Nobody wants a utility company to build power lines across their land—few are willing to douse themselves in pig shit, spray state troopers with ammonia, or use high-powered rifles to splice overhead wires. These are some of the more extreme tactics described in Powerline: The First Battle in America’s Energy War (1981).
This particular powerline (used as one word throughout the text) was a 400kv DC transmission line designed to bring electricity from the Coal Creek generating station in central North Dakota across 430-miles of farmland to the suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Authors Paul Wellstone and Barry Casper highlight the citizens who fought against the CU Project in community meetings, courtrooms, and their own backyards. They open by noting that, contrary to most Americans who see power lines as “just a fact of life,” these Minnesota farmers view the CU power line as “a symbol of America’s willingness to sacrifice its rural citizens to feed a gluttonous hunger for energy” (3). From 1974 to 1976, the farmers fought the line in local planning meetings and other formal channels. When those efforts failed, they took to the fields. Between 1976 and 1978, 120 people were arrested on various accounts ranging from trespassing and civil disobedience to assault (286).
HVDC Crossover of the CU Line in North Dakota
The overall argument of Powerlines is that US Energy Policy was (and continues to be) on a “collision course” with rural America. The Rural Electrification Act of 1935 provided monies to help bring electricity to farms across the nation. During the 60s, investor-owned utilities (IOUs) created partnerships with public cooperatives and were able to use these partnerships to gain second-hand access to cheap federal loans. Meanwhile, concerns about the damage caused by electrification led federal and state legislatures to pass bills such as the Environmental Quality Act and the Power Plant Siting Act. By 1973, however, a global oil crisis provided further incentive for the U.S. to rely more heavily on its coal resources (At that time, coal only accounted for about 30% of electric generation, today it is closer to 50%). Utility companies became eager to capitalize on breakthroughs in strip mining and advances in the transmission of high voltage DC current (Most transmission lines operate on AC).
A fight was brewing, but strong economic and political voices drowned out the citizens’ calls to protect valuable farmland, study potential health risks, or the create policies that would conserve electricity by decreasing use and demand rather than centralize and increase supply. The CU Project, a state-of-the-art, partially-government-funded private enterprise was practically streaming across the countryside, ready to earn profits (on the rate-payers dime) by the time the plan was presented to the public.
Wellstone and Casper don’t bore the reader with too many details about the labyrinthine procedures involved in planning and approving a powerline, but they do offer enough insight to suggest that major decisions about this line happened before the public caught wind and, after the public resisted, behind closed-doors. The focus is on the transformation of a few dozen conservative citizens into active protestors, individuals who left their farms and traveled into a strange world of planning committees and political lobbies to have their voices heard.
These residents “put their lives on the line” both metaphorically and literally. One of the first to be arrested was Virgil Fuchs, a resident of Stearns County involved from the beginning and known for tape-recording every encounter (xi). On June 8, 1976, Fuchs became outraged when he saw company workers on his land. Using his tractor as a battering ram, Fuchs destroyed a surveyor’s tripod and dented a company pick up truck before the workers fled for their lives (136). Years later, Fuchs said if he could do it over, he would have “went to one damn public hearing and sent into the public record telling them that you put that line across our farm and I am going to take care every last one of you guys” (151).
While Fuchs may look and sound like a rural Hunter S. Thompson, he was not the only protestor who, in hindsight, would have abandoned the courts in favor of more violent measures. Jim Nelson later said, “I don’t think it done a bit of good for farmers to go to the courts; I think we could have just as well save our money and got violent as hell. If you want to stop the line, that’s the way to stop it. If it ever happens again…there’s only one thing to do and that’s get violent as hell” (177).
Over the long term, neither side seemed to know where and when to stop the violence. Alice Tripp (a farmer who went on to make a surprisingly strong run for Governor) was arrested on Jan 3, 1978. When she refused to walk to the police car she was carried across a snow-swiped field by four highway patrolmen. She later explained ¨John [her husband] said he saw me from across the field with my head bobbing along and was quite alarmed…It was a symbolic thing. We hoped eventually to get a whole crowd arrested…¨ (201). This arrest galvanized the resistance and produced specials that aired on the CBS and NBC evening news.
With the entire nation watching and no solution in sight, the protests steered towards a dangerous precipice.
In March, 8,000 people marched approximately nine miles from the town of Lowry to the town of Glenwood. The massive movement made national headlines. The majority seemed ready to embrace the farmers’ cause. Nine days later, a driveby shooting outside a powerline assembly yard in Pope County left a windshield shattered and a security guard injured. Public opinion turned.
After the spring of 1978, the heated assemblies, arrests, and acts of civil disobedience waned, but 430-miles was impossible for the utility company to defend. As the metallic cables, glass insulators, and steel towers went up, “bolt weevils” and “wire worms” (i.e. rifle bullets) brought them crashing down. This began an “unprecedented phase of guerrilla warfare” through the western half of the state (4). At first, protestors merely shot the insulators and unloosed the bolts at the base of the towers. Then they discovered how to bring the towers down.
Fourteen of these “monsters” were slayed between 1978 and 1980. By Sept 9, 1980, the utilities who built the line—Cooperative Power Association and United Power Association—had had enough. They officially requested that the Rural Electricity Association assume ownership of the line so that local authorities could get the help of FBI agents and a federal grand jury to arrest and convict tower vandals of federal crimes (287).
Almost thirty years after this “first” battle of America’s energy war, the grassroots resistance movement documented in Powerlines still resonates. Here are a few connections between the CU line in Minnesota and the TRTP in Chino Hills.
1) “Scientific” siting procedures and Environmental Impact Reports are ineffective.
-When siting the CU line, planners assigned each square mile on a map of Minnesota with a numerical number to create a grid. Airfields, state parks, and federal land were excluded entirely with an X: State lands rated 5, interstate highways: 4, forest land: 3, farms land: 0. The planners tried to site the line across the map by connecting low numbers. In the end, the utilities used eminent domain to take the land they needed from farmers, sometimes cutting diagonally across their land.
-For the TRTP, SoCal Edison stressed the need to use existing right of ways. The company has owned a 150-foot ROW through Chino Hills for almost 50 years. The courts decided SCE had a legal right to use their right of way, but it is not clear why they’d risk building a line with such high voltage and tall towers so close to homes and schools when they could have selected a route through Chino Hills State Park (which already has many miles of power lines both active and inactive). The EIR provides few answers. It realizes that residents would be negatively impacted by the line and acknowledges “moderate to high” levels of visual impact would result. Of course, a year after the route was approved through Chino Hills and SCE started erecting the towers, the California Public Utilities Commission realized the visual impact was not only high, but extreme. After almost two years and millions of dollars spent on legal battles, the only options are under-grounding the line (at huge costs) or keeping the towers in place. It seems that this impasse could have been avoided if SCE had done a better job weighing the different options available.
2) Perceptions studies and public relations efforts are lacking or non-existent.
-After the debacle surrounding the CU line, one utility executive explained: “It is the responsibility of the utility industry to go out and invest the up-front dollars in what…we call exploratory and environmental scanning. And that’s not the physical environment; that’s the social human environment out there” (300).
-In 1993, an International Electric Transmission Perception Project (IETPP) was created through a collaborative agreement by British Columbia Hydro, Bonneville Power Administration, Electricité de France, Hydro-Québec, and Southern California Edison (the same utility now embroiled one of the biggest powerline fights since the CU Line). The IETPP was designed to gather “research-based information on how persons living near existing electric transmission lines perceive line impacts, and use this information to develop guidelines for planning, designing, siting and evaluating new and upgraded transmission lines and to strengthen the development of public involvement programs for such projects.” In 1996, the IETPP published a book including extensive reviews of existing literature about perceptions of powerlines, but the research program they outlined has yet to be completed. Its not clear if SCE actually examined the research they funded and, if they did have a “public involvement program,” in Chino Hills, it certainly failed.
3) The protestor’s message is increasingly mediated by technology.
-Farmers in Minnesota published their own newspaper (Hold That Line) and kept in contact through telephone and CB radio. They used CB radio to mobilize and, whenever a surveyor was spotted in a field, a group of angry and disruptive farmers was not far behind.
-Hope for the Hills has an email list, a newsletter, an impressive web-page with tons of information, numerous videos on Youtube, and stunning, unforgettable T-shirts. (I also imagine they coordinate protest efforts with SMS or Twitter)
Essentially, Powerlines and the ongoing conflict in Chino Hills are about large government subsidies, failed regulatory procedures, and expensive, drawn out, unreasonable bureaucracy turning normally peaceful, law-abiding citizens into political activists. Both stories are also about grassroots activism and “the power of the people” to defend themselves against unwanted powerlines- lets hope the parallels end there, and the people of Chino Hills won’t feel compelled to get “violent as hell.”
*My reaction to the latest news about negotiations to underground the contentious segment of the TRTP will appear in a post later this week…