Sunfish Lake: The Phantom Menace

NSP says its power-line project is just a routine upgrade. Scientists promise there's nothing to fear. But in this tony St. Paul suburb, there's talk of miscarriages, cancer, and lawsuits.

As environmentalist activists go, Roger Conant is an unusual sort. Proper and slightly stiff of bearing, the 61-year-old earns his keep as an investment consultant and has strong ties to the state Republican party. In documents, he refers to himself as "Dr. Conant," a title he owes to a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University.

On this early June evening, Conant is running a little late as he hustles into the Sunfish Lake town hall, an airy annex tacked on to Saint Anne's Episcopal Church. He settles into his perch on a metal folding chair in the back of the hall, a look of skepticism etched on his owlish face. At the front of the room, a cadre of engineers and public-relations types from Northern States Power Company are pressing the utility's case for what has become an intensely controversial proposal in this leafy, affluent suburb: a plan to replace an old 115-kilovolt electric transmission line with a bigger, and to many eyes uglier, upgrade. "You must understand," Conant mutters tartly as an NSP functionary launches into an explanation, "that nothing he says bears any resemblance to the truth. He's just a flunky."

Conant's version of the truth--which has gained considerable currency in both Sunfish Lake and the working-class suburb to the east, South St. Paul--is, at the very least, inflammatory. The NSP power line that passes through the two communities, he charges, is causing spontaneous miscarriages among women who live near it--"irradiating" children in the womb, in his words--and may be to blame for a spate of cancers and other illnesses in adjacent neighborhoods.

Tim Lane

Since April, when he learned of the planned upgrade, Conant has been crusading to both close down the existing line and scuttle its intended replacement. He's delved into reams of scientific and technical literature. Organized petition drives. Drafted a glossy 60-page citizen comment for state regulators. Threatened lawsuits and demanded criminal investigations. Denounced the utility for its "lack of integrity," its "greed," and even its "inhumanity."

In the process, Conant has offered his neighbors something they both wanted and feared--an explanation for the kind of tragedy that seems to strike at random. Women struggling to understand why their pregnancies kept ending before their time; couples wrestling with cancer; residents of blocks where disease seemed to strike every single house: All of them soaked up Conant's stacks of documents and crisply phrased tirades. And many declared the power line the villain in their personal dramas.

In the course of tonight's presentation, though, Conant offers little by way of rhetorical fireworks. Instead he listens attentively, jotting down notes and, under his breath, providing a running commentary. "Practically everything they say is slimy or misleading," he whispers to his wife Ingrid as the NSP staffers--armed with overhead projectors and armfuls of supporting paperwork--lay out their proposal. The new line, they explain, will follow the route of the existing one, which snakes some 15 miles from Newport in the east to Bloomington in the west, passing through six southeast metro suburbs including Sunfish Lake. The old wires simply can no longer satisfy electrical demand in the quickly developing area; if the service isn't beefed up, the region could begin to suffer brownouts (or, in a strangely poetic bit of power-company jargon, "cascading blackouts") as soon as 2001.

Over the course of the presentation, the assembled townsfolk, about 30 in all, interject comments and questions laced with undercurrents of mistrust. "What are your qualifications?" a middle-aged doctor loudly asks NSP's environmental specialist. "Are you an epidemiologist?" The specialist allows that she has a master's degree in public health, and the doctor is instructed to refrain from queries until the formal Q&A. "Fuck," he exhales in a stage whisper, "they don't want to hear from me." The outburst produces a good-natured "Oh, Jim" shushing from a woman in a gray smock.

By and large, the homeowners on hand are a well-dressed, well-pressed, and well-spoken lot, as one might expect of the 350-some inhabitants of what, according to a recent survey by Worth magazine, is Minnesota's second-richest city. (Among those present, that distinction produces some ambivalence. "People think we're all rich and snooty," notes longtime resident Mary Baird. "Well, we're neither.")

Some in the group are worried chiefly about the effect of the project on the appearance and value of their homes. The new lines, with twice the carrying capacity of the old, will require the construction of 80-to-140-foot steel towers, 25 feet higher on average than the existing wooden poles, befitting an industrial area more than a woodsy enclave.

But others in attendance, converts to the cause Conant has so tirelessly promulgated, have turned out with more grave concerns in mind. Health concerns. Worries about miscarriages, breast cancer, leukemia. What they fear isn't the towers and the wires, it's what emanates from them: invisible, ineffable electromagnetic fields (EMF) that pass through walls like shape-shifting burglars, permeating nurseries and stealing into bodies with awful results.

At least, that's what they have come to suspect. "It's spooky," Baird says as she rattles off a grim home-by-home dispatch of her neighborhood's health woes, including the two cancers suffered by her husband Duncan, the town's former mayor. "My dog even has cancer," she says. "A melanoma and a sarcoma."

Next Page »
Minnesota Concert Tickets