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A tower of terror at Weston?
Jason Campbell

It’s an impossibly hard situation all the way around. 

On one hand, you have children at the small, close-knit Weston Elementary School in Ripon that have been diagnosed with various types of cancer – something that no parent, friend, or community member ever wants to see. 

On the other hand, you have elected board members who are dealing with a problem that was put in place by past board members and mountains of evidence from the leading agencies in their respective fields saying that there isn’t a problem or a connection between the cancer cases and the object that parents say is to blame?

So, what do you do?

The Ripon Unified School District board was inundated with hundreds of parents earlier this week that demanded that the district take out a cellular tower at Weston Elementary School that they believe is the cause behind a cancer cluster at the school site. 

The only problem with that request is that the board – none of whom made the decision to install the tower – can’t just up and demand that Sprint, which owns and operates the tower, to remove it. 

Contracts don’t work that way. 

It turns out that when Ripon Unified agreed to have the tower placed on the campus, they signed a 25-year contract – which severely ties the hands of district officials even if removing the tower is something that they all wanted to do. 

And whether that is even necessary depends on who it is that you talk to. 

The district hired an independent engineering firm headed up by somebody that has written textbooks on the topic at hand, and the parents hired a certified electromagnetic radiation specialist. 

The engineers working for the district have said that after extensive testing, the tower is well within the federal range for safety, while the parents’ expert says otherwise. I personally don’t know either of the people that have done the work in question, but from what I have read, it seems to me that the only “expert” without an axe to grind in the entire matter is the firm hired by Ripon Unified. Eric Windheim, the consultant that came out and measured the radiation for the families that are claiming that the tower is responsible, is quite open on his website that his goal is for “less electromagnetic frequencies” – the words “less EMF” are part of his logo – and is equally open about his agenda. 

“The only effective actions you can take today are prudent avoidance, proper precaution and taking responsibility for self-preservation,” he writes on his website. “If you are waiting for the government to protect you by mandating safe technology, realize that one of the largest sources of ‘soft money’ for politicians comes from the electric utility and wireless industry.”

Windheim has a point, and it’s worth pointing out that the whole reason that he was brought in as a consultant on this matter was because the district decided that they wanted to make money by renting their property out to a telecommunications industry – that drive for money went straight to the source on this one. But, as is wont for consultants, his own livelihood is tied to the satisfaction of his clients, and in this case his clients absolutely want that tower to be removed and have pegged it as the source for the cancer cluster. 

The consultants hired by the district, however, could have easily returned a report that said that the hulking iron structure was a death pillar and still received the same amount of compensation – professional integrity aside, they literally had no financial incentive to disclose anything other than the truth as they discovered it. 

And then there’s the matter of the American Cancer Society – the nation’s leading cancer advocacy organization – stating in its materials that the consensus among scientists that have studied this issue is that the towers are unlikely to cause cancer. Quoting the materials, “high levels of RF waves can cause a warming of body tissues, but the energy levels on the ground near a cell phone tower are far below the levels needed to cause this effect.” It continues by noting that “so far, there is no evidence in published scientific reports that cell phone towers cause any other health problems.

So, there’s that. 

None of these facts make it any easier for a parent that has learned that their child was just recently diagnosed with cancer, or one that has watched as their child had to learn how to live life all over again after extensive surgeries and radiation treatments. As a parent I personally can’t comprehend what that must be like, and I’m certain that I would want answers as well. 

I also feel for the people who were elected to serve on the school board in Ripon that are now left scrambling to find answers and solutions that are within reasonable parameters. It’s a thankless job to begin with and considering that nobody currently serving in the position made the decision to put the tower in, they’re literally getting dragged for somebody else’s decision. 

As elected officials I would expect the board – and the district personnel that they oversee – to make their decisions on the best and most current information available to them, and from what I can tell that has happened in this case. The consulting firm that the district hired does not appear to have any agenda whatsoever and seems to have operated scientifically in good faith. I’m not sure that somebody that already has a predetermined position on the matter – as the consultant for the parents does – can make the same claim. 

So, what to do?

Here’s to hoping that Sprint will be good community partners and be willing to move the tower off of district property without making the district accountable for any costs associated with the move – if for no other reason than to calm concerns regardless of whether they are founded. 

I’m not quite sure that’s going to happen in this case. 

I’m also not sure that keeping kids home from school – and causing a reduction in ADA funding that inadvertently affects all other Ripon Unified students – is the best way to make a point about this situation, either. 

But the entire situation has come to a head and something is going to have to break one way or another. 

Here’s hoping that cooler heads will prevail here.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.