Gov. Raimondo's PUC Nomination Faces Opposition

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Massachusetts resident Laura Olton.

Massachusetts resident Laura Olton.

PROVIDENCE — Opposition is growing to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s nominee for the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

After questions were raised in the Providence Journal and Uprise RI about the residency status of the Wellesley, Mass., resident Laura Olton, some organizations are calling for her nomination as chair of the PUC to be withdrawn.

A group that raises awareness about the possible health risks from wireless communications has argued that Olton’s previous work as an attorney for National Grid — Rhode Island’s primary and influential utility — is a conflict of interest.

“It is a blatant violation of the public to allow a former lawyer for National Grid onto the committee that is supposed to regulate National Grid,” according to a letter from the group Rhode Islanders for Safe Technology.

The advocacy group has been part of a campaign warning of the health effects of the adoption of wireless technology. Specifically, it is raising awareness about fifth generation (5G) technology and the planned rollout of wireless “smart grid” electricity meters in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The group claims that the radio waves, which emit higher radiation levels than current 3G and 4G cell networks and require a closely built network of antennas and other hardware, may increase the risk of certain cancers and have other heath implications.

The group accuses National Grid of misrepresenting the results of a pilot program for two-way wireless meters in Worcester, Mass. Data from the meters, they claim, can be hacked and misused. The PUC is considering a similar wireless meter program for Rhode Island.

“We need someone in the PUC that is for people's property and human rights, not industry's rubber-stamped domination,” according to Rhode Islanders for Safe Technology.

The Providence Democratic Socialists of America argue that Olton’s employment at National Grid means she will support rate increases and the practice of shutting off service to customers who can’t afford them. 

“Rhode Island needs a Public Utility Commission that will stand up for working Rhode Islanders, and force National Grid to lower their rates, stop shutting off the power, and begin moving towards a sustainable Rhode Island immediately,” according to the group.

The Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center, which advocates for affordable energy for low-income ratepayers, says it wants to know if Olton will support the program that curtails utility shutoffs, called Percentage Income Payment Plan, before it passes judgment on her nomination.

As chair of the PUC, Olton would also serve as head of the Energy Facility Siting Board, the three-person committee overseeing the license for the proposed Clear River Energy Center (CREC). Margaret Curran, the current chair of of the PUC and EFSB, said she will stay on until a vote on the CREC application is taken, which may happen by the end of this month. 

Olton’s nomination must go before the Senate Committee on Commerce before a vote in the full Senate. As of June 9, her name wasn’t on the agenda for the committee’s June 11 meeting.