San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cellphone tower sites anger community members

Hans Kurz received a letter on May 26 informing him that he would be getting a new next-door neighbor: a huge cellphone tower.

Kurz, who lives in Bello Horizonte de Escazú, southwest of San José, said the letter was from Claro, a company that will provide cellular service in Costa Rica. The letter said a 30-meter cellphone tower would be built in his neighborhood, with antennas ranging from 34 to 64 meters high.

“We had been given no previous notification that there was going to be a giant cellphone tower built not only in our neighborhood, by right next door to our house,” Kurz told The Tico Times. “It didn’t make sense because we knew that they hadn’t been given authorization by the municipality to do so and that the regulation plan for our neighborhood didn’t permit construction for commercial use.”

Although the company had not yet obtained a municipal permit, the letter sent to area residents said the project was authorized by the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) and the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) on Jan. 20, 2010. Claro’s letter also said that studies conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that “no short-term or long-term adverse effects” were caused by exposure to radio frequencies.

Yet a 2010 WHO study acknowledged that “increased exposure to radio-frequency fields has made its effects on human health a topic of concern for scientists and the general public.”

While the report stops short of labeling radio-frequency fields as a health hazard, on June 1, the WHO released a study that found that “radiation from cellphones is possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

“If you look for them, there are several examples of people who claim that cell tower radiation resulted in health problems,” Kurz said. “I don’t understand how something that is a potential health concern could be approved by the government to be built next to my house.”

Kurz is not alone, and as Costa Rica prepares to welcome Latin America’s two largest telecommunications companies, América Móvil (Claro) and Telefónica, complaints about tower construction are increasing around the country.

You’ve Got Mail

Last Saturday, Rose Marie Breedy, owner of Edificio Jiménez, a historical residential building next to the Foreign Ministry in San José, received a letter from Compañía Las Torres D.C.R. S.A.

“As part of our commitment to the community, we are pleased to provide you with this letter informing you of the upcoming construction of a 3G telecommunications tower in this sector.”  

According to Breedy, the 15-meter 3G telecommunications tower will be built on the roof of an adjacent building that shares a back wall. The letter was the first notification anyone in the neighborhood had received about the construction. In response, 48 neighbors signed a petition against allowing the tower to be put there. They sent the petition to the municipality of San José.

“It seems to have been done completely under the table,” Breedy said. “We were not notified of the construction until last weekend and we definitely never agreed to build a cell tower directly behind us.”

Breedy said her biggest concern is that the neighboring roof where construction is planned is incapable of supporting a large tower.

“Look at this,” Breedy said as she stood on the balcony of her complex and pointed to a thin, sloped tin roof on the building next door. She then pointed to a deep, winding crack that ran down the side of the white building from the roof.

“Do you think this building can support a giant tower?”

Breedy said she tried several times to contact Compañía Las Torres D.C.R. S.A., but was unable to reach a company representative. The Tico Times left a message with the receptionist of the company on Wednesday, but as of press time, the phone call had not been returned.

Javier Díaz, who works in the general management office of the Foreign Ministry, this week sent a letter to Andrei Bourrouet, vice minister of MINAET, asking for an explanation of the tower plans. 

“It would really be appreciated if you could provide us with a brief explanation of the telecommunication plans and of the possible effects of the pending proposal,” he wrote.

Sorting It Out, Sort Of

According to Walther Herrera of the Telecommunications Superintendency (SUTEL), “hundreds” of cellphone towers will be constructed over the next few years. As Claro and Telefónica begin to provide cell coverage, expected as soon as October, one vital competitive advantage for the new providers and the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) will be the quality of service they provide. The more towers each company operates, the better the service they will offer. 

The construction of towers in specific areas requires permission from local municipalities. To date, only 44 of 81 municipalities have approved cell-tower construction.

“Municipalities aren’t approving the towers because they want to make sure that construction is carried out in a manner that respects the people of the community,” Herrera told The Tico Times. “It is important that municipalities and government organizations work together to establish the best practices that please both parties.”

To do so, SUTEL has stated that they will calculate the amount of emissions produced by each 3G cell tower to ensure compliance with standards established by the United Nations International Telecommunications Union. SUTEL is also working with SETENA to define a standard distance that must exist between cell towers and buildings or residencies.

“There must be communication established between the companies, the government organizations, the municipalities and the people,” Herrera said.

Though Herrera’s idea to harmonize cell-tower construction plans and municipalities’ requests seems simple, the accounts of Kurz, Breedy and other residents show that the process has been out of tune thus far. 

“It’s a shame that this process has not been done correctly,” said Allan Astorga, a University of Costa Rica geologist. “SETENA is an environmental organization and by approving construction sites next to homes, they completely disregarded the health and lives of people and animals.”

Astorga said SETENA had committed a “moral sin” by approving tower sites without consulting area home and business owners first.

He added that the poor planning of the towers was exemplary of many projects in Costa Rica, including the Caldera Highway and the “Platina” bridge in Alajuela, northwest of San José.

“The failure to properly create and develop a project has becoming customary in this country,” he said. “Cell towers will soon be our next big debacle.”

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