies. Further, it is the 39th largest telecommunications company in the OECD, from Wikipedia)

Ban the Tower was incorporated to prevent the construction of a Telecom mast in a residential neighborhood of Atawhai on the northern side of Nelson. They discovered that this tower was the first of 10 or more proposed for the Nelson area and that dozens more towers are planned throughout New Zealand as Telecom rolls out its new 3G cellphone system. Their objections were based on the uncertain health effects of these masts, their reckless placement immediately adjacent to two early childhood centers, threats from concerned parents that they would withdraw their children from the centers, the disproportionate size of the 22 metre tower compared to the other mainly residential buildings in the area, and reports of an up to 20% drop in property prices in areas where similar towers have been built.

As the residents investigated the approval process for this tower, they found that Telecom had proceeded very quietly, without any community consultation, resulting in approval being sought and granted by the Nelson City Council over the summer holidays. It was only by chance that the group even discovered the plans to build the tower, a situation which they consider completely unacceptable.

Telecom's application to the Nelson City Council is supported by a brief report from Alcatel-Lucent which says the tower will comply with the NZ standards. The residents now understand that Alcatel- Lucent has a contract for several hundred million dollars to install Telecom's 3G system. Ban the Tower questions the impartiality of this report and demands more stringent standards in evaluating the impact of these towers.

The group’s ability to mobilize popular support from local residents, the Council, and the media, including a petition with over 2000 signatures, has already forced Telecom to delay the proposed construction of the tower at Atawhai. However to date, while Telecom has agreed to look for alternative sites, it has refused to make a commitment to cancel its plans for a cell tower in that location. This is not enough for the Ban the Tower group who want Telecom to cancel all plans for the tower at Atawhai due to the 'unknown health risks' it may pose to the children, along with other considerations.

In addition to a definitive and unequivocal cancellation of the tower plans on that site, the group will ask Telecom to change its site analysis policies to avoid erecting any mobile phone tower within 1000m of any school or play-centre in the future. They will also ask that Telecom drastically changes its community interaction policy to ensuring an open process where the purpose of the technology, benefits and risk and other technology and site options are discussed before committing to any specific proposal or site. Consultation of this type is already promised by Telecom in its publicized community commitments, but clearly their promises are not currently rigorously adhered to.

The threat of the cell tower in this sensitive location has motivated the group to undertake a huge amount of research to understand all the possible effects of the tower, how other countries deal with this issue, and the legal checks and balances that are available for the community when faced with a threat of this type from big business. It has become clear that the proliferation of telecommunications towers, antennae and other equipment is a worldwide concern as corporations try to outdo their competitors and increase their market share. Even the conservative ICNIRP (The International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection) released a statement last month recognising concerns about the cumulative effects of this proliferation of different types of electromagnetic radiation from new technologies, and calling for more research to be undertaken.

The group is keen to encourage national debate about whether the apparently limited benefits of the 3G technology justify its costs, limitations and adverse effects on communities and the environment. One obvious shortcoming of this technology is the apparent need for towers or other transmitters to be located no more than 800 metres apart. In Nelson, this equates to a requirement for 10 or more sites. Presumably many more will be needed in our larger cities. The group understands that this technology will allow Telecom to offer some additional but non-essential cellphone services to help it match Vodafone competitively. The residents invite debate about whether this is in fact the best use of Telecom’s resources, and whether the community would be better served by investment in an affordable high speed fibre optic broadband service.

The group has also explored international literature on health effects of celltowers. All the literature agrees that far more research is required before the full extent of health effects can be known. The key to the different views is whether radiation emission standards should be calculated based on the lowest level where effects are known to be caused, or whether a precautionary approach should be taken in recognition of the current uncertainty. Government responses to this are mixed, with some states such as Australia and New Zealand adopting permissive standards, while others take a much more precautionary approach, with limits in some cases 1000 or more times lower than the New Zealand Standards allow.

With all these uncertainties, the community has in the past gained some protection through the public processes under the Resource Management Act. Public notification, where it has occurred, has allowed consideration of the effects of proposed towers in new locations, particularly where sites are particularly sensitive. In some cases public concern has caused proposals to be changed.

The group has learned however that the Minister for the Environment has recently announced an intention to promulgate National Environmental Standards for telecommunications infrastructure. A current proposal for these standards, prepared by a telecommunications industry working group, provides for most telecommunication infrastructure as of right, without any opportunity at all for public or even Council input on the proposal. The group would like the public to have the opportunity to review the appropriateness of standards of this type, using the conduct of Telecom with the Atawhai Celltower proposal as a case study.

The group has planned a community gathering on Tuesday the 20th between 12:00 and 1:00 at the proposed tower site on Atawhai Cresent, in response to an 'Open Day' by Telecom between 1 and 7 pm. They have invited local politicians, MP's and concerned parents to express their views. They will present their list of requests to Telecom at 1:00.

Given the 'closed-door' approval process for this phone tower and the limited ability of Nelson City Council to protect the health, and address the concerns of it's residents, the Ban the Tower group calls on the New Zealand national media to begin a rigorous and critical debate about the safety and placement of these towers. Numerous highly credible scientific reports have shown that there may be increased risks of cancer, leukemia and other major health problems after prolonged exposure to the radiation from the masts. (see links to reputable sources in the information pack below)

The seriousness of these reports has caused many countries around the world, like Austria, Sweden, Germany, Russia and Italy, to impose tighter restrictions on what radiation will be permitted. In Australia, a rash of litigation has challenged the rollout of 3G technology on health and visual grounds. Taiwan is reported to have decommissioned and removed many towers.

Citing what has been referred to as the 'precautionary principle' by renowned scientists around the world, and even by Sir William Stewart, now chairman of the Health Protection Agency in the UK, and advisor to the British Government under both Blair and Thatcher, the group urge involvement on the national level in this vital area of community concern. The question of whether big business should be allowed to make decisions that potentially adversely affect the health, environment, outlook, and property values of a community, without their involvement or consultation, is an issue of human and democratic rights, and one that is being hotly contested all over the world as we speak.

The Ban the Tower group calls on the New Zealand government to legislate much more stringent controls on the placement of phone masts, and to protect the health of it's citizens from the reckless, profit-driven motives of major corporations. This must include a policy of 'prudent avoidance' of risk by placing the masts over 1000m away from schools.

Ban the Tower asks why our government is stepping out at exactly the moment they should be stepping into this arena of debate, and also why our radiation safety standards are relaxing as other countries around the world are tightening them up.

Ban the Tower calls for a critical evaluation of the National Environmental Standards of Telecommunication. Ban the Tower also intends to offer full support and advice to other groups nation-wide and build a national 'coalition of concern' that will require the government and the multi-national corporations to take greater precaution with the placement of their radiation-emitting technology.

For media enquiries, please contact:

Patrick or Heather ROSE

(Ban the Tower Inc.)




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