What was intended as a "balanced format" discussion about PG&E's SmartMeter installation in Sonoma County became a hatefest against the utility Wednesday night when it pulled out at the last minute.
Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo said PG&E had promised to send a representative to participate in the Sebastopol forum, sparked by residents' concerns about the SmartMeters' safety and accuracy.
But Carrillo said he received a text message Wednesday afternoon from PG&E saying it would not attend. Because the format was changed to include include an open exchange with the audience, he said the company representatives "no longer feel they can have a meaningful dialog with their customers."
"I do find it rather insulting that they would not participate in this format," he said, prompting jeers and hisses aimed at PG&E from the crowd of about 300.
Carrillo organized Wednesday's meeting after he received hundreds of complaints from West County residents about PG&E's replacement of the old, analog meters with the new meters that beam digital information via radio waves to the company for tracking and billing purposes.
Without PG&E on the stage at the Sebastopol Veteran's Building, two representatives from the Public Utilities Commission, which has jurisdiction over the utility, took the brunt of residents' distrust and venom.
Critics contend the radio waves cause a range of debilitating health problems ranging from chronic fatigue, headaches, insomnia, anxiety and depression to heart problems, high blood pressure and cancer.
When one of the panelists asked members of the audience if they opposed the new meters, nearly everyone raised their hands.
Judith Iam of Forestville said she was dismayed when the PUC's Marzia Zafar suggested that those with health and safety concerns write to the utility.
Zafar said the PUC has received about 600 complaints about the meters, fewer than 1 percent of the 5.5 million installed statewide. Most of those complaints, she said, involved meter inaccuracies not health concerns.
The PUC has appointed an independent investigator with no ties to PG&E to look into the complaints, she said.
"In response to this less than one percent, we've hired someone to look at it to make sure that it's accurate, that it's safe, that the complaints are addressed," Zafar said. "It's like proven innocent until guilty. We can't presume that PG&E or the manufacturer or the SmartMeter is this terrible thing, unless we can look at it and someone has told us that something is wrong with it or something is right with it.
"What should we do?"
"Call for a moratorium on behalf of the public safety, of course," said Iam, who was backed by applause from the audience.
Sebastopol landlord Deborah Tavares said her tenants have health concerns about the meters here and at her properties in Southern California. Because of her complaints, PG&E put her properties on a "deferral list" for installation later.
She challenged the PUC to indemnify landlords against any health problems tenants may experience, since the agency has apparently determined that the meters aren't harmful.
"There is no evidence to prove or disprove that there are no health issues associated with these meters," she said. "I don't want my tenants to get sick."
The PUC representatives said they would look into such a letter and get back to Tavares within a week.