Live Wires

Daniel Ruen

As Roger Conant sees it, two scientific studies released this fall examining the relationship between power lines and a rare form of cancer are "revolutionary" and "nothing short of remarkable." "Before these studies, I don't know where the debate was headed. But these studies will transform it," declares the self-employed financial consultant and sometime Republican Party activist. The new research is too ambiguous to determine, once and for all, whether the electrical and magnetic fields that emanate from power lines--known as EMF--are a health hazard. But Conant believes the new data will give activists like him an edge in their contentious battle with Xcel Energy and state regulators. "From my perspective, this has shifted the responsibility," he says. "Now it's up to the other side to demonstrate that power lines aren't dangerous."

Since the spring of 1999, Conant, who is the spokesman for a nonprofit citizens' group called the Power Line Task Force, has energetically opposed Xcel's plan to replace an existing 115 kilovolt transmission line in the southeast metro with one that is both bigger and more powerful. Like the current line, the project is slated to run above ground along a 14-mile route from Newport to Bloomington. Along the way it will pass through South St. Paul, Mendota Heights, and Sunfish Lake--the tiny but prosperous suburb where Conant makes his home.

Xcel officials say the plan is a routine upgrade, necessary to avoid rolling blackouts in the southern suburbs. Conant and his allies--citing a vast, often conflicting pool of research conducted during the past 20 years--argue that unusually high levels of EMF from the existing line already pose a health hazard to homeowners, increasing their risk of suffering everything from miscarriages to Lou Gehrig's disease.

In September the Environmental Quality Board, a 14-member commission consisting of the heads of various state agencies and five citizen members, turned down a demand from the Power Line Task Force that Xcel be required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement. The Public Utilities Commission rejected the task force's request that the existing line in the southeast metro be either buried or removed altogether. And in response to another request from the task force, the Minnesota Department of Health issued a report last January concluding that "the current body of evidence does not show that exposure to these fields is a health hazard."

Now, armed with new data on the risks of EMF, the task force is contesting the decision of the Public Utilities Commission in the Minnesota Court of Appeals and filing a second petition with the Environmental Quality Board. In two independent studies, leading epidemiologists in the U.S. and Europe pooled data from an array of previous, contradictory reports on EMF exposure and childhood leukemia. What their so-called meta-analysis revealed was that children exposed to more than three milligauss of EMF--the standard unit of measurement for magnetic fields--were 70 percent more likely to suffer from childhood leukemia.

For most Americans the finding should come as a relief. In the average household, EMF exposure is estimated to be just .5 milligauss. But according to Conant, some residents along Xcel's existing line in the southeast metro have measured EMF fields in their homes at up to 80 milligauss. In a September 1999 letter to the Environmental Quality Board, Jan Malcolm, the commissioner of the Department of Health, cited utility models that estimated that future EMF exposure in homes closest to a new line would average 48 milligauss.

"A lot of people maintain this is a non-issue and the new data seems to have very little effect on their perceptions," observes Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, an influential newsletter that has followed the scientific debate over EMF for two decades. "It's a paradox, because the data is stronger than it was in the early Nineties, when the issue entered the public consciousness as a major new environmental issue." In 1990 Slesin was one of the first journalists on the EMF bandwagon, breaking the news that the Environmental Protection Agency had deemed EMF "a probable human carcinogen." (The EPA later revised its finding, calling EMF "a possible human carcinogen.") In the years since, the controversy over EMF has waned considerably, as an increasing number of mainstream journalists have pooh-poohed the power-line-as-health-hazard story. "It's quite astonishing how successful the electric-utility industry has been in discounting this as junk science," Slesin says. "The issue has basically been buried alive, and I don't know who has enough interest to exhume the body."

Heidi Benedict, the EMF issue manager for Xcel, says the new data ought to be interpreted with caution. "But the issue is still open," she concedes. "And I think we still need additional research and an attempt to look at higher exposures, which has not been done in the past." Sander Greenland, an epidemiologist at UCLA and principal author of the latest American study, agrees. "The evidence is more extensive and more informative now, but it's still very muddy," he concludes. "We've fiddled with the dial, and out of the snow have detected some blurred movement. But while we've made progress, it's still not clear enough that you can tell what's going on." While his analysis of past EMF research reveals "an association" between magnetic fields and childhood leukemia that can't be explained by mere chance, Greenland cautions that the studies do not establish a causal relationship. It's also possible that a "confounding factor" or other unknown bias could have skewed the numbers.

Conclusive or not, Slesin believes the findings call out for further animal and cellular research. "Epidemiology will never explain causation, it only answers association," he points out. "And as one chairman of an epidemiology department recently told me, there's so much smoke here, it's inconceivable there isn't a fire." Echoing that sentiment, Conant argues that the presence of statistical association between childhood leukemia and EMF ought to be enough to persuade state regulators to require Xcel to bury their transmission lines, which would reduce EMF exposure. "Precautionary principle is well imbedded in law and policy and you shouldn't need 100 percent proof," Conant argues, pointing out that the government took regulatory action against the tobacco industry based on epidemiological evidence, long before its actual cancer-causing mechanisms were fully understood.

In the view of Sunfish Lake Mayor Francis Tiffany, the debate in his community over the southeast metro line has less to do with the supposed health hazards of EMF than a more mundane concern: The belief that the construction of a new transmission line will lower property values for nearby homeowners like Roger Conant. Currently the line runs along unobtrusive wooden poles. The new line would be strung between larger steel towers. "I think they [the Power Line Task Force] are leveraging the EMF issue for all it's worth. What Roger is really after, I think, is to figure out some way to have this line put underground without having the city pay for it." (According to Xcel spokesman Ed Legg, burying the line could cost as much as $6 million per mile. Above-ground work would cost only $500,000 per mile.)

Sunfish Lake, Mendota Heights, and South St. Paul will soon decide whether to grant Xcel the conditional permits needed to begin construction on the transmission line. "As a city, we cannot deny that permit without clear evidence that there is a public health hazard," Tiffany explains. "And the Minnesota Department of Health's position is that there is no hazard. If there is no hazard, it's a no-brainer."

"Frank [Tiffany] is a doctor, not a lawyer," Conant responds wryly. And while he concedes that property values figure into his thinking, he maintains health hazards are still the primary concern: "Look, we've been suing everybody in sight over this. They're at risk for getting sued either way. And I don't care what the health department says. We've got tons of credible sources who will demonstrate a meaningful health risk."

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