(June 8, 2018) After residents raised concerns about safety and property values, the Ocean City Council rejected, at least for now, a request from Delmarva Power to remove mandated electro-magnetic field and noise level testing at its 138th Street power substation.
The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 3-2 during its April meeting to forward the request to the council, with members Joel Brous and Peck Miller absent.
Planning Director Bill Neville told the council on Monday the power company wants to amend a 2012 conditional use permit requiring bi-annual testing for EMF [electro-magnetic field] and noise levels from adjacent properties within 300 feet of the site, with results reported to neighbors and the city.
The substation on Sinepuxent and Derrickson avenues between 137th and 138th streets is in a R-2A (low-density residential) zone, which permits public utility structures as a conditional use, Neville said.
The 2012 approval required the applicant pay for an independent environmental specialist to test bi-annually, with levels not to exceed 2,000 mG (milligauss), the unit of measurement for EMF levels.
“The report summaries indicated the current operation of the substation was significantly lower than that … peaking at 48-50 mG,” he said. “This was also presented to be consistent over the five-year testing period.”
Neville said the Planning Commission in April recommended an additional condition, which would require testing if new reactors were installed to confirm EMF and noise levels are below established limits.
After Neville’s remarks, Councilwoman Mary Knight made a motion to reject the recommendation from planning and zoning.
“Being part of the discussion in 2012 … I think we all became electrical engineers,” she said.
Councilman John Gehrig launched a discussion after seconding the motion and noted nearby residents brought the matter to the council during its April 16 meeting.
“The concern with the citizens was the raw data was not provided,” he said. “Delmarva Power provided an executive summary that was … distributed to residents.”
Gehrig also noted residents asked who was responsible to ensure compliance with the conditional use permit and if the summary reports were sufficient.
“There was also a mention in the planning and zoning [meeting] transcript that the City Council received those reports,” he said. “I never saw any of the reports and the citizens have a concern.”
While not questioning the testing results, Gehrig said the information flow was less than ideal
“The deal is we’re going to do the test twice a year, and … distribute all of the data,” he said. “If the residents don’t understand the data, that’s not up to the consultant, or anyone, to say they’ll never understand … so we’re going to summarize it.”
Although not part of discussions in 2012, Neville said during his time with the city the full 400-plus page testing reports were made available when requested.
“I’ve only experienced what happened this last cycle, where we had the public hearing and full data reports were requested and we were able to make those available,” he said.
Gehrig also questioned the inclusion of an option for residents to request a one-off yard test.
Neville said that stipulation was added to alleviate concerns regarding property sales, with individual testing results available to assist home sellers.
Appreciating that residents want safety assurances and Delmarva Power needs to provide stable power delivery, Gehrig asked if the yard test option was a potential compromise.
“Does the test need to be so elaborate that it cost $40,000 when an alternative was someone coming out to my yard to do this test?” he said. “I understand if the readings are far below what is permitted why this modification of the conditional use is being sought.”
Still, Gehrig wondered if the summary reports provided to residents met the original conditional use terms.
Neville said the conditional use approval requires the city to share testing reports however it deems suitable, while also suggesting the council might explore how maximum testing levels were established.
“Another good question would be the gap between the measured levels and this acceptable public exposure standard,” he said. “There seems to be a significant difference in those two numbers … I’m not sure why the 2,000 mG level was written in.”
Gehrig, while voicing support for rejecting the request, acknowledged both sides have legitimate concerns.
“I think compliance needs to be the letter of the law [and] we need a period of full compliance,” he said. “A deal was struck … and the terms need to be met before we change the terms.”
Gehrig suggested exploring options to cut testing costs and potentially switching to annual EMF and noise level tests.
“At that point it seems like … overkill,” he said. “There hasn’t been complete compliance [but] I don’t think it’s intentional.”
Gehrig also suggested Delmarva Power could put full reports online with web links included in the summary data provided to neighbors.
“Some people may not care but some people clearly do,” he said.
Councilman Tony DeLuca adopted a clear stance on the topic.
“To me, this is as simple as if I lived there, I’d like to have the test done,” he said.
Councilman Dennis Dare said Delmarva Power made a serious financial investment when it built the substation.
“Years ago, large motors in the wastewater and water plants were failing in the middle of summer because of voltage being dropped,” he said.
Once the city explored the issue with the utility provider, Dare said it was discovered the problem related to delivering power cleanly.
“They spent a lot of money on this project to try and do that,” he said.
The substation provided benefits outside the water treatment plants, Dare said.
“Every elevator in Ocean City has a large eclectic motor running it [and] because of this project fewer people are being stuck in elevators,” he said.
Dare said five years of tests resulting in readings far below the 2,000 mG threshold should offer sufficient evidence.
“It just proves that the electric company wasn’t going to do something that was harmful and put [themselves] in a liable situation,” he said.
In lieu of the bi-annual testing, Dare suggested monitoring could be done onsite.
“The piece of equipment they’re talking about doesn’t have moving parts,” he said. “It’s not going to break down and explode.”
Dare also noted the same EMF frequencies are used for Wi-Fi networks, cell phones, blue tooth devices, microwaves, florescent lamps and vacuums.
“We have more exposure at home in our kitchens than we do probably at this substation,” he said.
In light of the new ideas discussed, Councilman Wayne Hartman suggested the council remand the topic back to planning and zoning.
“It can go back to them [when] there’s seven people there and have these other considerations … available,” he said.
Knight agreed to the compromise and withdrew her earlier motion, while also encouraging Delmarva Power to improve communications with adjacent neighbors to alleviate subsequent concerns.
“By denying the planning and zoning recommendation, it gives everybody the opportunity to start clean and build that relationship,” she said. “Maybe a year or two from now this will not be a discussion.”