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Environmental Studies

CU Powerline & Activism



Organization Begins

Citizen Action

Response & Alternatives

Why History Matters

Links & Resources


Organization Begins

“Well, there’s a couple of things that they better show
Like where is this current really gonna go?
Who makes the profits and who takes the blows?
How can you trust ‘em if you just don’t know?
                -  From Minnesota Line by Nancy Abrams

     Almost as soon as the plan to build the CU Project was released, citizen groups formed.  At one meeting, Jim Nelson a farmer of 800-acres in Grant County, spoke out about his three major concerns: health and safety,  the basic problem of farming feasibility, and the question of whether the CU Project is something Minnesotans wanted to be doing to the countryside. Nelson, said, “What we really need to beat this thing is to all work together.  The power companies’ favorite tactic is to divide the people, and we can’t let them do that.” [1] The prescribed procedures for both corridor and route selection did stress public participation.  Peter Vanderpoel, then chairman of the Environmental Quality Council (EQC), described new mechanisms for citizen input:

…there are tremendous opportunities for public involvement, public influence…[T]he EQC does three things:

  1. It names a citizens’ committee to study the proposals and choose which is the least undesirable…
  2. It holds public informational hearings in the areas that will be affected to explain the power company proposal and alternatives
  3. It holds a series of public hearings in every affected county.  At these hearings, any citizen and citizen’s group is totally free to offer facts and arguments and recommendations. [1]

     But the citizen committees and hearings achieved Nelson’s greatest concern, dividing the people. Public hearings began on June 16, 1975 and the process pitted farmer against farmer.  If one farmer came to the hearing to say why the line should not go across his land, he was asked in effect to name what other farmer’s land he wanted to put it on. [1] It was a Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) breakdown and caused immense tension within the farmer/activist groups.

     The final location for the line was decided by a numerical technique assigning numbers to symbolize the avoidance rating, so the lower the number, the better the location for the corridor. To the co-ops, routing the line was a numerical problem, with quantifiable constraints. Verlyn Marth pointed out, “They assigned farmers zero.  The computer routed it on farmers assigned zero only, and it did this in 1972 without any knowledge of anybody here.  They sat around with their plastic suits and their white shoes around the table back in Michigan and destroyed these people’s lives in secret two years before it was ever sprung out here where the route was going to be, without asking anybody, without ever seeing it, with no sense of values of the rural people or no human consideration on what they were doing.” [1]

     During a public information meeting on March 14, 1975, the question was posed, “Why not send the HVDCs through an urban area?” and CPA’s Jerry Kingrey answered, “We don’t like to route a transmission line through a highly populous area because it affects more people…the idea of routing a transmission line is to affect the least number of people.” [1] In places like Yucca Mountain where the nuclear waste of the nation might someday be stored and in many other environmental controversies this issue of alienation, accountability, and ‘doing the least amount of harm’ arises.  With the CU power-line project, chances are residents of Saint Paul and Minneapolis won’t know where their energy came from, how it got there, or whose lives it affected.  Why should the farmers of Western Minnesota be forced to change their lifestyles on farms that have been in families for tens of years to feed the increasing demand of urban areas?

     One by one the farmers’ concerns about the power-line had been bottled up by the state.  From the beginning, the fundamental issue had been the question of need – the farmers were not convinced the proposed power-line across their land was really needed.  The corridor of the power-line was decided before the question of whether or not the power-line should even be built was brought into consideration.  The argument in favor of building was that the need for new facilities can be determined by comparing the anticipated demand with the assured supply of energy, and anticipated demand was increasing rapidly while the assured supply was stable. A certificate of need was issued despite the farmers’ backlash at the hearings.  That made it official.  The question of need had been considered by the state. [1]

     Power-line siting was a hot topic in the 1977 legislative session, and in May a bill was passed that changed the process by which future power-lines would be sited.  It altered criteria to be used in selecting a route, for instance giving agricultural land equal footing with wildlife areas.  However, there was nothing at all in the law that pertained directly to the CU power-line. The idea was to placate farmers without addressing their central concern.  The proposed route crossed forty-nine new miles of farmland through new towns like Lowry and Sauk Centre and Elrose and impacted new farmers like Dennis Rutledge, Scott Jenks, Tony Bartos, Math Woida, and John Tripp.  By the time they learned what had happened, there was nothing they could do about it.  The public had participated; the state had decided.  It was all over but the actual construction of the power line.  Or at least that is the way it was supposed to be. [1]

[1] Wellstone, Paul, and Barry M. Casper. Powerline: The First Battle of America's Energy War. Mineapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.


Figure 8: Powerlines in an open field.

Figure 9: The solid line is the route UPA-CPA told the EQC that they preferred in Pope County; the dotted line is the route the had requested before the Pope County planning commission; the dashed line is the Pope County line the EQC selected. [1]

Figure 10: Numerical technique used to route the power-line.  Each square mile area on the map was assigned an avoidance rating; the higher the number the more it was to be avoided in routing the line.  For example, state lands rated 5, interstate highways 4, and forest land 3.  Airfields, state parks, federal land, and lakes were excluded entirely (X on the map).  Farm land was rated 0. [1]

Last updated:  5/6/2008


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