School's Phone Tower Is Opposed

Melvin Carter and Maria Jones are concerned about the 80-foot-tall tower.
Melvin Carter and Maria Jones are concerned about the 80-foot-tall tower. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

Some residents in Northeast Washington are demanding that a cell phone tower recently erected at John Burroughs Elementary School be dismantled, saying they are concerned about possible health dangers and upset that school officials did not consult them before installing the facility.

A spokeswoman for the D.C. school system said there are 40 cell phone transmitting facilities on school property under lease agreements with five companies. Last year, these arrangements brought the school system $765,000. She added that experts had assured school officials that the facilities presented no health hazard.

But residents aren't so sure.

"They went behind the community's back and erected this, and we know that this emits electromagnetic radiation. . . . It's been linked to cancer," said Maria P. Jones, who lives in the 1800 block of Newton Street NE in the Woodridge section. "We have demanded that it be dismantled, and we're not going to be compromised and we will go as far as a lawsuit if we have to," she added.

Melvin Thomas, another resident of Newton Street NE, is also upset. "We are residents. We live here. We should have been notified. Look at American University, where they found all these chemicals," Thomas said, referring to the discovery in 2000 of arsenic contamination from long-buried chemical warfare munitions in the Northwest neighborhood of Spring Valley adjacent to the university.

D.C. public schools spokeswoman Roxanne Evans said this is the first time neighbors have objected to a cell phone tower at a public school. "We certainly apologize for making the community feel like they were left out," Evans said. In the future, she added, "we'll have community meetings first . . . and make sure everyone is informed and consulted in advance."

Parents also are upset because they received no advance information about the tower.

"None of the parents were notified they were even putting one up," said Jocelyn Coleman, president of the Burroughs PTA. "Our biggest concern is the health issue. What studies did they do to make sure [these facilities] are safe?"

The 80-foot white tower at Burroughs, at 1820 Monroe St. NE, was erected by Sprint and looks like a thick flagpole. Unlike other cell phone towers, which are often placed on rooftops, it stands on the ground beside a parking lot.

"Our plan is to continue operating the site and provide communications infrastructure to the area," Sprint spokesman Mark Elliott said.

He said the tower was put up under a lease with the D.C. public school system that was "finalized several months ago." Evans said that under the lease, Sprint is paying the school system $33,600 a year in rent.

T-Mobile also has a transmitting facility at Burroughs, which is on the building's smokestack, Evans said. Its lease, signed in June 2004, brings in an annual rent of $27,000.

The school system, which signed its first lease for a cell phone facility in 1995, makes such arrangements under a 1982 city law that authorizes the school board to enter revenue-making agreements with private companies, Evans said.

Noting that cell phone towers now dot the national landscape, Evans said that school officials have "had people very knowledgeable in the field tell us that these pose no risk whatsoever."

Sprint's Elliott added that the "technology is within the FCC safety guidelines, and we actually are a hundred times below their safety guidelines," he said.

"Even though research has been done for many, many years, the debate remains," said Miguel Penafiel, a researcher in Catholic University's physics department, where for the past 15 years he and Theodore Litovitz, a professor emeritus of physics, have studied biological changes induced by exposure to electromagnetic radiation.

In their research, which involved experiments with chick embryos and cell cultures, Penafiel said, "we found biological effects at power levels equivalent to those used by cell phones."

He added that he was surprised and concerned to hear that Burroughs' Sprint tower is at ground level, because such facilities normally transmit radiation horizontal to the horizon. Placing such towers high above ground reduces the impact of that radiation on humans, he said.

Elliott said that the transmitting equipment -- which is at the top of the 80-foot pole -- is higher up than it would have been had it been situated on top of the school. The height was needed to provide the cell phone coverage the area requires, he added.

D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange, whose ward includes Burroughs, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Anthony Hood, president of the Woodridge Civic Association, said his organization "has not taken an official position" on whether to request that the tower come down.

But he added that "it appears that the school system is not communicating with the neighborhood."

"What we're asking for is better communication between the school system and the residents," he said. "I know it's their land, but they have to be good neighbors."

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