A Question of Power

Do fields from high power lines cause childhood cancer? Years of research have revealed few solid facts. But Joe Jamail has charged the answer is yes, and HL&P knows it. He's headed to court to prove his case - or to dig into the utility's deep pockets.

To complicate things, most EMF research funds have historically come from utility companies -- a fact that critics say may call into question any findings that EMFs are harmless. Critics of the $65 million federal program, for instance, are already saying it lacks credibility because utilities have funded half of it with matching grants.

Cutting sharply into the usually qualified, hedgy discourse of science are the allegations in Joe Jamail's case. In the petition's 14-point list of accusations, Jamail charges that EMFs are proven cancer risks, and that HL&P conspired with EPRI to falsify, conceal and manipulate facts which prove just that. Even experts who are sympathetic to Jamail's case voice surprise at some of these claims, even given the hyperbole endemic to court filings. Among Jamail's claims are that the magnetic fields to which his clients were exposed "were many times stronger than the levels proven to cause childhood cancer" (italics ours) and that "Every death and cancer ... could easily have been prevented by the defendants ... [HL&P] have long had the knowledge and technology available to completely insulate the public from the dangers of magnetic field exposures. They have knowingly chosen to conduct their operations, however, in a reckless and unsafe manner for the purpose of avoiding the extra expenses associated with safely conducting their operations."

And while the descriptions of the 11 families' cases focus on HL&P power lines, Jamail also argues that the utility is responsible for other ways in which electricity might affect his clients. "Electric power is a product," he charges. "The product and means of distributing this product are defective." And that product, Jamail says, not only damaged his clients' health, it affected their property values. He's suing HL&P over both.

The clients he's representing range from a young mother with no more than a high school education to an engineer who claims he's known of the risks of EMFs for years. All but the young mother, Joyce Bicki, declined to be interviewed, but the families' experiences do have a haunting repetitiveness.

One family, the Hickeys, lived in a Missouri City home that backed onto an HL&P easement containing eight sets of high power transmission lines. In November 1994, after the Hickeys' son was diagnosed with leukemia, a parent named Carl Rose came to talk with Patrick Hickey at his office. Rose worked in an office on the same floor as Hickey, and Rose's son had leukemia, too. When Hickey said he had suspected for a year that the power lines in the back yard were linked to his child's illness, Rose gave him the phone number of attorney John Tyler.

Janet Evans, the attorney with Jamail's firm who's acting as a spokesman for the case, says she believes that such informal contacts -- sometimes made in hospital waiting rooms -- between parents of sick children is how the plaintiffs on the case found each other. Then, once the 11 families were assembled and had contacted Tyler, Evans says, Tyler invited Jamail to join the case.

Three other children in the case lived within two blocks of each other in Missouri City. One child, David Iniquez, slept in a bedroom adjacent to his apartment complex's electrical meters and located only a few feet away from power lines, Jamail says. Iniquez was diagnosed with leukemia when he was two, and died when he was five and a half. Four doors away, Gregory Tyler was diagnosed with leukemia when he was five; a buried power cable follows the Tylers' back fence, and a high power transmission line passes directly over nearby Quail Run Park, Jamail says. A block to the east, a girl named Valerie Villareal, also a plaintiff, was diagnosed with soft tissue cancer.

Like a litany, Jamail's petition repeats what these families have in common: most lived around Sugar Land in Fort Bend County, all had young children with cancer, and all claim that it was caused by, as Jamail puts it, "the magnetic fields, secretly and silently invading [their] home."

To Houston Lighting and Power, those are fighting words. In January, HL&P chairman Don Jordan told a group of Houston Industries' management personnel that the impending Jamail lawsuit was one of the biggest challenges the utility would face this year. Jamail's name added not a little to HL&P's resolve to hunker down -- "Probably the most powerful lawyer in Houston has taken it upon himself to file" the suit, was how Jordan described it to his colleagues.

Acknowledging your rival is quite a different thing from admitting fault, of course. While the utility will comment only sparingly on the litigation, HL&P attorney Irvin Terrell says Jamail's charges are baseless and will be proven so in court.

"Our company position on EMF in general is that there simply is not a scientific consensus," HL&P spokesman Graham Painter adds. "We're not trying to say there's not a problem. When the scientific consensus gels, when those people reach a consensus and [regulatory bodies] give us guidance, we'll respond to it."

John Guillory, the specialist that HL&P, upon request, dispatches free of charge to check the EMF levels at your home or workplace, takes the utility's non-commitment credo even further. "We don't know," Guillory says flatly almost as soon as he arrives. Guillory shows up with a neat packet of EMF-related newspaper reprints complete with prepared questions and answers. He seems substantial and sincere, and doesn't offer his opinion on EMFs until directly asked. When he is, Guillory says he personally doesn't fret about them. But, he adds, "this is what I tell anyone who's buying a house. If you have a choice of buying a house near power lines and you're concerned, I'd say get as much distance as you can."

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