Farmers Topple Towers: Powerline Assaults the Prairie

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Farmers Topple Towers: Powerline Assaults the Prairie

by Alice Tripp

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 12, No. 5, September-October 1980, p. 19-21 & 33

Alice Tripp is a farmer and protester from Central Minnesota. She and her husband John, farm 200 acres in Stearns County. They have been active in the protest against the CU powerline for several years. They have been arrested, gone to jail. and have entered electoral politics. Ms. Tripp and Mike Casper, Physics Professor from Carleton College, ran in the democratic primary in 1978 and got 20% of the vote against the populist governor, Rudie Perpich. They are still fighting the powerline and the powers that continue to try to ignore and divide people. They are active in alliances with groups across the country trying to run their own lives. 


As technology advances and expands, the people who live with it have a right to require that new techniques be proven safe and beneficial. The disruptive results of a general disregard for the average person, who lives in the shadow of an atomic plant or under the legs of a giant transmission tower, are common. Techniques inadequately tested and politically railroaded should not withstand the protests of the ordinary person who refuses to accept them. Protesting citizens may be afraid of technological uncertainties or may be simply defending their workplace and home against the encroachment of the advancing technological business world. 

Who is right, the scientist, financed by corporations, or the person in the street? Einstein said that these decisions must be made in the village square. Why do we accept Einstein’s formulas and reject his philosophy? 


In West Central Minnesota, local farmers have been opposing an electrical transmission line for over four years. The resistance dates back to the very first information meeting staged by the utilities. The public relations person for the utility company said at the meeting, “You should be proud to have the biggest powerline in the world in your country.” but the farmers felt differently. They did not want the world’s biggest powerline running over their carefully tended fields. As they began to oppose the line, they discovered unanswered questions about the health effects of high voltage transmission lines, and they ran into the stone-wall of government-corporate collusion. They also discovered resistance to powerlines all across the country and around the world. They began to form alliances and develop a new political sensitivity and awareness. 

Together with other local people, the farmers have tried to use every ligitimate legal and political channel to make known to the utility company, the government  and the public their determination to save the land and to maintain safety in their workplaces. The farmers and their urban supporters have been met with indifference and arrogance by both the utility and the government. Turned away at the state capitol, they have taken their case to the courts again and again, only to be rebuffed. The courts have admitted that the state agencies have not abided by the law, but in each case the courts have ruled against the farmers.

Now the line is completed but the farmers still oppose it. Indeed, after a brief electrical testing period during which the farmers could hear and feel the intensity of the electric fields on their bodies as well as on their telephones and TV sets, the resistance stiffened. People who were stationed under the line reported that they felt sensations like cobwebs on their skin, or tingling. Reports also circulated that nosebleeds and rashes were common under the line. Six miles of underground telephone company connections were completely disrupted by the testing. Farmers have made it clear that they do not want to live with these hazards.

Who can blame farmers for shooting out insulators on towers which have been erected in their fields against their will? When government officials from the governor and his appointees to the elected legislators say to the citizens, “There’s nothing I can do,” the law-abiding, hard-working people lose respect for government and the courts. 

The Utility Company 

Thirty-four small rural electrical co-ops (R.E.C.) form two utility conglomerates, United Power Association (U.P.A.) and Cooperative Power Association (C.P.A.). The powerline is a project of these co-ops. 

Most of the protesting farmers are members of the rural electrical co-ops. They realized, however, that as co-op members, they were only invited to an annual meeting where they received free lunches and door prizes. The members never knew that the powerline was being planned until equipment and supplies had been purchased. These “sunken costs” were so great that the government and courts were convinced that the process should not be stopped or reversed. 

The powerline is under the jurisdiction of the Rural Electrification Administration (R.E.A.) which is part of the Federal Department of Agriculture. The R.E.A. is entering into partnerships with private utilities. This means that the electric utilities can get Federally guaranteed funds without responsibility. This kind of collusion promotes mismanagement, which in the present case, has raised the cost of the project from the original $536 million to $1.2 billion, according to a study done by Barry Associates.1 

C.P.A. and U.P.A. have two large law firms working for them who provide highly paid and skilled lobbyists. Utility lobbyists write the laws; and according to one of them, they sit on the governor’s desk. The needs of the citizens are secondary when weighed against the demands of economic growth, more accurately called profit growth. 

The Powerline 

The generating plant in North Dakota, using lignite for fuel, is scheduled to generate 1000 Megawatts. The powerline is designed to transmit electricity as direct current (dc) from Underwood, North Dakota to Delano, Minnesota. In North Dakota, alternating current (ac) will be generated. Expensive Swedish converters transform the power to de and back to ac at Delano Minnesota where it will be distributed to Minnesota customers and the Mid-continent Area Power pool (M.A.P.P.) power grid. 

The towers supporting the 1 1/2 -inch diameter conductor lines are 150-180 feet high and are placed approximately every 1/4 mile. Towers are set in the middle of fields, sometimes as close to homes as 300 feet and even closer to farm buildings. 

The line has been routed often diagonally, across prime farmland, and routed away from lower-grade farmland where corporate farms have installed dozens of irrigation systems, and routed away from wildlife areas and state lands. 

References to the possible dangers of high voltage transmission lines occur in many articles on energy. The few studies which have been made, such as those by Dr. Marino from Syracuse, show damage to the central nervous system and changes in blood chemistry from exposure to electrical fields like those produced by high voltage lines. 

The Government 

The state government could not answer the farmers when they protested against the line, the secretive process, and the route of the line. When the farmers went to the state capitol in caravans of busses and cars, they were met only with shoulder-shrugging “nothing-I-can-do” attitudes. The process had been pushed through, and a new power plant siting act had been written and manipulated. A certificate of need for the powerline was granted before the farmers knew what was happening. 

Minnesota Governor Rudie Perpich became involved after all the state regulatory processes were completed but before construction of the line had begun. In response to the active, well-publicized protest, he did go out to the farmers’ homes and talked to them. His only solution was to propose a “science court” He brought a New Yorker to Minnesota from the American Arbitration Association to describe to the farmers the science court. The court would discuss health and safety issues but would not have any legal power. Construction would continue, and by the time the court had come up with its findings, the line would be up. The farmers would be required to stop their protesting while the court was conducting its findings. Though no concessions were promised by the government, the farmers agreed to a science court if a moratorium on construction was implemented. The farmers wanted an inquiry into many aspects of the powerline. The utility company, however, did not agree to the moratorium and the court was never convened. 

The “Science Court” 

In August 1978, the American Bar Association invited representatives from the Governor’s Office and Alice Tripp, a protesting farmer to address their technology section on the science court. Most of the participants in the discussion were scientists. There was general agreement that the court does not provide for sufficient input from the people. It was the consensus of this group that the science court, as conceived, would not work because it was imposed on people by the authorities. Also, scientific conclusions are not arrived at easily; they require discourse. When that discourse involves lay people and becomes a subject of discussion in the streets and fields, it becomes as Professor Earl Callen of American University said, “the beautiful music of democracy,” not the babble of ignorance. Participants in the meeting largely agreed that people should have more voice in decisions that affect their lives. 

The Protests of the Farmers 

The farmers continued their protests as construction of the line proceeded. They hindered the work of the surveyors. They drove tractors in front of transits and barricaded vehicles. The farmers gathered daily to discuss new ideas such as digging up a township road so workers and the sheriff could not get to the site. They shot off insulators and toppled towers and the utilities became concerned that they would never be able to energize the lines. As the utility replaced one fallen tower, another came down. Thirteen towers have been taken down. The utilities have hired a security company to locate the so-called “vandals”. The reward for information has been increased to $100,000, but there have been no takers. Some county officials and townships cooperated with the protesting farmers. In all their actions they never hurt anyone. 

Governor Perpich resorted to force to guarantee the completion of the project. He sent out 150 highway patrolmen. These state troopers, acting as company police force, made 100 arrests in the winter of 1978 on charges of “obstructing legal process”. After the line was completed, all the charges were dropped with a few exceptions. 

Technology and the Land 

The technology of the powerline is new and the dangers are unknown. Some of these probably dangers arise from electric fields, ions and noise produced by the high voltage lines. One is told that all metal buildings and fences near the line must be grounded. School buses should not discharge passengers under high voltage lines. One should not refuel equipment under the powerlines. The state health department issued a report which could not assure the safety of the line: it said that too little is known about the hazards to stop construction. However, Dr. Petersen, a representative on an inspection tour, admitted that something is wrong; and further investigation is planned. Farmers will demand that this promise be fulfilled. 

In addition to health and safety hazards, large towers in fields are a hindrance to farming. Though utilities have not used defoliants in Minnesota as they have in New York, they have destroyed the tillability of the earth under the lines. This easement may become a road, dividing up the fields. Large towers, forty feet on a side, obstruct farm machinery. Center pivot irrigation is impeded. The line produces noise which is foreign to the countryside. 

To people who love and care for the land, a transmission line of this size is a desecration. People who once felt they lived in a democratic society feel they have been betrayed and no longer control their own lives. They have been left out of decisions affecting them. They known the need for this line was never proven, and they know there are alternatives which could be safer for everyone. 

People can no longer accept technology that is based on the “GNP syndrome”, pushing always for bigger and bigger. Technology based on profit cannot ride over people in the name of expansion. For example, the solutions to the energy problems do not lie in more and bigger generators and transmission lines. Solar energy in all its forms is at our doorstep. As Ann Fuchs, farmer from Minnesota said, “If we can go to the moon, surely we can find ways to produce energy without destroying the land.” 

Land is our most precious resource, next to people. Technology can be used to save the land and enhance living on it, rather than turning our fields into industrial pathways. Native Americans believe wisely that the earth is our mother. She must be saved and protected, not just for ourselves, but for those who are yet to come. Technology should be directed towards saving the earth not destroying it. 


The farmers are still meeting and protesting the powerline even though it is in operation. The state is conducting a survey on powerline health and safety, which is one of the major concerns of the farmers. For more information contact: General Assembly to Stop the Powerline, Lowry Minnesota, 56349. #(612) 283-5439. 


>> Back to Vol. 12, No. 5 <<


  1. pg 20 *Minneapolis Tribune, March 6, 1979, p. 1.