U.S. Navy Tries To Allay Fears over Sicilian MUOS Site

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U.S. Navy officials are hoping environmental impact studies translated into Italian and made available to Sicilian residents will help quell health concerns that have disrupted construction of a military communications satellite ground station on Sicily.

The Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) will rely on a network of four satellites and four main ground stations to provide cellphone-like communications to mobile forces. The ground stations are located in  western Australia, southeast Virginia, Hawaii and Niscemi in Sicily, about 60 kilometers inland from the U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella.

Construction of the Sicilian station has been disrupted by protesters warning of the potential health effects of its electromagnetic emissions. The protesters were involved in violent clashes with police Jan. 11 as they tried to stop four truckloads of construction materials from entering the site.

According to a Feb. 5 report from Reuters, the Sicilian government said it was planning to revoke the United States’ permission to build the ground station.

But a Pentagon spokeswoman, Air Force Lt. Col. Monica Matoush, said the Defense Department was unaware of any changes to the building plans.

“Since 2005, the U.S. Navy has coordinated closely with the Italian government to obtain all appropriate permissions to build and operate a ground station for the MUOS program in Sicily,” Matoush said via email Feb. 8. “We have received no communication from the Italian government revoking permissions to build at the site.”

The Pentagon has nonetheless taken steps to assure Italian citizens that the station does not pose a health hazard. Navy studies indicating that the MUOS ground sites in Hawaii and Virginia pose no electromagnetic radiation threat are being translated into Italian and shared with authorities in Italy, according to Steven A. Davis, a spokesman for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

“One can conclude that there is no health risk or safety hazard” outside the site because of the antennas, the report read.

In addition, a study of the Sicilian station, conducted by the Navy in cooperation with Italy’s regional environmental protection agency for Sicily,  reached a similar conclusion, according to a joint press release from the Italian Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Embassy. The results of the U.S.-Italian study have been verified by experts at the University of Palermo, the release said.

Officials from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not return phone calls seeking comment.

On Jan. 15, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a joint statement with the Italian Ministry of Defense intended to reassure Sicilians that that the Niscemi ground station poses no health hazard.

The MUOS system is expected to be fully operational in 2015.