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A group of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, residents said they feel “vindicated” after a superior court judge earlier this month ruled their lawsuit alleging a Verizon cell tower made them sick can move forward.

We absolutely feel vindicated,” said Courtney Gilardi, a Pittsfield resident and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We’re real people who have real injuries who have been displaced from our homes and for this to be able to move forward — it does bring us hope.”

Gilardi’s 15-year-old daughter Amelia said:

“It is such a relief to be able to move forward. It has been scary waiting. There has been a lot of waiting, a lot of wondering, a lot of suspense. We’ve been asking for so long for someone to help us. We are all just praying we can go home soon.”

The ruling is the latest development in an ongoing legal battle between the defendants — including Verizon Wireless, its affiliate Pittsfield Cellular Telephone Company and City of Pittsfield officials — and the plaintiffs, who are represented by lawyers supported by Children’s Health Defense (CHD).

The defendants in December 2022 filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case. Berkshire County Superior Court Judge Francis E. Flannery, at an April hearing, heard arguments for and against dismissing the case, before ruling on June 8 that the case can proceed.

Scott McCollough, CHD’s leading litigator for its electromagnetic radiation (EMR) cases and the lawyer representing the Pittsfield plaintiffs, called Judge Flannery’s decision a “win” for Pittsfield residents who have been suffering from numerous physical symptoms for more than two years since Verizon installed a 115-foot tower into their neighborhood.

“In legal terms,” McCollough said, “what the judge said is that we can go forward with the case but cannot seek a ruling that the mayor or the city attorney violated certain specific ethics rules and that those state law ethics violations alone justify reversal of the decision to rescind the show cause order.”

The “show cause order” refers to a cease-and-desist order the Pittsfield Board of Health — whose members had listened to residents’ health complaints and undertaken a long investigation into the health impacts of Verizon’s tower — issued in April 2022, if Verizon refused to discuss removing or relocating the tower.

The order was the first such order ever issued in the U.S. by a local board of health against a major wireless carrier.

The order prompted Pittsfield Cellular Telephone in early May 2022 to sue the board in federal court, saying the board could not issue such an order because it violated a federal law — called the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — which states that “no state or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate that placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the purported environmental effects of radio frequency emissions” as long as the facility is operating within the Federal Communications Commission’s emission regulations.

CHD stepped in on May 25, 2022, filing intervention papers in support of the Pittsfield residents and alleging the board’s order was lawful and not preempted by federal law.

Under pressure from the mayor and city attorney who feared a costly legal battle, the Pittsfield Board of Health in June 2022 rescinded the order.

The Pittsfield residents ultimately want Verizon to come to the negotiation table so that the location of the tower can be reconsidered — or else for the board’s cease-and-desist order to be upheld.

“We can still complain about the actions they [mayor or the city attorney] took and contend those actions justify reversal for other legal reasons,” McCollough said. “We just cannot tie our claimed legal error to state ethics rules.”

Judge Flannery’s decision is significant because “the defendants tried to say there is nothing the Pittsfield residents can legally do because we don’t have a case,” McCollough said. “But the court has now said that, yes, we do have a case.”

‘We’re not collateral damage’

According to Gilardi, “What the issue has been is that we’ve been hearing because Verizon has a permit for the tower, there’s nothing we can do based on zoning laws.”

She added:

“The judge has ruled, and I think we can go forward with knowing that the board has the power at the state level to take this up in that health and safety is for every single person in the city of Pittsfield, it’s not just for some.

“We’re not collateral damage.”

When Verizon installed its tower, some children had to sleep with “vomit buckets” by their beds and many residents left their homes to escape the symptoms, sometimes staying with relatives or camping out in their cars.

Charlie Herzig, a plaintiff who has lived in his home — which he partially built — for more than 20 years, said he has experienced difficulty sleeping and a worsening of tinnitus since the tower was installed.

A retired veteran, Herzig told The Defender he fought for his country — but he “didn’t fight for this.” He said:

“I didn’t fight for my country so that telecommunication companies can make billions of dollars while hurting people.”

According to Herzig, telecommunication company officials know there is a problem. “They lie to people. They know it’s not safe.”

For instance, Herzig said a few years ago he spoke with a telecom worker who was working on a cell tower. “We don’t climb the towers when they’re on,” the worker told Herzig. “We know they’re cancer-producing.”

Herzig said companies need to take responsibility for what they are doing.

Plaintiffs Mark and Angela “Angie” Markham — who owns a home just 400 feet from the tower — suffer from ongoing health symptoms as well.

They told The Defender that when the tower was turned on, both began experiencing nausea, headaches and extreme itchiness, along with a host of other personal health issues that have multiplied over time.

“That tower is the first thing I see in the morning, the last thing at night,” said Angie, adding that she hopes the tower will be turned off or relocated as a result of their lawsuit moving forward.

The Markhams said they used to see many animals — including deer, bears and birds — in the clearing of trees near their home before the cell tower was installed on the site, but now they barely see any wildlife.

“Turkeys used to come and nest in our trees,” Mark said. “We used to see 35-40 come a day. Angie would feed them. We haven’t seen them in years. I haven’t heard them cackle for a year-and-a-half to two years.”

‘Totally unfair’ that people are forced to leave their homes

Elaine Ireland, one of the plaintiffs, has relocated multiple times since the tower went up near her house.

She told The Defender that when the tower was turned on she immediately experienced headaches and ringing in her ears — and she was not prone to headaches before then.

Soon, Ireland — a personal trainer and massage therapist who previously slept soundly — also started to have insomnia and brain fog.

Her symptoms progressed to the point that she knew she needed to leave her house. “I work in healthcare, so I just was like, I can’t take a chance. I have no idea what else is going on if I’m given all these symptoms,” she said.

Ireland said that if someone years ago would have told her that living close to a cell tower may cause her to have negative physical symptoms, she likely would have not believed the person. “But when you experience it, it’s real. You can’t ignore it,” she said.

Ireland said she doesn’t want to let her home go just because Verizon decided to put a cell tower close to it. “I love my house. It’s beautiful. My brother put in all kinds of stonework around my yard — it’s just not something that can be replaced.”

“It’s not fair — it’s totally unfair” that people would have to sell or vacate their homes because a telecommunication company installed a cell tower in the neighborhood, she said.

Ireland hopes the Pittsfield residents’ lawsuit helps make others realize that there can be health consequences to the installation of cell towers so they can “fight having these things in a neighborhood around people.”

“I would hate anyone to have to go through what we’ve gone through,” she added.

According to Ireland, the Pittsfield Board of Health “really actually listened” to the residents. “They wanted to help” — but “then things got pushed back.”

“I feel like the health department is there to help the whole community and we’ve just been left out in the dark [and] ignored. So I’m just glad that we’re finally having at least our day to be able to say what’s going on because this is not just us,” Ireland said.

McCollough said there is growing awareness that radio frequency and EMR can make people sick. “And everybody in their life should pay attention to that because you don’t know who it is going to strike.”