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In the 1970s, some Minnesota farmers were very upset about a plan to route power lines across their fields

Even after the towers for the power line were installed, they were targets for vandalism.

photo of powerlines across farm field
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Power line over Minnesota farmland, undated. Minnesota Powerline Oral History Project (OH 25). Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
The construction of a high-voltage power line across west-central Minnesota in the 1970s created a dispute about land use and energy needs that pitted farmers against large utilities and governmental agencies. The farmers began their opposition to the line by appearing at governmental hearings and in court proceedings. When those methods proved unsuccessful, protesters employed more confrontational methods.

Cooperative Power Association (CPA) and United Power Association (UPA) were utilities that distributed electricity to rural electrical cooperatives, which sold the electricity to consumers in about two-thirds of Minnesota. In the early 1970s, CPA and UPA determined that they needed more sources of electricity to meet the growing demands of their members. CPA and UPA decided to buy power generated by a Coal Creek Station to be built near Underwood, North Dakota, next to a coal mine. The electricity would be transmitted by a high-voltage line that crossed Minnesota from Traverse County to Wright County. From Wright County, the power would be transmitted to local cooperatives.

image of anti-powerline political button
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Anti-power-line button made by Continental Press Inc. of St. Cloud, ca. 1975–1987.
CPA and UPA planned a 400-kilovolt (kV) direct-current line more than 400 miles long, about 170 miles of which would be in Minnesota. The line would be supported by towers about 180 feet high with about four towers per mile. Because of the rural nature of the route, the power line would inevitably affect farmland. In some places, the line would go along property boundaries, but in others, the line would cut diagonally across fields under cultivation.

Organized opposition to the project began in Pope and Grant Counties. In the summer and fall of 1974, residents appeared at meetings of county planning commissions and boards that were considering the requests of CPA and UPA for permits to build the power line. In the face of citizen opposition to the power line, the counties denied or deferred the permit requests. Farmers who spoke at these meetings objected to being forced to allow what they considered to be large, ugly structures to mar the land they had farmed for many years. More concretely, they complained that the power line’s planners overstated the need for electricity, the towers would interfere with irrigation systems, and the wires would make aerial spraying dangerous. Some opponents of the line also expressed fears that such a high voltage could have adverse health effects on livestock and humans. For example, it was argued, the line could create excessive ozone or ion levels as well as a risk of shock to people working under the line.

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After several counties began considering the requests for construction permits, the Minnesota Environmental Quality Council (MEQC) assumed jurisdiction of the power-line approval process pursuant to a then-new Minnesota Power Plan Siting Act, taking the matter out of the hands of local authorities. After holding public hearings, the MEQC rejected the allegations of harmful health effects and ruled that construction of the power line could proceed. This decision and a related decision of the Minnesota Energy Agency were upheld by a three-judge panel and the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The small sheriffs’ departments of several affected counties said they were unable to control the situation and requested state help. In January 1978, Governor Rudy Perpich ordered that 175 state troopers be made available to control protests in Pope County. Arrests and violent confrontations ensued, including an incident in which protesters sprayed ammonium fertilizer on state troopers.

Once the towers and lines were installed, they became targets of vandalism. At least 9,500 insulators were shot out. Vandals found that they could cause towers to fall to the ground by cutting tower legs. From August 1978 through August 1983, sixteen towers were toppled.

The power line began commercial operation on August 1, 1979. Opposition activities declined but did not immediately end. Litigation about the power line continued into the 1980s.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.