PORT ANGELES — The Clallam County Planning Commission is close to making a recommendation to county commissioners to amend the county’s wireless communications facilities ordinance after hearing public health concerns about 5G technology.
The Planning Commission’s meetings concerning wireless communications facilities in unincorporated areas over the last few months have been some of the best- attended meetings the commission has seen in recent years, its members said Wednesday.
The commission has heard concerns from people who believe the electromagnetic radiation is dangerous and who have urged the commission to ban the technology.
The county is not allowed to restrict the expansion of 5G because of health concerns, staff told the Planning Commission Wednesday evening, but it can add provisions that address aesthetics.
The ordinance does not specifically address 5G, but it regulates placement of towers and permitting.
A new technology, 5G uses microcells for wireless networks.
It promises faster speeds when connecting to the network and the ability to connect many devices to the internet without bogging it down. The technology is expected to be implemented in more densely populated areas because of the infrastructure that is need to support 5G.
Staff from the county Department of Community Development provided the planning commission with a legal analysis from the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, an opinion from the Clallam County Health Officer and feedback from the Clallam County Public Utility District.
After discussion Wednesday the commission appeared ready to make a recommendation after staff writes a final draft to be presented at its April 17 meeting. If approved, the ordinance would then go to the Board of County Commissioners for its consideration.
The legal analysis affirmed staff’s belief that prohibiting 5G in unincorporated Clallam County in violation of the Telecommunications Act would put the county at risk of a lawsuit.
It also affirmed that the county cannot base regulations on health concerns without risk of a lawsuit.
“You still can’t effectively preclude coverage,” said Planning Manager Steve Gray. “Since you can’t regulate for health, it’s an aesthetic consideration.”
Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank told of studies that say the technology is not hazardous to health.
She said in an email in response to Department of Community Development staff that the most notable distinction from current technology is that in some cases 5G will use different wavelengths for cellular signals.
She said the current proposed wavelengths of 20-30GHz fall well within the spectrum of what is commonly known as radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation, a subset of non-ionizing radiation which ranges from 3kHz to 300 Ghz.
“Radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation has been extensively studied by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and [World Health Organization] since the 1970s when these concerns were first raised,” Unthank said.
“These studies have found no consistent association between exposure to electromagnetic radiation in the amounts experienced in the average American home and increased risks of cancer, depression, cardiovascular disorders or reproductive dysfunction.”
Unthank said there is a lot of “not really good studies” on the internet and the people are passionate about their health concerns.
“It really shouldn’t pose a threat to the public,” Unthank said.
She said what poses the most significant risk is a person’s cell phone, which is held close to the individual’s head. She said even that has not shown any consistent association with the health effects she listed, she said.
The current ordinance says that new support towers must be 1,000 feet from all parcels containing public and private schools, public parks and sites listed on either the state or national registers of historic places, but staff is recommending that language be removed in the updated ordinance.
Gray cautioned that even if the commission doesn’t outright prohibit 5G technology, it can’t implement policies that effectively prohibit the technology.
He said the current ordinance was written before small cell technology — which requires shorter distances between towers — was being implemented.
After discussion Planning Commission member Connie Beauvais asked the county staff to bring back language that includes 1,000-foot setbacks from schools for new support towers.
“I would like to see it and if we’re challenged, mitigation for it may be to rewrite the ordinance,” she said. “Bring back something more finished next time for us to take action on.
“I think we stand ready to make a decision at the next meeting.”
Planning Commission member Scott Clausen said during the public comment period that there is nothing the county can do to stop 5G.
“The horse has left the barn on 5G unfortunately because the FCC and a company with their lobbyists wrote this all up and it specifically says we cannot complain about health impacts,” Clausen said.
“We’re a bit late to the game so our options are limited.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].