The Battle for the West

Power Lines Generate as Much Opposition as Electricity

Beginning in the late 60's, the government and the energy industry began discussing ways to meet America's projected energy needs for industrial growth in generations to come. The plan, forwarded under the name Project Independence," called for large, centralized power plants which could use coal and uranium to produce electricity. This electricity could be fed into a grid system which would divide the nation into regions of varying size, depending on population and availability of space for the plant sites.

Government and industry looked at where energy resources were located and where energy would be needed, determining some optimal conditions" for power plant sites. They determined that power plants should be located in "sparsely populated areas" from which the electricity would be transported to large urban and industrial centers. Their reasoning was simple: one, sparsely populated rural communities rarely have strictly enforced environmental regulations, especially if there has been little prior industrialization, and two, environmental and health hazards associated with coal- and nuclear-fired power plants would affect a smaller population.

The southwestern United States is a "blueprint" for this policy. Four of the country's ten largest coal stripmines, surrounded by five of the largest coal-fired power plants, are located in the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico come together. Most of this land is owned by the Navajo Nation, which exports electricity through high-voltage power lines to metropolitan centers of New Mexico, Arizona Nevada, Utah and southern California. "The annual output is enough to supply the needs of the state of New Mexico for 32 years," according to Navjo tribal chairman Peper MacDonald in 1975. Yet 85 of Navajo households have no electricity today.

The blueprint, perfected by the Southwest experience, is now being adapted to the Northern Plains. One of the first of many projects is an 800 kilovolt (kv) transmission line from Underwood, North Dakota, to Delano, Minnesota, linking into the Midcontinental Area Power Pool, a grid system of public and privately-owned utilities and members of the National Electrical Reliability Council. From Underwood the line is direct current; at Delano it is converted into three separate 345 kv alternating current lines and fed into the power grid.

The centralized energy grid is a plague to dairy farmers of west central Minnesota. As George Crocker of the General Assembly to Stop the Power Line (GASP) puts it, "Starting almost a decade ago, the industry started to get ideas about the western coal front. As soon as the plans materialized, the people started fighting a struggle, which has taken many forms for almost eight years."

During the late 60s, oil companies and coal producers (many of the same corporations) began to realize that America's continued industrial development was going to run up against hard times in eastern labor-intensive underground coal mines--where almost 400 years' worth of coal remains. Instead, companies looked eagerly towards the "Great American Coal Basin"--the western United States. There the coal lies close to the surface and high production with minimal labor costs is the name of the game.

"The North American Coal Company is the second largest independent (not owned by oil companies) mining company in the United States, a leader in eastern underground coal mines," Crocker continues." So the company began looking for a way to get into western coal land, talking to the United Power Association and the Cooperative Power Association, two small utilities based in Minnesota. An agreement was made--the North American Coal Company would produce the coal and the utilities would transport and distribute the electricity."

As David Thompson reported in the Northern Sun News in May, "When the Cooperative Power Association began projecting costs in the early 70s, they claimed that the low-grade lignite mined in North Dakota would be cheap enough to make up for the $220 million more it would cost to build the plant in North Dakota and to construct the 800 kv line. Once that decision was made, the cost of lignite quadrupled."

Thompson continues: "Falkirk Mining Company is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the North American Coal Company. The project was set up in such a way as to enable Falkirk to benefit from large, low-interest loans which Cooperative Power and United Power were able to obtain from the Rural Electrification Administration. The contract between Falkirk, United Power, and Cooperative Power is set up in such a way that the more Falkirk's cost of production increases, the more money they receive. The cost of the project has already increased from $536 million to $1.2 billion, and the electricity it produces is expected to be some of the most expensive in the state."

Studies indicate that although this coal uraniferous lignite, as it is called, is low in sulphur, it is high in other toxic materials. The environmental impact statement for a large coal-fired plant (like the one at Sherburne, Minnesota) indicates that one plant would emit one ton of uranium per year directly into the air from the smokestacks. It is the residents of Underwood, North Dakota, and other similar coal towns, that bear the brunt of these emissions.

The 800 kv line is the largest so far in North America, but others in the planning will pass from Canada to South Dakota and will be even larger. Over such long distances, the power lines lose half of their electricity, which permeates the environment. Studies in Sweden and the USSR have detected decreased crop yields and incidences of nausea, dulled reflexes and sterility, among other side effects, in the people in the vicinity of the lines. United States studies point to similar health hazards. On the other hand, government-contracted research done by the Bonneville Power Association (a federal corporate agency) and the Edison Electric Institute has found minimal side effects to life.

However, at Minnesota statehearings on the health effects of high-voltage transmission lines, farmers from all across the state testified that nausea, abnormal rashes, migraine headaches and nosebleeds were endemic to all communities. "The government and the companies tell the people along the direct current line that the direct current line is the safest, and along the alternating current line that the alternating current line is the safest," says Crocker. Meanwhile, says Gloria Woida, a dairy farmer in GASP, "The companies came out and told us to put grounding wires on our tractors and equipment to prohibit shock and other side effects." Cows have died from shock and crop yield is down in the Four Corners area, where high-voltage power lines are even lower in voltage than those going up in Minnesota.

The dairy farmers oppose the power lines not only because they are unhealthy and disrupt productive land, but also because they represent large corporate and government interests against the interests of the common people.

If necessary, the people of Minnesota will stop the power lines with their bodies. GASP's Crocker explains, "All administrative and legal remedies have consistently been tried by the people resisting the lines--hearings, court cases-- we're always looking for new legal remedies. We have also engaged in civil disobedience, and many arrests have taken place for interfering with construction and trespassing. We take it to the jury to decide, and by and large, we have won in the courts. Of 42 misdemeanor charges, we have won 35. In 70 misdemeanor charges where the people were indicted by a grand jury, when the people refused to plea-bargain, the cases were all dropped. So far seven power towers have gone down. This power line will never be a reliable source of electricity."

Crocker summarizes the feelings of the dairy farmers in words that apply to many more of us: "This is a giant corporate laboratory of a very ill-conceived experiment, and we are the guinea pigs."

Ironically, the electricity from the power lines is not currently needed; the utilities already have a surplus. As in the Four Corners area, the power lines are constructed to serve future energy needs--for mining and industry, not communities.

An article in the November 78 issue of Engineering and Mining journal, titled "Minnesota: Action Heats up in the North," reported that at that time 35,000 acres had been leased for uranium exploration to five companies. Seven months later, in June 79, exploration had drastically increased. As one local commentator explains the situation, "At least seven companies are exploring for uranium in northern Minnesota, including such late arrivals as Exxon and Annaconda. The most heavily involved is Rocky Mountain Energy, a subsidiary of Union Pacific Railroad. Rocky Mountain has about 75 percent of the 125,00 acres that the companies have leased altogether from private landowners hoping for a big payday--few knowing about the dangers of uranium mining and the nuclear fuel cycle. The area involved is about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities area, and about 20 miles south of the Fond du Lac Reservation. So far there has been no leasing of reservation land."

"An area group called Folks Organized for Responsible Energy has joined the Northen Sun Alliance in opposing the uranium development," he continues. "They have tried to influence county officials but have had little success. A battle in the legislature has resulted only in a standoff. The state regulatory agencies are lumbering into action but can barely keep up with the proposed copper and nickel mining. The state executive board will soon decide whether to allow exploration on state lands. Much education still needs to be done around the uranium mining issue."

The attempts by the government and the companies over the last decade have done little to ensure "reliable power" for industrial growth. If the work of GASP is a precedent, the industrialization and mining slated for "sparsely populated" areas might never come off the drawing boards.

Especially if the farmers continue to get more involved and agressive. In late August, two more power towers went down, the work of the notorious "bolt weevils." Three farmers from Villard, Minnesota, are charged with several felonies in connection with the incident. The trial of the three, Mark Hoyum and Bob and Dean Oeltjner, opened in September on charges of aggravated assault and aggravated criminal damage to property. The charges stem from an incident in late August, soon after the latest tower topplings. Hoyum was driving across backroads when company-hired security men, following up all leads in the case, began tailing him. What began as surveillance ended up as high-speed car chase, with the five pickup trucks full of Burns Security Guards (rented from a Chicago firm) trying to run Hoyum to earth. Debbie Pick of Gasp relates what happened next.

Hoyum stopped at the Oeltjner house, woke up his friends, and asked them to help him get home. The brothers grabbed shotguns, got into the car, and headed down the road towards the waiting security men. As Mark headed home, the guards followed, caught up, and surrounded the car on all sides. The trio jumped out of the car, shotguns drawn, and ordered the guards out of the trucks to be placed under citizens arrest. A couple of weeks later, the charges came down--against the Villard men, not the Chicago rent-a-cops.

The bolt weevils have become the first priority of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. In the last two months, the bureau has doubled the reward for information leading to the conviction of tower topplers--to $100,00. Obviously relishing their notoriety, the dairy farmers have been heard chanting, "We're number one..."

The utilities appear quite frustrated with the depth and strength of opposition to the power lines. And they are at a loss to figure out how to guard 1,000 miles of power line running across the land of people who don't want it there. Although they have hired security guards, their snooping, largely centered on Villard, has turned up nothing so far. Their divide-and-conquer tactics have done little better.

Farmers in the southern part of the state are now organizing too. Activists in the Southern Landowners' Association have told GASP that their organizational efforts will make GASP'S struggle "seem like a kintergarden picnic."

Besides opposing the power lines, the farmers are working on energy alternatives. "Windmills are starting to go up, solar collectors are being used, and people are working to control their own energy," Crocker says. "If you're going to be an addict, you might as well have your own stash."

Winona La Duke is a member of the Anishnabe Nation and works for Women of All Red Nations on energy issues.