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Telus’s cell tower plan divides Nanaimo

Aerial view of cell towers on Anvil Island, B.C.

Robin O'Neill

Next week will mark the third attempt by Telus to get approval for a new cell tower aimed at clearing a dead zone in the Hammond Bay area and, thanks to new federal rules, it could be third time lucky.

As of this month, Industry Canada requires cellular companies to consult with the public before new towers can be constructed, but public approval isn't necessary – only the okay of municipal or local governments is needed. In the past, only towers taller than 15 metres required public consultation, but residents had to give the go-ahead before construction started.

If Telus can convince the eight members of Nanaimo City Council and the mayor that the tower is needed, it will be the first such structure built in Canada under the new rules.

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But the rule change doesn't make it a slam dunk for Telus in Nanaimo – the tower continues to deeply divide residents and city councillors. Many residents and business owners want better wireless coverage in the area, but other residents have health concerns about the microwave radiation that would be emitted by the tower.

Liz Sauvé, a spokesperson for Telus, said the company's polling shows 40 per cent of area residents are in favour it, but 60 per cent have reservations.

Nanaimo city Councillor Bill McKay said the lack of reception in the area is a public safety concern. The city is considering construction of a new firehall in Hammond Bay, and about two-thirds of 911 calls are now made on cellphones.

"If we're going to invest $3-million in a firehall … and many people are giving up their land lines, we need to ensure as a city that there's service out there," Mr. McKay said. "The only way we can get service out there is to build a tower."

But Fred Howe, a retired professor of orthodontics who lives 300 metres from the proposed construction site, is skeptical of Canada's safety standards for cellular towers and their emissions.

Vancouver Coastal Health and Island Health have issued statements in recent years saying the radiation from cellular towers poses no public health risk. Cellphone networks operate using microwaves, a type of electromagnetic radiation that doesn't cause mutations in human cells that lead to cancer, some scientists say.

But Dr. Howe isn't convinced. "[The effects of cellphone radiation are] in the process of being proven," he said. "I'm afraid it's going to be like asbestos mines. It was quite all right for our grandfathers to go to work in an asbestos mine, but one lifetime later you find out that's not the thing to do."

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Other concerns about the tower include its proximity to a local creek, and concerns about its appearance. Ms. Sauvé said Telus is considering painting the tower a dark green to blend in with the surrounding trees to address residents' aesthetic concerns. She said Telus will continue to consult the public about its new towers regardless of the new regulations. "We just feel it's the right thing to do," she said.

If council accepts Telus's proposal, construction could begin as soon as 2015.

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