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EWEB disconnects some customers who refuse a smart meter, drawing lawsuit

Nathan Wilk
EWEB reports that it's shut off power for six customers, but five of them have since gotten power back. Around two dozen people are still at risk of being disconnected, according to the utility.

The Eugene Water and Electric Board has started disconnecting customers from the power grid if they refuse a smart meter. Now the utility provider is facing a lawsuit.

Smart meters transmit real-time utility data using radio waves, helping to detect leaks or power outages. Currently, around 96% of EWEB customers have one.

Utility spokesperson Aaron Orlowski said these devices will help the utility use energy sources like solar and wind, which fluctuate throughout the day.

“If we have more data about when a customer is using energy, “ said Orlowski, “then we can offer them an incentive to use it at times that are cheaper for them, cheaper for EWEB, and also better for the environment.”

However, some customers have pushed back against the devices, citing privacy and security concerns. Others claim that smart meters will harm people with sensitivity to electronic emissions.

According to the World Health Organization, there’s no evidence that people who report “electro-magnetic hypersensitivity” detect those signals more acutely, or that the exposure is the direct cause of their symptoms.

In March, EWEB sent a letter to around 400 customers who it said had impeded meter replacements, saying they needed to comply or risk having their power shut off.

Since then, utility spokesperson Jennifer Connors said the recipients have been overwhelmingly cooperative.

“The majority of customers have immediately contacted us,” said Connors. “And some have indicated that there was some kind of misunderstanding that led them to refuse access to begin with.”

Connors said some customers took advantage of an “opt-out” option, where the smart functionality of a meter is turned off after its installation. But she said nearly half of them ultimately chose to turn on the device’s full functionality.

Anti-smart meter activist Kathy Ging said some people have had to budge, despite still having concerns about the safety of this technology.

“There’s no choice. The choice is having your electricity turned off?” said Ging. “Some of the people in our group have teenagers living with them. Some of them are taking care of elderly parents.”

According to EWEB, customers whose power is shut off will have to pay a $250 disconnection fee.

The Lawsuit

EWEB has shut off electricity for six customers so far, according to Connors. She said five of them have since agreed to a smart meter, and had power restored.

Moving forward, Connors said there are around two dozen customers who are at imminent risk of being disconnected.

Now, 22 individuals and one local business have joined a lawsuit against EWEB, filed in federal court last month. They accuse the utility of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and several other statutes.

Sabrina Siegel is a plaintiff in the case. She told KLCC she has electro-magnetic hypersensitivity, causing her headaches, tinnitus and brain fog.

To avoid symptoms, Siegel said she doesn’t allow Wi-Fi or Bluetooth in her home.
She said she’s been asking EWEB for a smart meter exemption for her own safety.

“That is a completely unacceptable, unworkable situation for me,” said Siegel. “I'm just trying to breathe, and make it through the day with the electro-magnetic situation that I live in right now.”

Stephen Joncus is the attorney representing the customers. He said Siegel's medical issues have been recognized by her doctor, Sharon Goldberg.

“What symptoms you have, that's your disability,” Joncus told KLCC. “And Sabrina [Siegel] and others definitely have symptoms. “

In a response to the lawsuit, EWEB argued that it isn't legally established whether electro-magnetic hypersensitivity is a physical disorder, or that a smart meter would probably cause harm.

The utility also said it has already offered several possible accommodations to Siegel, including turning off the smart meter's advanced functionality, and moving the meter to a different location on her property.

"Ms. Siegel has taken the untenable position that she should have proprietary right over the removal of EWEB’s discontinued meter," EWEB wrote, "and further position that she should have the right to dictate what operational equipment EWEB has adopted for its standard meter installation."

In a statement by email, Connors told KLCC that EWEB is prepared to address the customers’ claims through the legal process. Joncus said he's seeking a injunction, to stop the utility from shutting off power while the case is ongoing.

A date for a hearing hasn't yet been scheduled.

Nathan Wilk joined the KLCC News Team in 2022. He is a graduate from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Born in Portland, Wilk began working in radio at a young age, serving as a DJ and public affairs host across Oregon.
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