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The Tower at the Bottom of the Garden

At first glance, the letter looked like another promotion from Vodafone. I carried it up the steps that lead to our back door. For the past forty years we have lived in an old Wellington bungalow that stands on a cliff top and looks out to sea. We planted the kowhai trees when we came here and now they are huge. This is where I’ve lived my life as a mother and a writer. But something was about to change.

The letter informed us that a ten-metre cellphone tower would shortly be erected by Vodafone on the roadside verge beneath the cliff. A company representative would later describe it as ‘the perfect site.’

I do have a cell phone; it’s a useful device. But I had read some articles that made me wonder if I should use mine less, because of the danger of prolonged exposure to radiation, especially around the head. The articles suggested that RMF (radio magnetic fields) might cause cancer. Like a lot of people, however, I hadn’t paid much attention to cell phone towers. They grow mysteriously and often in near secret, just like ours was supposed to, camouflaged by trees in some instances, or sitting on top of church spires, or above pubs or shops. We have since learned that the owners of these buildings are well paid to host these parasites. From a check on the internet, I learned that some countries were introducing strict laws to control their placement in built up residential areas.

We thought we’d better find out how the neighbours felt about this proposed tower in our street. That’s when we discovered that nobody, except us and our next door neighbour, had been advised. Not even the school, which is 130 metres away, with a roll of 330 students. Not even a neighbour with three small children whose front window is in direct line with the tower, less than fifty metres away. Some of the neighbours didn’t care, and one who declared herself a scientist said that she needed ‘evidence’ before she could respond. But others, equally capable of reading scientific data, were alarmed.

We went to the Wellington City Council where we learned there was nothing they could do. Under the National Emissions Standards for Telecommunications Bill 2008 (otherwise known as NES 2008), it is mandatory for local councils to issue permits for telecommunication companies (or telcos, as they are called) to erect cell phone towers on any park or reserve land or roadside verge in the country. The Whanganui council was fined $15,000 for opposing a Vodafone tower, as recently as last January. In other words, telcos have enormous unbridled power that no amount of discussion or protest can overturn.

We held public meetings, invited scientists, academics and a documentary film maker, as well as politicians, to come and talk to us. A number of people in our community were united in their concerns by what they heard. There is a significant body of reputable scientific inquiry that concludes there is a causal link between RMF and unexplained cancers occurring in clusters. There are major concerns about the effect on children because their developing cells structures are particularly vulnerable to radiation.

It is frequently said that the jury is still out on this issue, because the technology is relatively new. But it’s the very newness of the technology that makes it open to question. Fifty years ago we were told tobacco wasn’t harmful to health. Neither, said the scientists, was asbestos or pesticides like dioxin. But we now know these conclusions were false. Until time has proven that there is no risk to human health, it appears irresponsible to declare the towers safe enough to place them in close proximity to houses and schools. Many of the reports that unequivocally claim that the towers are safe are industry related. That’s to say, the telecommunications industry has a vested interest in persuading people the towers are safe.

Our community decided to launch a petition to ask government that NES 2008 be reviewed, so that communities might have greater say about where the towers are located. Many people have signed petitions before, and they haven’t changed anything. We want this petition to be nation-wide, so that single communities are not left to fight alone, and that the voice of the people is a roar. The petition asks the government to reconsider the law, so that cell phone towers be placed with due regard to the safety of citizens.

By the way, that letter from Vodafone arrived in our mailbox in October. In January, it was all done and dusted. The tower went up. The top of it peers through our kowhai trees. It looks like a grey missile. All it needs is Doctor Strangelove crawling up the side to complete the picture. Some days, this doesn’t feel quite like home any more. And here is something worth noting. We were told that it had taken six years to locate this ‘perfect site’. A number of others in the area had been considered. Anywhere, at any time, it seems there are telcos sniffing the streets looking for a place to plant their snouts.

You can download the petition from the Green Party website, or if you would like to email me at fionakidman@yahoo.com I’ll send it to you. Our group is CATTS 2011 – Communication About Telecommunication Towers email: catts2011@gmail.com

Fiona Kidman