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Some Springdale residents resisting 'smart' water meters

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 10:16 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Cindee Zlacki, right, and her neighbor, Connie Flick, stand outside Zlacki's house on Railroad Street in Springdale, where her water has been turned off because of her refusal to get a smart meter installed inside the home. She is worried that possible radiation from the meter will affect her two children with epilepsy.

Since the borough shut off her water Friday, Cindee Zlacki of Springdale has been using her neighbor's outdoor hose to fill her ailing husband's nebulizer.

It's but one of the many hardships she's faced since refusing to comply with the borough's mandated smart meter system by its Aug. 30 deadline.

The system uses radio technology to replace traditional water meters as a way to reduce costs and expedite services. But some people are resisting smart meters over the perceived health risks of its microwave radiation emissions.

With two epileptic sons and a husband with emphysema, Zlacki is one of six Springdale residents refusing to adopt the mandated system.

The mother of seven finds herself in a standoff with the borough, which won't provide water service until she installs the smart meters in her home.

“I'm not putting anything in my home that will harm my kids,” she said. “This is a democracy and you're supposed to have choices. I don't understand how the borough thinks they can force me into this position.”

Springdale crews began replacing traditional meters with the radio technology more than two years ago in every residential and commercial building, according to council President David Finley. By this August, the borough had installed smart meters in all but 22 of the borough's buildings and residencies.

Finley said the borough delivered doorknocker notices in mid-August to those 22 residencies, warning of an end-of-the-month water shutoff should they fail to comply with the mandate.

By the month's end, 16 had installed the smart meters. The borough shut off water to the six that refused or failed to install the radio technology.

“It was a very simple decision,” Finley said. “Either we showed those 22 people out of about 1,700 preferential treatment, or we issue a response and get everything back on track.”

John Molnar, Springdale council street and water chairman, said the $300,000 project was a necessary upgrade from the decades-old water meters. With all of the user's consumption data being streamlined into a centralized unit, the new service saves residents hundreds of dollars each year, he said.

“We used to have to pay for guys to physically go out and check the meters,” he said. “Now, that cost is essentially eliminated as all of the information we need is funneled into one location.”

The streamlining of user data is another aspect of the system that its opponents criticize. Groups such as the Harrisburg-based Stop Smart Meters in PA decry the consolidation of data because they say it leaves users' sensitive information vulnerable to computer hacking.

Lisa Nanollas, the group's founder, said smart meters deliver to utility providers information regarding the time and location of when various water functions occur within the person's residence. A computer hacker, she said, could determine patterns like when the homeowner typically showers.

“If someone breaks a pattern for a couple days, or if there is no activity at all, hackers could tell when you're not home,” she said. “It's like living with your door open every day.”

While Zlacki also considers this aspect of smart meters a violation of Fourth Amendment rights, the Springdale woman's top concern rests in the safety of her husband and children.

A Vietnam veteran, her husband requires a nebulizer and assisted oxygen to battle his emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Two of her seven children, both adolescent boys, suffer from epileptic seizures. The older of the two spent 153 days in Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC last year after a bout of frequent seizures. His condition is still very unstable, while his younger brother has been seizure-free for over a year.

Zlacki said she worries that the microwave radiation that smart meters have been found to emit will cause muscle spasms and subsequent seizures in her epileptic boys. She also said the meters have been known to disrupt pacemakers and fears it could interfere with her husband's ventilator.

“I'm not going back to where we were last year,” she said. “They will not make me do this.”

As the distribution of water is controlled by the borough, Springdale doesn't fall under the oversight of the Public Utility Commission, so Zlacki can not exercise her right to opt out under Pennsylvania Act 129.

And Springdale Council would not consider authorizing the borough to turn on Zlacki's water should she present the council with a valid medical excuse, according to Finley.

Zlacki said she's unsure what her next move for her children and sick husband is as her family remains without water.

“I'm probably going to have to move,” she said. “Where, I don't know.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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