Down to the Wire

When he stepped to the podium at the Mendota Heights City Council chambers last Wednesday, Roger Conant was primed for action. The founder and president of a group called the Power Line Task Force, Conant has led a three-year battle against Xcel Energy's proposal to upgrade an electric transmission line that runs through the south metro. He'd been on something of a winning streak lately, having persuaded officials in his hometown of Sunfish Lake, just to the east, to vote to send Xcel packing. Conant hoped to win over the Mendota Heights council with the same tack he'd taken in Sunfish Lake--by arguing that the existing 14-mile line constitutes a public-health hazard because it exposes nearby residents to unusually strong electromagnetic fields (also known as EMFs), and that an upgrade would perpetuate the EMF hazard, which he maintains has been linked to cancer, miscarriages, and a host of other afflictions.

Before Conant could commence his pitch, he was interrupted by city council member Jack Vitelli, who'd read an op-ed piece by Conant in the St. Paul Pioneer Press two days earlier, in which Conant wrote that "all leading experts" agree there's a connection between EMFs and serious illnesses. "I think that is false," Vitelli said, then launched into a 25-minute, point-by-point rebuttal of Conant's position.

It was the beginning of a long night for Conant and the several dozen anti-power-line activists in attendance. "Every word I wrote is documented," he insisted when he was finally able to get a word in. But after a wide-ranging, five-hour debate about the 20 years of research on the health effects of EMFs, and testimony from a half-dozen residents opposed to the new line, a narrowly divided council agreed in principle to allow Xcel to proceed with its plans. While the permit was not formally granted (pending the resolution of some technical details), the meeting was a major setback for Conant and his fellow task-force members.

Though the group had repeatedly fallen short in its efforts to block the power line through legal challenges and appeals to state regulators, the task force had come into Mendota Heights on a roll of sorts. In January the group had brought in a Canadian EMF researcher to testify before the Mendota Heights Planning Commission, which subsequently recommended against the upgrade. And earlier this month they won over the Sunfish Lake City Council.

Sunfish Lake Mayor Frank Tiffany, the lone dissenter in that vote, says some of the opposition in his community was based "on a huge element of fear that has been engendered by all the allegations of an EMF health hazard." But Tiffany, a retired physician and professor at the University of Minnesota, says the anti-power-line movement was largely driven by a more mundane concern: The proposed new power line towers are big and ugly. Xcel's plan, Tiffany notes, calls for the existing 50-to-85-foot-high wooden structures to be replaced with 80-to-110-foot-high steel poles. "There's a very strong emotional attitude of, 'We don't care what you do, just stop it,'" the mayor says. "But I'm trying to be a realist and have told people, 'Look, we don't have any legal grounds to do that. There is simply not enough evidence about EMF to warrant aggressive regulatory action."

Not so, counters Conant, who points to two recent developments: an October 2001 fact sheet issued by the World Health Organization that lists EMFs as a "possible human carcinogen"; and a recently released draft report from the California Department of Health Services linking EMF exposure to a host of consequences, including cancer, miscarriage, and suicide. "The relationship between magnetic fields of the intensity we experience and adverse health outcomes has been nailed beyond dispute," Conant contends. "They don't have cause and effect down yet, but you don't need to have cause-and-effect mechanisms down before you take public policy action." (The EMF debate has been the subject of two City Pages stories, beginning with "Sunfish Lake: The Phantom Menace," published July 21, 1999; see

Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, a small but respected Manhattan-based journal that explores EMF-related issues, shares Conant's view that the recent findings should be taken seriously. "The utility industry has waged a very, very effective PR campaign to try and persuade government and the public and perhaps themselves that this doesn't amount to a hill of beans," Slesin says. "And they've basically walked away from the EMF issue. It's a strategy of wishful thinking." The California and WHO studies might change all that, he adds, noting that the debate in the Twin Cities is of particular interest because of the unusually high levels of EMFs in some of the affected homes.

According to a consultant's report performed for the cities of Sunfish Lake, Mendota Heights, and South St. Paul, 45 residences sit within 50 feet of the existing line. In some homes that has led to EMF levels far above typical household exposures. (According to Xcel, the new line will reduce those levels by more than 50 percent in the short term, owing to the greater height of the towers and other design features. As power consumption increases, however, those benefits will erode.)

Chuck Stroebel, a researcher with the Minnesota Department of Health, points out that the U.S. has no established standards for unsafe residential EMF exposure, and he contends that Conant and his supporters overstate the significance of the recent EMF developments. The WHO's classification of EMFs as a possible human carcinogen isn't as alarming it sounds, Stroebel observes--it's the organization's lowest category of carcinogen, a subset that also includes coffee. The California report, meanwhile, is still in draft form and is, he says, "fairly controversial."

Adds Stroebel: "We can't entirely dismiss the idea that there is something going on [with EMFs]. But the evidence is very weak. You can pick out individual studies or take quotes out of context to support any view. But the important thing is to look at the weight of the evidence. The Power Line Task Force hasn't presented a fair and balanced perspective on the science."

Barring an unexpected derailment of the bureaucratic process in Mendota Heights, Sunfish Lake remains the final barrier against the erection of the new transmission line. According to Xcel spokesman Ed Legge, the utility plans to file suit against Sunfish Lake in Dakota County District Court. Legge seems confident Xcel will prevail. He says that by the second week of March, the company will commence construction on foundations for the new line in Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul. The utility has no choice, he explains: Without a new 115-kilovolt circuit, the southeast metro area is at risk of suffering power outages during peak usage periods. "It's incumbent on us to provide reliable service. This is a weak link, because there's no contingency if part of the system fails," Legge says. "As one of our engineers explained to me, this is like not having a spare tire in a car."

Conant vows to fight on. He expects he'll have more ammunition in the spring, when the California report is finalized. Whereupon, he says, he'll likely take his case to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. In 1999, the task force petitioned the PUC to order Xcel to remove or bury the existing transmission line because of the alleged health hazard. The petition was rejected, but Conant hopes the newer EMF findings will give the agency cause to reconsider. If that fails, he says, the group may file suit under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, a law that broadly empowers citizens to sue over pollution hazards. "This isn't over yet. And I'm very confident that we'll prevail in the end," he promises.

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