Something in the Air
Marcus sure loved spending time outside that house of his on Lookout Mountain. He was a software engineer, a profession known for attracting pasty-faced dudes who prefer dark rooms to sunlit skies. But Marcus didn't fit the mold. Like his wife Robin, he was a fitness freak -- a nonsmoker and vegetarian who spent most of his spare moments in athletic pursuits. He skied, he snowshoed, he swam, he cycled, he hiked.
"That's one of the main reasons we moved to Lookout," Robin says of the community situated in the foothills west of Denver. "There are some great trails up there."
There is also a sprawling nest of broadcasting towers and antennas, responsible for transmitting dozens of radio and television signals to the metropolitan area below. But even though these skeletal structures were just a mile or so from where the young couple had moved back in April 1992, and could be seen plainly from their yard, they were easy to ignore. According to Robin, "We never gave them a second thought."
At least not for a while. The next year, Marcus, who had no family history of cancer, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The survival rate for people with this malady is frightful -- most perish within six to twelve months -- and during surgery, Marcus's doctor discovered that the growth had already attached itself to his brain's speech and decision-making centers, making its removal impossible and his prospects even worse. He subsequently underwent extensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and because he was in such great shape, he held up under this assault far better than anyone had a right to expect.
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But he couldn't maintain the struggle forever. He began exhibiting signs of progressive dementia similar to Alzheimer's patients, and by October 1997, he no longer recognized anyone -- not even Robin. He died two months later, at the age of 34.
During Marcus's illness, Robin became aware of a neighborhood association, Canyon Area Residents for the Environment (CARE), and a CARE subcommittee, Tower Hazards and Radiation Exposure Above Tolerance (THREAT), that were raising questions about the Lookout Mountain antenna farm and proposed additions to it.
The organizations had plenty of objections to the towers, aesthetic ones among them; in the view of many of the 3,000 or so residents clustered nearby (out of about 10,000 on the five mountains bordering Mount Vernon Canyon), the assemblages were eyesores that drove their property values down. But these complaints were minor compared to health concerns about broadcast radiation.
Such emissions, known generally as nonionizing radiation, are far different from the stuff associated with nuclear plants: "It's nothing at all like plutonium," says Dr. Richard Hoffman, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Worries about it remain, though. Practically every expert agrees that nonionizing radiation can be harmful at intensities that actually heat the body; this so-called thermal effect is why the Federal Communications Commission maintains standards for radio frequencies (known as RF) put out by radio and TV antennas, among other things. Yet there's no across-the-board consensus about RF at lower levels. Many studies appear to show that nonionizing radiation isn't harmful to people and other living things as long as it doesn't warm them up (see sidebar, page 32). But more controversial reports suggest a whole range of deleterious effects, including, possibly, a potpourri of cancers, caused by RF at the nonthermal levels in which many Lookout Mountain residents live, work and play on a daily basis.
Plenty of locals brought the latter to Robin's attention, but initially at least, she didn't think that such matters had anything to do with what had happened to Marcus. Most of the doctors to whom she spoke said that tumors like his take ten years or more to make their presence known, and she and Marcus had only been on the mountain for around eighteen months when the abnormality was discovered. But she changed her mind after both of her golden retrievers, which she and Marcus had brought to Lookout Mountain as puppies, were diagnosed with lymphoma. She spent over $8,000 on veterinary bills to treat them, but to no avail.
"They both died," she notes, adding, "They were from the same litter, and I checked with the lady we got them from, and she said the other six dogs in the litter are fine."
Robin, who's studying to be a physician's assistant, knows full well that the dogs' deaths fall far short of proof. But she's unwilling to simply assume that everything is fine -- and while the Lookout Mountain broadcasters have offered repeated reassurances about safety, she questions their objectivity.
A case in point: When a February 1999 study administered by Dr. Hoffman for the Colorado Department of Health revealed that the number of cancers in two "block groups" near the towers was higher than would normally be anticipated, most of the media underplayed this telling detail, focusing instead on the statement that no link between health problems and RF had been found. But in the document itself, Hoffman wrote that "epidemiologic studies with this type of design do not allow definitive conclusions to be made about a cause and effect relationship with any particular potential exposure, such as electromagnetic radiation from broadcast antennas."
In other words, the study couldn't possibly have proven such a link -- so why should its failure to do so make anyone feel better?
Most Lookout Mountain residents remain opposed to the towers, but that doesn't mean TV and radio types have suddenly decided to take their equipment and go elsewhere. Last summer, the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners denied permission for a bevy of broadcasters collectively known as the Lake Cedar Group to build a tower, popularly referred to as a "supertower," intended to bring digital television, or HDTV, to the Denver market. (The broadcasters are under an FCC mandate to get digital TV up and running as soon as possible; a November 1999 deadline has already passed, and an extension to May 2000 will do so soon.)
In response, the Lake Cedar Group filed a suit against Jefferson County seeking a reversal of its decision and petitioned the FCC to overrule the local authorities. If the FCC decides in the Lake Cedar Group's favor, it could set a precedent with lasting repercussions in the broadcasting medium and beyond.
CARE, meanwhile, has made a slew of zoning complaints against currently existing devices on Lookout Mountain and Mount Morrison, a site near Red Rocks Park that's also in the vicinity. Since there are hundreds of antennas on Lookout alone, some of which are of questionable legality, such grievances could keep coming for years unless the broadcasters move everything to another site. But while CARE argues that there are a number of first-rate relocation options that couldn't possibly imperil anyone's health, the broadcasters insist that these alternate spots aren't even close to acceptable for anyone who wants their HDTV.
It's a battle that Robin is choosing to observe from the sidelines. She's remarried (she goes by Robin MacLaughlin now) and currently lives in Genesee, a mountain community she considers a sensible distance from the rays of energy that once surrounded her home. At this juncture, she's feeling good (in early March, she was suffering from blinding headaches that made her fear she was following in Marcus's footsteps, but an MRI revealed only a sinus infection), and she recently gave herself a well-deserved gift of two new golden retriever puppies. So what if they're chewing up the woodwork at the new place? She's just glad to have them around.
Yet while she applauds the folks in CARE, she's not marching alongside them. "I can't right now," she says, "because it makes me too angry. I moved into that house on Lookout Mountain with my husband and my two dogs, and now I'm the only one left -- and I'm just 38 years old. And supposedly everything there is perfectly safe."
Often when communities are at odds with corporations, the residents lack the resources to make it a fair fight. Think of Denver's Globeville neighborhood, where it took locals much of the twentieth century to finally convince Asarco, a mining firm, to do something about pollutants that had been raining down on them from the company's lead-smelting operation, and the Overland neighborhood, which is still trying to get the Environmental Protection Agency to force the removal of 50,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste entombed at the Shattuck Superfund site despite wrangling over the issue for most of the '80s and '90s.
With Lookout Mountain, by contrast, the combatants are much more evenly matched. The Lake Cedar Group, which was formed to support the proposed digital tower, is a powerful consortium made up of channels 4, 6, 7, 9 and 20, and is represented by Tom Ragonetti, a widely respected attorney whose skills were recently employed by the City of Denver in its negotiations with Ascent Entertainment Group over the aborted sale of the Pepsi Center, the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche to multimillionaire Donald Sturm (Ragonetti would not comment for this story).
But Lookout Mountain counters with a multitude of affluent professionals -- lawyers, physicians, engineers -- who have the time, the expertise, the ability and the will to confront Lake Cedar on legal, medical and technical fronts.
Many of the people on the mountain also have an impressive grasp of public relations. Although CARE representatives feel strongly that their cause hasn't gotten a fair shake from local TV news operations because the stations have a vested interest in its outcome (a charge rejected out of hand by Channel 9 general manager Roger Ogden and other executives), they've been able to get the message out by other means, including an impressive Web site, www.c-a-r-e.org, and Broadcast Blues, a well-produced and highly effective documentary film made in 1999 by producer Len Aitken and narrated by John Emelin, the once and future lead singer of the Denver cult band Lothar and the Hand People.
Highlighted in Blues is the presence of a school, Ralston Elementary, directly in the line of the proposed digital tower's beam, as well as examples of the bizarre effects signals sometimes have on electronic equipment on the mountain: An electric wheelchair goes berserk, electric car-door locks don't work, radio stations emanate from VCRs and, irony of ironies, local TV signals are so distorted that they're unwatchable. These technical oddities don't occur in every home on Lookout Mountain, and simple filters placed on electrical outlets can eliminate many of them. But they still leave many residents wondering: If this is what the antennas are doing to our hardware, what are they doing to us?
Such questions are asked regularly in City and Mountain Views, a monthly news magazine for Mount Vernon Canyon dwellers, whose editor and publisher, Carole Lomond, has maintained a steady drumbeat about the dangers of the towers for years. Even Las Vegas's Richard A. Tell, a twenty-year veteran of the EPA and a nationally recognized expert on RF who's serving as a private consultant to Channel 4, recognizes the influence of what he refers to as "that newsletter up there." He deems much of the information published in Views, particularly as it relates to matters of health, to be either unbalanced or inaccurate. But he doesn't deny that it's played a significant role in solidifying the opinions of locals against the broadcasters. "The flavor you get from it is that people are sick and fed up with having the towers up there," he says. "They feel it's supposed to be a residential environment, and they feel the towers aren't consistent with that."
Lomond, for her part, doesn't pretend to be objective. She likens the broadcasters' contention that nonionizing radiation creates no hurtful effects if it remains within FCC guidelines to the once widely accepted beliefs that "DDT and smoking and asbestos don't harm you." A Lookout resident since 1987 (she began publishing Views in 1993), Lomond, who suffers from no ailments commonly related to RF, fervently believes that the proliferation of antennas and other broadcasting devices has spiraled out of control during the past several decades, besmirching a part of the state that is as historically noteworthy as it is beautiful.
"It may appear that I'm obsessed with this," Lomond says, "but this story just hasn't been covered the way it should have been. And at the risk of sounding like an ethical journalist, I thought people had a right to know."
Adventurous sorts have made the foothills home for a very long time; indeed, Mount Vernon was named the seat of government for the provisional territory of Jefferson in 1860, sixteen years before Colorado became a state. By 1890, noted rich person Horace Tabor was ready to exploit the area, hiring Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City's Central Park, to create a Lookout Mountain resort. Plans called for cabins, trails, a hotel and a funicular (an open-car train) from Golden to what was to be known as "the city on the hill."
That development never happened, but others did. Shortly after the dawn of the new century, John Brisben Walker was busily trying to turn the land that would become Red Rocks Park into a playground for people living in Denver; the Lariat Trail was completed, easing access throughout sizable sections of Mount Vernon Canyon; and several entrepreneurs actually built Olmsted's dreamed-of funicular (it was not a huge success). Other projects followed, and many of them, including the Mother Cabrini Shrine, Buffalo Bill's Grave and Museum, the Boettcher Mansion and the Lookout Mountain Nature Center, remain popular tourist destinations to this day. (Broadcast Blues documents the practical effects the antenna farm has had on several of these attractions: For instance, an electric gate at the Mother Cabrini Shrine sometimes opens all by itself whenever an electronic whim strikes.)
Lookout Mountain's impressive elevation (over 7,000 feet above sea level) and convenience to Denver also attracted the attention of broadcasters. The first batch of towers was installed during the '50s, when Lookout Mountain was sparsely populated but certainly not deserted. Ticked off by suggestions that the towers were present before people were, Lomond pored through old tax roles and discovered that just over 250 homes were scattered across the area by 1948. The volume of humans on the mountain has grown steadily since then, with their numbers exploding of late.
Several broadcasters say that as recently as ten years ago, the routes to the communication sites were rather lonely and uninhabited. They contend that the development of the community was aided immeasurably by the construction of a road network necessitated by the towers.
The antenna population has more than kept pace with the residential growth curve. CARE has attempted to inventory the transmitting devices presently on Lookout Mountain, and its estimated total -- 450-plus -- is downright staggering. But efforts to get a more precise figure have been stymied by an epic confusion of paperwork. Some of the gadgets appear to have the approval of the FCC (which governs the airwaves) but not Jefferson County (which is in charge of the land); some have documentation with the county but may have escaped the notice of the FCC; and still others might not be on file with either body.
Poor record-keeping and the typical flaws inherent in massive bureaucracies may explain away some or all of these mysteries. But attorney Deb Carney, who lives a mile from the towers and is handling the majority of Lookout Mountain's tower-related litigation for THREAT, isn't about to ignore them -- not when they could prove to be such potent weapons against the broadcasters.
One of the first salvos in this regard was fired last November, when Carney and CARE filed a zoning complaint with the Jefferson County Planning Department against Channel 9 for a radar tower and antenna that, as near as anyone can recall, was put in place in the late '70s. The complaint claims that the tower "does not appear to be legal," adding, "There is no evidence that the channel received permission from the Board of Adjustment, the County Commissioners or the Zoning Administrator for the Channel 9 radar tower."
Thus far, Jefferson County has not acted in this case, and Channel 9 representatives didn't return calls seeking comment. But Carney is blunt about what ruling CARE feels is appropriate: "We want them to take the tower down -- and not to put any new ones up."
Supporters of the proposed new HDTV spire aren't fond of the term "supertower," and try to avoid using it; for instance, consultant Tell refers to it as a "master tower," and notes that it would be about the size of several towers already on Lookout Mountain. But there's plenty about the structure that seems super: Plans call for it to be 854 feet tall, with a support building boasting 27,000 square feet of usable space. Furthermore, it would not only consolidate a minimum of five digital antennas, but provide room for numerous TV analog antennas and FM sticks as well.
"I think supertower is a good name for it," Carney says.
Carney has been living on Lookout Mountain since 1984, moving to her present home seven years ago. Like most of her neighbors, she didn't see the antennas as a health risk at first, and to this day she hasn't suffered any major illnesses she can connect with them. But during the second half of the '90s, when she became part of CARE's tower committee, she started reading articles and studies that gave her pause -- and her worries shot to the stratosphere after an address to the community about nonionizing radiation by Dr. Neil Cherry, a professor at Lincoln University in New Zealand, a country that's considered to be at the forefront of research into the potential dangers of such emissions.
Reached in Canterbury, New Zealand, the home of Lincoln University, Cherry doesn't cushion any blows when sharing his opinions about electromagnetic radiation (EMR), citing a blizzard of biological studies, including over a dozen on leukemia alone, to support the argument that such emissions can be very bad things whether they heat flesh or not.
"There are significant dose relationships for adult and childhood cancers, especially leukemia and brain tumors and miscarriage," he says. "This is scientifically sensible because our brains are electromagnetically active and sensitive to interference. They react very quickly. For cancer and miscarriage, DNA damage and chromosome aberrations are all shown to occur with EMR exposure, and it leads to cell damage. Repair mechanisms correct most damage, and most uncorrected surviving cells are eliminated by programmed cell death. However, a small proportion do survive, and over time cause miscarriage and cancer.
"People living on Lookout Mountain are under severe health threat right now, according to extensive scientific evidence from epidemiological studies," he goes on. "And they will be at far greater risk if digital transmitters are installed."
Echoing this counsel in a somewhat less strident fashion is Dr. Henry Lai, a professor of bioengineering for the University of Washington, who's also been in contact with CARE. Lai has been researching electromagnetic fields since 1980, including extensive tests on rats, and he'd be doing more if not for funding shortfalls: "Actually, there is little independent research in the area being done in the U.S. right now," he says.
His work on the potential health impacts of EMFs from electrical appliances and power lines and RF from cell phones -- emissions that have similarities to RF from radio and TV signals, but are not identical to them -- argues that they may have biological consequences. But thus far, Lai concedes, the evidence is inconclusive. "There is not enough research data to indicate that radio frequency radiation from cell phones and transmission towers can cause health effects in humans," he says.
Other inquiries have been equally ambiguous. A landmark 1992 study linking health problems and power lines took a major hit last year when its lead researcher, Dr. Robert Liburdy, was forced to resign his post at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory after investigators determined that he had fabricated and falsified data (Liburdy continues to stand by his findings). And a huge investigation undertaken by Cambridge University's Nick Day and released in December found no connection between childhood cancers and power lines. Yet the World Health Organization declared that the results couldn't be called "definitive."
In the face of such uncertainty, Lai advises prudence. "Lookout Mountain has probably the highest concentration of radio towers in the country, and the power output from some of the towers is very high," he says. "And there is a suggestion that digital radiation is more potent than analog signals, although there is little scientific proof for that. But no matter what, the precautionary principle should be used: The population should be exposed to as little radiation as possible."
Such warnings set off alarms on Lookout Mountain, especially since the Lake Cedar Group is proposing that eighty acres of property in the area be rezoned in order to erect the digital tower. CARE requested that the state health department conduct a survey to determine if brain-tumor rates were elevated near the tower -- and when the resulting study, issued in May 1998 and based largely on census information and data from the Colorado Central Cancer Registry, showed rates in a large tract that included Lookout Mountain and other communities were actually a bit lower than might be expected, the organization convinced the health department to do another study focusing more precisely on their home. The new figures, released in February 1999, were what report author Hoffman describes as "statistically significantly higher than would be expected" in two general locations. Three tumors were found among females in block group two, west of the corner of Highway 6 and Lookout Mountain Road (1990 population: 488), while four were documented among males in block group three, encircled by Highway 6, Lookout Mountain Road, Heritage Road and I-70 (1990 population: 1,803).
Hoffman resists further characterizing these figures, but he makes it clear that his findings shouldn't be interpreted as "a completely clean bill of health for the community. It would be incorrect to say that there is absolutely no link between the tumors and emissions, but it's also incorrect to say there is a link. This is evidence in a puzzle, and anybody who's trying to explain things has got to consider this evidence."
One of the topics the health department's study didn't address was the RF levels in the homes of those who wound up with tumors. But RF in the vicinity of the towers has been measured and measured and measured again, and the process by which it's been done has generated tension between CARE and the broadcasters for more than two years.
This issue didn't crop up earlier because the FCC doesn't regularly monitor RF at broadcasting sites. Dr. Robert Cleveland, a Washington, D.C.-based senior scientist with the FCC who's been drawn into the Lookout Mountain scrap, says, "Right now, we don't have the resources to do it. We have virtually no budget for this kind of thing."
Likewise, no one in Jefferson County government had an RF survey meter, the instrument that measures RF, prior to 1998, and neither did CARE.
That both CARE and the county went to the trouble of purchasing such meters is due largely to a report by Robert Weller of Hammet & Edison, a San Francisco firm hired by the Lake Cedar Group to evaluate Channel 6's Lookout Mountain facility. Dated October 1997, it stated that there were no areas near the tower that exceeded the RF standards used by the FCC: 200 microwatts per centimeter squared as averaged out over thirty minutes. (This level pertains to members of the general public. Those working in the broadcasting field can legally be exposed to a greater concentration of RF: an average of 1,000 microwatts per centimeter squared over six minutes.)
Attorney Carney doubted the veracity of Weller's report, and in mid-1998, she urged another Lookout Mountain resident, Al Hislop, to put it to the test. Hislop, an electrical engineer who's been living within a mile and a half of the Channel 4 tower since 1992 (he, too, has no tower-related health problems), subsequently rented an RF survey meter -- he owns one now -- and, he says, "everywhere Mr. Weller claimed it was safe I found much higher levels, some as high as 250 percent of the maximum level." This information got the attention of the FCC, which flew Dr. Cleveland to Denver.
Broadcast Blues documents what happened next; as Cleveland watched, Hislop and Weller took readings confirming that the RF level was way over the top in numerous areas, creating what are known as hot spots on the ground. In the film, Weller says that the discrepancy may have been due to an unexplained failure of his survey meter.
Since then, Hislop has kept up his testing, and the accuracy of his reports has regularly been confirmed by Russell Clark, the Jefferson County employee (he works in the planning division) assigned to use the RF survey meter Jeffco purchased. Their efforts have caused plenty of ripple effects among Lookout Mountain broadcasters -- especially those with FM signals, which are the primary hot spot producers.
Public radio stations KUVO and KCFR, which were responsible for the overages by the Channel 6 tower, have had to turn down their power to alleviate hot spots and put up flexible plastic fencing to isolate small patches of ground that remain out of compliance with FCC regulations.
Other FM outlets, including Alice, KOSI and the Hawk, have had to reduce power as well. And on March 31, KHIH-FM, known as K-High, reduced its juice from 100,000 watts to 40,000 watts because the hot spots it was creating were on Jefferson County open space; fencing put up by the broadcaster had cut off access to a portion of public land for nearly a year, and prompted yet another zoning complaint from Carney and CARE.
According to Jack Lambiotte, the chief engineer for Clear Channel of Denver, which owns K-High, and the chairman of the Lookout Mountain User's Association, a group intended to serve as a liaison between the broadcasters and the community, this situation wasn't as egregious as it might seem at first blush.
The area that's been fenced off is primarily accessible only after crossing privately owned land, he says. Furthermore, he argues that there's a sizable safety bubble built into the FCC limits. "The standard for workers is one-tenth of what is believed to cause tissue damage according to epidemiological studies, and the standard for the general public is one-fiftieth of what may cause tissue damage. That's a lot of headroom." Over twenty published reports, including one by Dr. Lai, appear to show that RF and radar workers are at higher-than-average risk to noteworthy problems ranging from cancer to increased suicide rates. But Lambiotte, who's been in the field for two decades, has never suffered from such troubles, and he says he's never met anyone in his profession who has.
Even so, none of the Lookout Mountain broadcasters -- all of whom undoubtedly recognize that hot spots make for bad public relations -- brush off RF violations. Sean Carpenter, vice president of communications for KCFR, says that his station and KUVO are in the process of getting new, better engineered antennas that should prevent future hot spots, and Tribune Broadcasting's David Juris, speaking for KOSI and the Hawk, notes that these outlets will be doing the same.
Lambiotte is looking into a replacement for the K-High antenna, too, but actually making the change is complicated by the Lookout Mountain antennas beaming out the Fox and KBPI, two other Clear Channel stations. Since K-High has its own tower, Clear Channel would like to shift the Fox and KBPI onto it, thereby saving the money it pays to lease space on other towers -- and it would make sense to install a new K-High antenna at the same time.
Yet unlike most Lookout Mountain stations, which are required to have directional antennas that focus toward Denver, the Fox and KBPI boast omnidirectional antennas that reach mountain communities inaccessible to practically every other broadcaster. They're allowed this privilege because their antennas were on the mountain before the passage of the directional regulation; they're grandfathered in. But if they move, they probably will lose omnidirectionality. So for now, K-High must continue running at 40 percent power. Lambiotte downplays the possible negatives. "There may be differences on clock radios or maybe on some downtown office-building penetration," he says, "but the signal loss itself shouldn't significantly affect our listenership.
"We'd prefer to run it at full power, but it's more important to make sure everything's as safe as it possibly can be," he adds. "After all, my people are up there, too."
Roger Ogden of Channel 9, whose station is part of the Lake Cedar Group, doesn't want anyone to think he's unconcerned about health issues. But at the same time, he feels that the broadcasters have been unfairly vilified for simply playing by the rules.
"When you get into emotional debates about things like this, it can become very muddy," he says. "You have to maintain clarity, and the best way to do that is to look at the facts. There has been no instance in which any member of the consortium has ever been out of compliance with the parameters set up for us by the FCC. And the digital tower we propose would actually reduce emissions standards in the area by consolidation, which is exactly what Jefferson County asked us to do many years ago."
Ogden is referring to a 1987 Jeffco telecommunications plan that called for any changes at the Lookout Mountain antenna farm to consolidate existing infrastructure and/or reduce RF.
James Morgese, general manager of Channel 6, says that this pronouncement was what spurred the formation of the Lake Cedar Group. "We were just trying to be responsive to the county and to the concerns of the community, and the tower will allow us to address their concerns. With new technology, we'll be able to reduce the downward effect of the emissions that have caused hot spots in the past. And we have studies that indicate that RF levels would actually drop within a three-mile radius of the tower from where they are today." Morgese is confident that Ralston Elementary would be one of the structures that would experience considerable RF reductions.
CARE supporters counter that Morgese's prediction is based on the assumption that the analog towers used by the TV stations would come down once digital is in place, yet they say there's nothing guaranteeing that they will. Until 2006, when the transition from analog broadcasting to digital is supposed to be complete, they say that stations would send out both types of signals at power levels of approximately 20 million watts, about double the current rate. If the switchover takes longer, or if the antennas wind up in other hands, they fear the high-intensity bombardment of Lookout Mountain might go on indefinitely.
Morgese doesn't think any of this will come to pass. "It's such a complicated issue that unless you really sit down and listen carefully, it can be misconstrued by the general public. In the end, though, it will be good for the people in that community, and all over the area."
The FCC is whistling the same tune about HDTV in general. The commission has spent much of the past two years prodding TV stations to join the digital revolution, with FCC chairman William Kennard setting a series of deadlines for major stations to be HDTV-ready. Outlets in top-ten markets were supposed to be digitized by May 1, 1999, with those in markets eleven through thirty, including Denver, to have accomplished the goal by November 1.
CBS's Channel 7 met this requirement because of FCC-approved "special temporary authority" to broadcast digitally from a tower on their downtown property until a more permanent facility is erected (Channel 7 general manager Cindy Velasquez says she's especially proud of how her station has moved ahead digitally), and Channel 6 has an interim digital rig atop Republic Plaza downtown. That leaves Fox's Channel 31 as the only Denver station granted permanent permission to offer digital broadcasts at present; it opted to go it alone rather than throw in with the Lake Cedar Group, and was rewarded in 1999 when the FCC and Jefferson County administrator Ron Holliday gave the station permission to add a digital antenna to its existing Lookout Mountain tower.
But Channel 31 is not yet free and clear: CARE has objected to Holliday's actions in Jefferson County district court. In February, Judge Christopher Munch rejected part of this protest, brushing off a zoning technicality claim regarding land use, but he has not yet ruled on at least one other CARE charge. CARE, however, isn't waiting for his decision to deliver more blows: On March 8, it filed yet another zoning complaint with the county, asking that Channel 31's antenna be removed because of alleged RF overages since it went digital.
Mark Grueskin, attorney for Channel 31, declined to publicly discuss these issues, while Jeffco administrator Holliday did not return repeated calls for comment.
Why does the FCC care if stations are up to snuff, digitally speaking? Money has a lot to do with it. With digital established as television's next frontier, the commission wants to do away with analog TV broadcasting in order to auction off the existing spectrums to the highest bidders, be they Internet-related firms, telephone companies or communication operators of other sorts. This process has already started, with channels 60 through 69 having been reallocated for use by public-safety services such as police, fire or emergency medical agencies. That leaves a whole lot of other channels for commercial exploitation, but none of them can be peddled until there's at least 85 percent digital penetration in any given market -- meaning that consumers can receive digital signals by any method, be it over the air or via cable or satellite.
Denver isn't even close to fulfilling this dictate right now, and Ogden, whose station prides itself on keeping pace with technological advances, is feeling the heat.
"We're concerned about resolving this, and we have been for a long time," he says. "The clock is ticking."
After the Jefferson County Planning Commission recommended approving the Lake Cedar Group's rezoning request for the proposed digital tower in January 1999, the public-relations cage match between CARE and the broadcasters began in earnest.
In February, CARE held separate town meetings with Senator Wayne Allard and Representative Tom Tancredo, who later sent a joint letter to FCC chairman Kennard asking that the commission leave any decision about the tower to the county. (Kennard replied that the FCC preferred to let locals make land-use decisions -- a valuable statement considering the Lake Cedar Group complaint currently awaiting FCC action.) CARE also staged a demonstration at the county government complex, aka the Taj Mahal, complete with children wearing sandwich boards ("Use Your Power, Stop the Tower") and the presentation of a petition signed by about 3,000 residents. And at CARE's behest, the Jeffco school board urged the county commissioners to deny the tower proposal because of Ralston Elementary.
The group also whipped up a letter-writing campaign aimed at Channel 6, which had sent out a mailing the previous November under general manager Morgese's signature asking Rocky Mountain PBS viewers to support "the station's move to digital broadcasting" by backing the tower. (Benefits of digital noted in the letter include "a superior picture and sound," "at least four simultaneous program channels" and "broadcast data to home, school and workplace.")
In response, Morgese sent out lengthy form letters telling his correspondents they'd been "duped into believing the misinformation of this small but zealous group." But when he received a complaint from celebrity chef and longtime PBS star Julia Child, whose niece Phila Cousins lives on Lookout Mountain, Morgese made a few alterations in the boiler plate for his response to her. He opened with a thanks "for your tireless work and dedication" to stations like his, and concluded with an apology for having been "so blunt with a loyal friend of public broadcasting such as yourself. However, I cannot accept the kind of tactics being employed in opposition to this effort."
At hearings before the Jefferson County commissioners in June and July, the stakes rose accordingly, with CARE trotting out a veritable horde of Lookout Mountain dwellers to testify against the tower, and practically burying the decision-makers in medical data.
The Lake Cedar Group countered with experts such as Gerald Bushberg, a professor of radiology at the University of California at Davis, who spoke in favor of current FCC safety standards, and Dr. Philip Cole, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama, who said that, in his opinion, "not one single study of RF and cancer could be said to be strongly persuasive as to causality."
The conflicting medical opinions presented a conundrum for the commissioners, and they ultimately decided that rather than choosing one over the other, they'd set them aside entirely. According to Rick Sheehan, the head of the commission, "There was no definitive testimony to us that suggested that there are health-related problems at that location. We take immediate action on hot spots, and mark those areas out so residents aren't walking in them. But otherwise, health was not a specific factor in our decision."
Instead, the commissioners turned down the Lake Cedar Group on grounds that had been little discussed publicly: One of these was the safety of the tower itself. "There were residences below the tower," Sheehan says, "and we needed to be certain that there was a radius around the tower large enough so that if it fell, it would not land on residences or individuals. And there wasn't."
The broadcasters weren't completely blindsided by this issue, having secured the testimony of Howard Hill, a forensics structural analyst from Chicago who argued that the tower could remain unbowed in winds as high as 125 miles per hour, and Ray White, a structural engineer from South Carolina certain that the digital tower's design was an ultra-sturdy one. Also weighing in was attorney Ragonetti, who said that the issue was being overstated: "The Channel 4 tower has been standing at that height for fifty years and has not failed," he pointed out.
But the commissioners' thumbs remained down for other reasons as well. "We specifically asked that they consider alternative siting for the tower," Sheehan says. "It seemed to us that there were other places they could put it."
Jan Wilkins, a Lookout Mountain resident who's the chair of THREAT, couldn't agree more. In her judgment, the topography of her neighborhood makes Lookout Mountain one of the least suitable broadcasting locations imaginable.
"At most tower sites," says Wilkins, another CARE member currently free of health difficulties, "the houses are well below the antennas, so they don't get as direct an impact. [See sidebar, below.] But at Lookout Mountain, there are homes and schools at elevations that are in the direct line of the beam. It's the difference between being sprayed directly by a fire hose and having a little of the water fall on you as it goes over your head. And what's frustrating for us is knowing that there are approved broadcasting sites in the area where it wouldn't be going into people's homes."
True. But the three most mentioned sites -- Mount Morrison, Squaw Mountain and Eldorado Mountain -- all have difficulties of their own, not the least of which would be the tremendous cost of relocation.
And Channel 9's Ogden believes that no amount of money can make up for other flaws. "We have done a reasonable amount of work looking at alternatives, and really none of them approach Lookout Mountain in terms of viability," he says. Adds Channel 6's Morgese, "It gets quite complicated when you're comparing sites, because you have to consider a lot of variables. But typically it's just moving the problem to somebody else's backyard."
That certainly seems to be the case with Mount Morrison, a site near Red Rocks owned by Bear Creek Development Corporation that's logistically attractive to broadcasters but nearly as mired in legal complications as is Lookout Mountain. The two towers that occupy the site are associated with channels 59 and 20, respectively, but while the former is the smaller of the pair, it's currently generating the most litigation. It was built in 1981, seven years prior to the Channel 20 tower, thanks to a special-use permit issued by the county to its original occupant, United Cable. When United abandoned the tower in the early '90s, Bear Creek leased space to occupants who increased its height from sixty feet to 120 feet.
The Genesee Foundation, a neighborhood association whose members have never been excited to have the towers so close to them, saw this as a zoning violation, and filed a complaint with Jefferson County.
The county sided with Genesee, but immediate action was put off when Bear Creek asked for permission to remove the Channel 59 tower and put up two others -- a 300-footer and a 200-footer -- in its place. The county rejected that proposal, and when Bear Creek came back asking for the 300-foot tower only, it was turned away again.
Leo Bradley, Bear Creek's attorney, says the stated reason for the "no" vote was a lack of tenants for the tower, which didn't seem like a good enough justification to him. He's filed two separate lawsuits in Jefferson County District Court, one asking for the judge to overrule the county commissioners' rejection of the new tower, and the other arguing that the zoning complaint against the old one be dismissed. The Genesee Foundation, represented by attorney Scott Albertson, and CARE are listed in both matters as citizen interveners on the side of the county.
The neighborhood groups are also worried about RF levels on Mount Morrison, which are so high that the City of Denver asked Bear Creek to post signs warning anyone getting too close not to enter zones south of the tower. Bradley notes that this area is within FCC limits set for broadcast workers, which are considerably higher than those for the general public, and says hikers, who can be found all over Red Rocks Park during many months of the year, have no business being there. But if any recreationists wander over that way anyhow, there's no fencing to keep them out -- and CARE types don't expect Denver officials to force Bear Creek to build one. After all, the broadcasting devices for the city's police, fire and emergency medical services are mounted on the Channel 20 tower.
Bradley says Bear Creek would love to have more broadcasters on Mount Morrison, which has two important geographic advantages over Lookout Mountain: It's 500 feet higher and a mile closer to Denver. But he understands why they haven't yet taken him up on his kind invitation. "It's all political," he says. "Let's face it."
Squaw Mountain isn't nearly as encumbered by debate because it's in Clear Creek County, not Jeffco. Better yet, from the broadcasters' perspective, there are virtually no homes nearby, and further development is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Plus, the site offers good access and has proven its feasibility through the experiences of KYGO and the Peak, whose antennas are located there. Victoria West, sales director for Squaw Mountain Communications, which owns the site, offers a description of the property that's as straightforward as it can be. "Squaw Mountain is the premier broadcasting location in the area," she says. "And our tests show that it's actually superior to Lookout Mountain."
So what's the rub? West's high opinion of Squaw Mountain isn't universally shared. Clear Channel's Lambiotte agrees that the roads to the site are good, but it's a 45-minute-plus commute from downtown Denver even when it's not rush hour, which makes it considerably less handy than Lookout Mountain when it comes to repair. "That's a long time when your station is quiet," he says.
And Lambiotte is even more bothered by a phenomenon known as shadowing. In laymen's terms: FM signals basically operate by line of sight, and because of the way the Front Range falls, signals from Squaw Mountain are more or less blocked from large portions of Jefferson County, including growing foothills communities like Ken Caryl. KYGO, which is almost always among the top-rated stations in Denver, gets around this flaw through the use of boosters that repeat the signal in various areas. But putting in such gadgets requires not only additional land acquisition but also zoning clearance -- the very thing that's proven to be such a nightmare for the broadcasters on Lookout Mountain.
West says these reservations are overstated: "Because of the mountainous terrain, there is no perfect broadcast site in Colorado. But our glass is half-full, not half-empty. We can solve all of these concerns."
Lambiotte isn't buying it. "We think our signal would stink," he says.
That leaves Eldorado, which is midway between Boulder and Golden, due west of Rocky Flats. It was recently purchased by Pinnacle Broadcasting, a Florida company that controls about 4,000 broadcasting sites nationwide, and Frank Lee, Pinnacle's vice president of sales, knows so little about it that he doesn't even have a sales pitch yet: "The situation is still under scrutiny by us," he says.
But a source knowledgeable about the area notes that it's the only spot that offers line-of-sight coverage to Denver, Golden and Boulder, and has been the home of adult-rock station KBCO since 1985.
Yet even though KBCO is owned by Clear Channel, Lambiotte sees no shortage of drawbacks to the site. Among his apprehensions: It's tough to get to because of dangerous roads that can only be traversed in all-terrain vehicles; it's ripe for development; there are power problems; and signals from there have shortcomings in key areas, including the Denver Tech Center.
And that's not to mention its proximity to the Table Mountain "quiet zone," an area maintained by the Department of Commerce for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to Terri Maraia, a NOAA telecommunications specialist, this 1,800-acre patch north of Boulder is the home of research activities involving antenna calibrations, millimeter wave measurements and radio-frequency propagation research that need to be done with a minimum of interference from other signals. To that end, the FCC passed a regulation in 1973 requiring broadcasters to reduce their signal levels over Table Mountain, with the exception of a handful of stations exempted by a grandfather clause.
Two of those -- Clear Channel's Fox and KBPI -- would probably lose their omnidirectional status if they moved to Eldorado, and four TV stations -- channels 4, 6, 7 and 9 -- would need to overcome engineering challenges in order to keep the quiet zone quiet. To Lambiotte, "That's a lot to deal with."
For most of the parties at odds over the digital tower, the current byword is "compromise."
The FCC certainly would like everyone to make nice, if only because overruling a local land-use decision, as the Lake Cedar Group has asked the commission to do, would almost certainly lead to litigation that might not end until the U.S. Supreme Court gets a chance to be heard. It's no surprise, then, that Bruce Romano, deputy chief of the FCC's policy and rules division, declares, "The FCC would like to see the local parties work out their differences...As chairman Kennard has said, we're committed to working constructively with our colleagues in state and local government to find a resolution to local matters such as this that will serve the public interest to the fullest extent possible."
That's good news to Jefferson County attorney Frank Hutfless. He sees any attempt by the FCC to cut the legs out from underneath Jeffco's commissioners as a move with huge constitutional implications, and even though he doesn't doubt that the county would eventually prevail ("I am firmly convinced that local authorities govern land use, and case law supports me"), he suspects that it would take years to sort out.
The suit filed against the county by the Lake Cedar Group also complicates matters, but Hutfless says, "I am attempting to encourage the group of broadcasters and the county and the community to come to the table and see if there isn't some room for negotiating a compromise that might not give everyone everything they want, but would be directed toward finding an answer that they can all live with."
Channel 6 general manager Morgese likes the sound of that. "I have hopes that we can negotiate a solution, which we've always been willing to do. Unfortunately, recent events have prevented an open discussion from taking place between all of us, but it's not our intent to inflame the situation."
CARE, however, doesn't seem especially eager to bend regarding the digital tower or the antenna farm as a whole. In addition to its aforementioned zoning complaints against channels 9 and 31, the group has made a formal request for the county to investigate Channel 2, which has its own tower, for possible zoning and power-use violations (Don Rooney, Channel 2's chief engineer, says CARE's claims are unfounded), and is objecting to a Channel 4 application to place a digital antenna on a microwave tower.
And CARE attorney Carney isn't nearly finished. She's going through records in search of more legal abuses, and she and her group plan to keep complaining until there are no more antennas or towers to complain about. "When it comes to the cancer up here, I keep thinking about those three monkeys: Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil," Carney says. "But our ears and eyes and mouths aren't covered. We'll keep watching and listening -- and speaking up."
In the meantime, not every Lookout Mountain resident who's been touched by death, as Robin MacLaughlin was, has fled the area. Take Paul Kopper, who moved to a home in plain view of 90 percent of the antenna farm in 1982 with his wife Betty and son Michael, then in his early twenties. Two years later, Michael wound up with an egg-sized tumor behind his nose and below his eyes (it wasn't technically a brain tumor, but was in the cranial cavity). Fortunately, the tumor turned out to be benign; it was removed and today Michael, a law-enforcement officer living on the East Coast, is doing just fine. But Betty, who didn't work outside of the home and spent most of her time enjoying the splendor of their three-quarters-of-an-acre plot, wasn't so lucky. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1985, and died two years later.
Paul, a geologist by trade who's now semi-retired, began associating these tumors with RF after the tower fight got going, and these days, he no longer thinks their development was just a coincidence, especially since Betty's family has no history of cancer. But at age 72, the last thing he wants to do is move -- so he's convinced himself that he's less susceptible to the emissions than was his beloved.
"Betty was always outside, but I've either been at work or on the road because of business interests outside the state, so I haven't been exposed as much," he says. And when he is at home, he doesn't spend a lot of time enjoying the spectacular scenery. "I mainly stay inside."
Gina Neidiger employs similar logic. She's lived in a Lookout Mountain house directly behind one belonging to her parents for twenty years, but her property (built by her grandparents in the 1940s) is in a small valley; she thinks the beams pass over her head. She feels her father is fairly safe as well, since he's come and gone from the house for work purposes over the twenty years or so of his residence. But when her mother, Shirley Neidiger, wasn't volunteering at Ralston Elementary, she was hanging out at home; she loved looking out a window at the antenna-studded landscape. Then, a decade after arriving on Lookout, she began exhibiting stroke-like symptoms. When tests later found brain tumors on the right side of her head (the side that faced the antenna farm when she was at the window), she said to Gina, an investment banker, "I told you those towers would get me someday."
Shirley died five years ago this July, and while she is remembered at Ralston by a marble monument, her passing wasn't memorialized in the 1999 Colorado Department of Health study; because her house was a few hundred yards beyond the boundary set by researchers, they didn't include her. Officially, her death and the presence of the broadcasting towers were completely unrelated. But Gina isn't so sure, and says that if the digital tower is approved, she'll have to take her two kids (they're fourteen and seventeen, and perfectly healthy) and leave a place that's been in her family for generations.
"It'd be hard," she confesses. "But I don't want anyone I love to die for better TV."
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