Power line controversy spans the St. Croix River

TAYLORS FALLS, Minn. (AP) — Public hearings begin this week on a proposed high-voltage power line that would transmit electricity from Minnesota across the scenic St. Croix River to Wisconsin.
Northern States Power Co. and Dairyland Power Cooperative have applied for permission to build a 230-kilovolt line that would cross the river at one of three locations near Taylors Falls and St. Croix Falls, Wis.
NSP says the $46 million project is critical to meet the energy demands in the northwest quadrant of Wisconsin, especially in the Ashland area.
“This has the potential to be a serious public-safety problem if we don’t meet those needs,” Jim Alders, NSP’s manager of regulatory projects said. “People relying on electricity in winter — if they don’t have it — is a serious problem. That’s the issue, as far as we’re concerned.”
Northern Wisconsin does not have an adequate backup system to provide electricity if any part of the existing transmission system fails, he said, other than to cut off some customers so the entire system doesn’t crash.
Opponents say NSP has overstated the need, that there are other ways to upgrade service without building a major line across a designated national scenic riverway, and that the companies’ primary motivation is to sell more electricity to eastern Wisconsin.
“We don’t want some big corporation coming in here with a big fix and condemning our property just so they can make more money,” said Todd Bergerson, president of Concerned River Valley Citizens Inc., a grass-roots group formed two years ago to oppose the project.
The Chisago Project, as it’s called, is a 38-mile power line that would link a substation in Chisago County near North Branch with another substation in Polk County near Amery, Wis.
A public meeting in Dresser, Wis., two weeks ago drew 150 citizens, many of whom denounced the project.
Some citizens want no power line. Others say it should be built under the river instead of overhead. Still others say the need for electricity near Ashland will be solved largely because a power line has already been approved between Ashland and Hayward, Wis.
Those concerns will be voiced during the next two weeks of hearings, which will be held in Center City and Lindstrom. The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board will conduct the hearings.
Tom Martin, who lives near Lindstrom and near NSP’s preferred power-line route, questioned why Minnesota ratepayers should pay for the power line, since Wisconsin customers will receive almost all of the benefits.
“First of all, we have to build the lines for them, and then they buy the cheap power from us,” he said. “It seems an unfair burden to place upon NSP ratepayers.”
Others opponents are concerned that a large power line would detract from the beauty of the St. Croix valley. Alders said an underground line is technically feasible but would add $4 million to $15 million in costs and would be much harder to maintain and repair.
After the hearings, it will take at least another month for an administrative law judge to make a recommendation to the Environmental Quality Board.
It’s not certain yet whether the final decision will be made by the current board, made up of Gov. Arne Carlson’s appointees, or by a different board that a new governor will appoint next year. Wisconsin and federal regulators also must make decisions, and those will extend well into 1999.