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Sunfish Lake: The Phantom Menace

Tim Lane

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.

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."

Virtually no one at the meeting seems placated by NSP's assurances that the new line's taller towers and realigned wires will actually reduce residents' EMF exposure. Nor are they impressed by the rising tide of scientific findings that power lines--which in the early Nineties were the object of a nationwide public-health controversy--pose little, if any, health hazard. The gentry of Sunfish Lake have come to distrust authority, including utility representatives and government scientists. And they are in no mood to have anything, as one resident later puts it, "crammed down our throats."

 

Electricity and magnetism have exerted a powerful pull on the human imagination for more than two millennia--and, over that time, they have inspired some oddball theories. The ancient Greeks and Romans employed torpedo fish, which, like electric eels, can discharge current, to relieve gout. Cleopatra wore a lodestone (a natural magnet) on her forehead to preserve her youthfulness. By the turn of the century, medical professionals employed a variety of electrical contraptions: A metal and wooden cage with a coil that produced powerful magnetic fields, known as the D'Arsenval spiral, was thought to counter diabetes and obesity.

The spiral is among the many electricity-related gizmos on display in a recently refurbished mansion on the western shore of Lake Calhoun. The Bakken museum, which advertises itself as "a library and museum of electricity in life," has a broad array of most of the medical applications of electricity (culminating with the battery-powered pacemaker invented in 1957 by Earl Bakken, the Minnesota-reared engineer who founded the museum).

Riley Hendrickson, the Bakken's scientist in residence, is well acquainted with the lore of EMF--from the "shot in the dark" medical applications of antiquity to the contentious modern debate. In the past, Hendrickson observes, magnetism's enigmatic nature helped fuel belief in its healing power; today, the same quality kindles fear. "I think people are afraid because they hear the word radiation and they equate that with cancer."

Some parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are feared with good cause. The high end includes known carcinogens like gamma and x-rays--forms of so-called ionizing radiation powerful enough to break chemical bonds and scramble DNA.

But the term EMF, as it is popularly used, refers to the very low end of the spectrum, the territory south of microwaves and radio waves. Specifically, most of the concern has focused on alternating-current (AC) wires, in which electricity pulses back and forth, rather than flowing in one direction as it does in direct-current (DC) lines. Those pulses are known to create magnetic fields that can exercise a subtle effect on the electrical currents at work in the internal systems of most organisms--though the nature of those effects is not clear even to scientists. "From a physics point of view," Hendrickson notes, "electricity has been well understood for 100 years. We know electricity. But we don't really know the effects of electricity on biology."

Hendrickson played a bit part in Minnesota's most volatile power-line protest, sparked by the construction of a 350-mile direct-current line across western Minnesota in the mid-Seventies. The matter grew so heated that former Gov. Rudy Perpich called out the National Guard to quell vandalism of the new towers. Hendrickson, who worked for the state Environmental Quality Board at the time, was part of team that studied whether the line posed a hazard to crops or people. (They concluded it didn't.) Back then, he notes, the issue at hand was not EMF, a product of AC lines such as the southeast metro project, but ozone emanating from conductors on the DC line. In fact, Hendrickson notes, EMF has "never really risen to the top as an issue in Minnesota."

Nationally, the debate over EMF health hazards first surfaced in 1979, when a Denver-based epidemiologist released a controversial study that linked rates of childhood leukemia to proximity to power lines. In ensuing years, thousands of similar inquiries have looked for associations between power-line EMF and everything from breast cancer to depression. The results have been mixed. Some studies have shown "statistically significant" or "robust" correlations between various diseases and proximity to utility wires; many others have not.

Few people have followed the debate more closely, or longer, than Dr. Louis Slesin, editor of the tiny but influential Manhattan-based newsletter Microwave News. "In the early days, everyone thought that this was going to be the next asbestos or tobacco," Slesin observes. "It was the new kid on the block, and then a number of things happened to put it on the map."

 

One of the those things, it turned out, was Slesin's newsletter. His big scoop came in 1990 when he uncovered a draft Environmental Protection Agency report that classified EMF as "a probable human carcinogen." In the final version of the document the characterization had been altered to the far less menacing "possible human carcinogen," and critics alleged a cover-up. In short order, Time was profiling Slesin, television news magazines were airing scary EMF stories, and USA Today released the results of a poll that declared power-line EMF the nation's top environmental concern.

Around the same time, Slesin began feeding some of his findings to Paul Brodeur, an environmental reporter for the New Yorker. Brodeur, who had cut his teeth exposing the carcinogenic effects of asbestos, soon published a series of articles under the title "Annals of Radiation" and followed them up with two provocatively titled books, Currents of Death and The Great Power-Line Cover-Up. His accounts of the Denver study--and subsequent investigations into allegedly power line-related "cancer clusters" in Connecticut and California--suggested a disturbing public-private partnership, a conspiracy between the utilities and the government to conceal a serious public-health hazard.

But over the past decade, the tone of the debate has shifted. Unlike the research into proven carcinogens such as asbestos and tobacco, the case against EMF has failed to mount in any clear direction, a trend that led critics to characterize the controversy as a product of alarmists, practitioners of junk science, and health-panic-oriented media. The mainstream scientific community remains wary--and sometimes contemptuous--of claims about EMF as a major health hazard. "I've been convinced for a fairly long time that epidemiological evidence points to a very, very small effect," says Hendrickson, summarizing the consensus among many of his peers. "But compared to all the other risks you face in life, this is a small one."

An EMF cottage history, however, has lingered. Specialized architects create homes in which electrical wires are carefully routed away from the bedrooms; computer-monitor screens with built-in EMF shields are commonly found in office-supply catalogs. And just last month, a South Korean corporation began selling bras and maternity dresses--the latter under the brand name "Thanks, Mom"--with EMF-blocking copper and nickel alloys woven into the fabric.

Roger Conant remembers reading the Brodeur articles when they first appeared, and becoming somewhat alarmed "because I live under the goddamn line." He called NSP seeking further information; the utility has an EMF hotline, which receives between 100 and 200 calls a year. His concerns, he says, were more or less put to rest--until he learned last April of NSP's planned upgrade.

This time, his interest was more than academic. His wife, Ingrid, had recently been treated for breast cancer, and he began to suspect that the power line had something to do with it. He delved deeply into the literature on the subject, poring over both the medical studies and popular accounts. "I tell people I'm not an expert, but I'm very well read," he says.

What began as a solitary pursuit soon grew into a crusade as Conant cranked out newsletters, built a Web site (powerlines.webjump.com) and spread the word in Sunfish Lake. A few months ago, he handed a copy of Brodeur's "Annals of Radiation" series to his neighbors, Melissa and Michael Proueher.

 

"I don't know if I should show this to you," Melissa Proueher says, clutching a small photo album, a hint of nervousness concealed by a warm and open smile. The album contains a series of pictures, all flat and a little greenish owing to the fluorescent hospital lights under which they were shot. They show a heart monitor with a digital readout, a bedspread with pictures of balloons, and--at the center of it all--a tiny dead fetus, a little over 17 weeks along when he was born prematurely in February 1997.

Proueher, who has given birth to four healthy children ages one to nine, has also suffered five miscarriages in the past decade. The last one was the worst, she says, and her husband took it especially hard. Grief counseling sessions didn't help. "It just kept bringing it all back," Michael says, reclining in an overstuffed leather easy chair in his living room as the couple's children prattle in front of the TV. "And we had to listen to all these stories that were even worse than ours."

The succession of miscarriages was something of a mystery to Melissa's doctors. "They checked me out, and I didn't have anything wrong, nothing hormonal or a weak uterus or anything like that," she says. "They just came to us and said, 'Guys, we have no clue why this happened.'"

 

Melissa's first miscarriage came when the couple was living in a townhome in Woodbury--not far, she recalls now, from an NSP transmission line. About six years ago, with Michael's South St. Paul dental practice thriving, the Prouehers bought a hilly, wooded lot in Sunfish Lake and built their dream home--a 5,200-square-foot, two-story, executive-style contemporary with an enormous family room, a fireplace, and plenty of space for their growing family and two dogs. The southeast metro transmission line passes about 50 feet or so from the master bedroom, plainly visible from the window just beside a big four-poster.

At first the Prouehers gave little thought to the power line. Sure, it didn't look great. But the home and property were otherwise completely to their liking. "This was our first house," Melissa explains, " and we were just excited that we were able to get into Sunfish Lake and everything. We figured if these power lines were here, they had to be safe."

But the couple's confidence in NSP began to crumble after they perused the articles Conant had given them. "It all started to add up," says Michael. "And I know how big business is. They're ultimately in it for the bottom line." Soon the Prouehers were on the phone demanding that their house be checked out for EMF--a service NSP, like many utilities, offers free to its customers. The company dispatched an employee with a gaussmeter, a small, hand-held instrument used to determine the strength of magnetic fields.

The results were surprising--both to the Prouehers and, according to Melissa, to the NSP representative. In the master bedroom, where Melissa and Michael sleep, the readings topped out at about 30 milligauss. Far weaker fields--in the two-to-eight-milligauss range--were implicated in some of the studies Melissa had read about in the New Yorker.

"The NSP guy was real nice and we were having a nice conversation," Melissa recalls, "and so I said, 'Hey, just tell me, what would you think if you were living in a home and you had a reading of, say, 27 milligauss?' And he said, 'I can't tell you anything. I can only say what I've been programmed to say.'" Melissa says she interpreted his response as a subtle sort of warning.

A few months ago, when Melissa found out that she had once again become pregnant (this time with twins), the Prouehers made two decisions. Melissa would no longer sleep in the couple's bedroom; instead she moved to her son Mitchell's room, at the far end of the house. Because magnetic fields decrease quickly over distance, she reasoned the move would lessen her exposure. The couple also put down some money on a lot in Woodbury and made plans to build again. "We feel real torn leaving this place," Melissa sighs, as she peers out the bedroom window at the offending wires. "It just ruined it. I used to think we were going to be here forever."

 

In late June Melissa Proueher paid a visit to the home of her neighbor Roger Conant, who had arranged a meeting with an attorney, Steve Young. A former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate and onetime law-school dean at Hamline University, Young has a taste for quirky cases--for, in his words, "fighting the arrogance of power." Last year Conant and Young collaborated on a case against Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi, the firm that represented Minnesota in its case against Big Tobacco. The lawsuit challenged the enormous legal fees the firm was awarded under the terms of the landmark settlement. (The case, the subject of a City Pages story--"Nicotine Fit," February 3, 1999--was tossed out by a district-court judge. Conant and his fellow plaintiffs have since appealed.

Two other women were present for the meeting; both had learned about Conant's efforts from the newsletter he'd distributed throughout neighboring suburbs. One of them, 68-year-old Sophie Voigt, had suffered seven miscarriages in the 44 years she had lived next door to the power line in South St. Paul. Like Melissa Proueher, Voigt had gotten no explanations of her troubles from her doctor. "He just said, 'You're healthy, try again,'" Voigt recalls. "It was a sad time." She pauses. "It makes you feel that you're not quite right."

The other woman, Ellen Turenne, came to the meeting a month after suffering her first miscarriage. Her husband had become interested in the power line after reading Conant's materials, and he discovered that the previous occupant of their home--which sits about 20 feet from the transmission line--had suffered a spate of miscarriages. Steve McCue, an obstetrician who happens to live in Sunfish Lake, says roughly 20 percent of pregnancies usually result in spontaneous, often unexplained miscarriages.)

 

The women gathered to discuss the possibility of suing NSP in Dakota County District Court on a personal-injury claim. It was, according to Melissa Proueher, an emotional meeting. "Everybody was trying to hold back," she says. "But they had tears in their eyes. It just spun my head."

According to Steve Young, the conclave, though a preliminary one, was appealing from a legal perspective. "Roger was just asking my advice--what facts they'd have to prove," he recalls. "But the more I talked to them, the more I thought, 'They have a reasonable chance.'" The case, Young contends, is "a bread-and-butter corporate liability issue;" additional plaintiffs could be invited as word gets out.

If filed, a lawsuit by the women would venture into uncharted territory. Nationally, no case against a utility over alleged health consequences of EMF exposure has succeeded, says Microwave News' Slesin--though, he adds, some plaintiffs have won settlements in lawsuits charging that power lines hurt property values. (NSP says it has never been sued over EMF.)

Young believes this case is different, however, because the EMF levels in the women's homes are unusually high--in the 30 to 60 milligauss range, he says, far above the typical household levels, which can range from between 0.5 and 4.0 milligauss. He offers an analogy: "Ordinary EMF may not be bad for you, just like one aspirin ain't bad for you. But nobody would say it's okay to take 100 aspirin."

Then again, a lot more is known about aspirin than EMF. Not only do scientists disagree on whether or not the fields are harmful, there is no consensus on whether a classic "dose-response" model (higher exposure equals stronger effects) applies.

That point was driven home in a National Institutes of Health report released in mid-June, shortly after the meeting at St. Anne's in Sunfish Lake. The document--the culmination of a five-year, $60-million research review--summarized both existing research and new studies, concluding that scientific evidence of EMF health risks was "weak" and did not warrant "aggressive regulatory concern."

For utilities such as NSP--and for government agencies, which have taken scant action to reduce EMF exposures--the NIH report represented a vindication of sorts. "It's not an easy subject, and I don't think we have all the final answers," explains John Hynes of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, one of the state agencies that deal with power lines. "But this is by far the most complete examination of the research."

Still, Hynes says, he has sympathy for people alarmed over EMF exposure. Over the past half-century, Americans have grappled with a series of large-scale, somewhat mysterious health hazards--nuclear fallout, pesticide residues in food, lead in drinking water--and in most of those cases, government authorities initially pooh-poohed the danger. For those inclined to suspect that there are more health-hazard revelations to come, notes Hynes, electromagnetic exposure fits the bill: "You can't see it and you can't feel it. It's imposed on you from the outside. Over a period of time, all of that gets worked into the framework of your thinking."

For Conant and his allies on the recently formed Power Line Task Force (formerly the Sunfish Lake Power Line Task Force), the NIH report did offer some toeholds. While generally reassuring in tone, the document did call for additional research--and, Conant points out, recommended that the power industry "continue its current practice of siting power lines to reduce exposures." That clause, he argues, ought to be enough to force NSP to come up with an alternative route--and not the one the utility floated in the environmental assessment worksheet it prepared for the project. That route, like the main proposal, ran by homes in Sunfish Lake, prompting Conant to dismiss it as "not serious."

By and large, the utility's response to Conant's and other residents' objections has been delivered in carefully measured tones. "Anytime we bring a transmission line forward, it's going to be controversial," says NSP senior media representative Mary Heimstead. "So we just plod on through, and comply with all the requirements." For the time being, the utility hopes to begin construction on the project as soon as this fall. Conant and his allies hope to stymie that schedule by demanding that the EQB order an environmental impact statement--a detailed study that could take between six and nine months to complete.

Conant has been searching for other ways to monkey-wrench NSP's plans--arguing, for example, that Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom should investigate NSP for violating a statutory requirement to provide safe power. Earlier this month, he wrote a letter to Backstrom requesting such an inquiry, a gesture he concedes has scant chance of bearing fruit. "It's symbolic," he explains, "but it happens to be true. It's a little bit of throwing bread on the water."

 

On June 30, Conant and about 15 other people--including Ellen Turenne and Sophie Voigt--trekked to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's downtown St. Paul offices to launch their latest offensive--a petition, signed by some 57 residents of Sunfish Lake and South St. Paul, requesting that the PUC immediately order NSP to shut down the southeast metro line. "Extraordinarily high EMF" along the line, they charged, could cause pregnant women like Melissa Proueher to suffer miscarriages.

It was, according to the EQB's Robert Cupit, an unprecedented request. "We haven't had anything quite this controversial in a long time," says Cupit. "[Conant] is very bright, very creative--like a speeding bullet."

As it happened, the PUC commissioners were not meeting that day; the citizens in attendance had come merely to make a statement, and to scare up a little media attention. (The St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a brief story the following day.) After ceremoniously turning the petition over to a secretary, members of the group milled about in the hallway, making introductions, talking, trading stories.

Ellen Turenne recounted details of her recent miscarriage. "It's not a mystery to me," she said with conviction. "I've talked to women all along the line. It's the EMFs." Her husband Joe dissected NSP "propaganda"--to his mind (and to Conant's), the same brand of spin-doctoring inflicted on the public by the tobacco industry. "This company has never shown the slightest concern for the citizens of this state or the environment," he said. "So I have no sympathy for them."

Sophie Voigt was one of the few to express a hint of ambivalence. At 68, she said, she would just as soon have left the memory of her seven miscarriages alone. But she was worried about younger women. Besides, she added, "Roger feels very strongly about it."

After about half an hour, the unlikely rabble-rouser stepped in front of the group. "Most of us who have lived under the lines have suffered illnesses, or one of our relations has suffered an illness, that is associated with high levels of EMF," he said in a patrician diction that seemed to conceal the stridency of the message. "We believe that this is a health crisis that must be addressed in the short term. Before we lose more babies, and more children become deathly ill."

With that, the believers shuffled down the hallway and headed back to their cars, back to their homes, back to the menacing lines.


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