HIGH TENSION UP NORTH:
Citizens group, utilities dig in for fight over 240-mile power
by Lee Hawkins Jr.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Jan. 7, 2001 front page
Tomahawk - Tom Kreager remembers that Saturday clearly: He looked across
his wooded 43 acres as he drove from his driveway and was startled to
see a stranger walking the land. The man told Kreager he was a surveyor
for Wisconsin Public Service Corp. He said he was marking the property
for a 240-mile electrical line the company was planning to build between
Wausau and Duluth, Minn. Kreager couldn't believe it. The thought of 150-foot-tall
electrical towers and a huge power line slicing through his land near
Mosinee angered him. What made him madder was that he knew nothing about
"They never even contacted me to tell me they were coming," he said.
That chance encounter two years ago led Kreager to form what has become
one of the best funded and most organized protest groups ever in Wisconsin.
Save Our Unique Lands is now fighting a bitter war in the North Woods
with WPS and its partner, Minnesota Power Inc., over the line.
The utilities, most businesses and even some groups that traditionally
oppose the power companies argue that a new source of electricity is crucial
to the state's economic viability. Wisconsin's power grid is fragile,
they argue, and this power line - a superhighway to transport electricity
from Minnesota and beyond - is a vital element of any plan to shore up
the system. They have at least the tacit support of Gov. Tommy G. Thompson.
But the utilities are fighting more than just a passionate group of
residents who want nothing to do with a power line in their backyards.
They also are fighting Wisconsin's tradition of conservation and state
residents' almost mythic love for their treasured North Woods.
A state Public Service Commission decision on the project is expected
this spring or summer. Hearings began last week to help determine its
Group has 2,500 members
As Kreager learned more about the project, he contacted some of his
fellow North Woods residents. Together, they formed SOUL in 1999 with
Kreager as president. The group now has more than 2,500 members, with
about 1,000 subscribers to the newsletter it publishes monthly. It also
has hundreds of non-members who contribute money but don't show up on
its membership rolls.
The top executive at WPS acknowledged that SOUL is a formidable opponent.
"In America, grass-roots campaigns tend to have a lot of clout, and
SOUL has had quite an impact," said Larry Weyers, chairman and chief executive
officer of WPS. "But the overriding concern here is that the state needs
additional import capacity. And regardless of the feelings of any constituents
in the state, the line has to be built someplace."
SOUL's strategy includes the courtroom. Its lawyers said they will file
court challenges to stop or impede the process if necessary. WPS and Minnesota
Power say they are prepared to stay in the fight if it shifts from the
regulators to the courts.
"We are concerned that they will try to hold it up and delay it in the
courts," Weyers said. "But we believe the state of Wisconsin needs additional
transmission, and we will do whatever is necessary to push it forward."
But as Alliant Energy Corp. learned in 1998, such fights can be bruising.
The Madison-based utility and SkyGen Energy LLC of Northbrook, Ill.,
announced plans that year to build a 450-megawatt power plant near
the village of Rockdale in eastern Dane County. An environmental group
known by its acronym, RURAL, managed to keep the project tied up in the
courts for more than a year. A Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling eventually
allowed the project to move forward.
"It can be an effective strategy," said David Helbach, director of corporate
affairs for Alliant. "The RockGen facility was held up not by the PSC
or the Legislature, but by court actions."
Health, environmental concerns
For many SOUL members, fighting the line is an emotional experience.
Some are defending their property; others the environment or their view
of what the North Woods should be.
Property owners believe the line will significantly diminish the value
of their land. They also are concerned over reports that living near such
lines and their electromagnetic fields can increase the chances of developing
leukemia and other cancers or cause other health problems. That those
reports are disputed does not diminish the concern.
If built, the line would cross dozens of rivers and streams, including
such scenic rivers as the Chippewa, Flambeau, Namekagon, St. Croix and
Wisconsin. To some, these waterways and the vast stretches of forest lining
the North Woodsare priceless.
Sylvia Wollemann watches nature unfold on the 120 acres of land her
grandfather settled in Brantwood 100 years ago.
"These acres are all forest and wetland," Wollemann said. "There has
been no development on these parcels, mostly because of the wetland areas
that make it practically impossible to access except on foot."
Kreager, SOUL's leader, has lived in the North Woods his whole life.
He built his home from the trees on his land. He cuts wood for his stove
and taps the maples each spring for syrup.
Kreager said many of SOUL's members share similar stories, and they
frequently swap them online. The Internet is an integral part of the group's
strategy. SOUL has a Web site, wakeupwisconsin.com, and its members rely
heavily on faxes and e-mails to communicate.
SOUL also has a fair amount of money. To help fight the project, the
group asked the PSC for $320,393 from a state fund that allows parties
in cases before the commission to hire experts. The agency awarded the
group $150,000 and $54,411 to retain Madison lawyer Ed Garvey's firm,
records show. It was the largest award the PSC has ever issued in a lump
When it authorized the award, the agency estimated that a reasonable
attorney's fee would be about $120 an hour. SOUL raised the extra funds,
mainly through individual contributions, to hire Garvey at a rate of about
$180 an hour.
Big-money battle brewing
Despite the war chest, some SOUL members feel outgunned.
"This comes down to money and power," said Barb Finkelson, a landowner
from Abbotsford. "Whoever has the most of each is going to prevail."
If that's true, SOUL will lose. Even with its strong support, the group
is no match for the money and power that WPS and Minnesota Power are willing
"We have certainly dedicated more resources to getting people to understand
the need for this project than we would have had that not been necessary,"
said WPS' Weyers. "The efforts of our lobbyists have certainly aided in
getting the word out to legislators."
All told, WPS spent $166,158 in lobbying fees in the state between January
1999 and December 2000, according to the Wisconsin State Ethics Board.
The company likely is paying substantially more than SOUL for attorney's
fees. Sources familiar with the billing rates of Foley & Lardner, the
firm representing WPS, estimated that Foley typically would charge $300
to $350 an hour. WPS also has contributed to the election coffers of key
politicians. Since 1991, WPS or its employees have given $12,425 to Thompson,
according to campaign finance reports filed with the Wisconsin State Elections
Board. Of that number, $250 came directly from WPS, and the remainder
came from individual employees, records show.
In total, WPS and individual employees of the company have contributed
$29,456 to Wisconsin politicians since 1991.
Thompson openly supported the project before it became a hot-button
issue in the North Woods. Over the past few months, as widespread opposition
from landowners grew louder, he has declined to discuss his position.
Privately, sources say, he remains a supporter. Thompson appointed all
three members of the PSC: Chairwoman Ave Bie, Joe Mettner and John Farrow.
Many opponents of the line believe the PSC will rubber-stamp the project
as a result.
In addition, longtime Thompson aide Bill McCoshen, who left state government
in 1998, is on the WPS team.
With Thompson leaving for a job in the Bush administration, attention
now turns to Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum, who will take Thompson's place.
While McCallum has not taken a public position on the line, his concern
about the shortage of electricity in Wisconsin makes him a likely backer,
supporters of the line believe.
"I believe that McCallum understands the need for this line," Weyerssaid.
Through a spokeswoman, McCallum declined to be interviewed, saying he
didn't have the time because of state budget briefings.
WPS also has picked up the backing of some North Woods' businesses.
Nicolet Hardwoods, of Leona, struggled for years with sporadic power,
said Peter Connor, junior vice president at the company.
"Every time the heat gets above 80 degrees in Ohio, Minnesota or Chicago,
we have to worry about whether our power is going to be shut off here,"
Connor said. "Without good power, it's almost like living in a Third World
country up here."
Connor said the North Woods has become increasingly attractive as a
retirement area, and people continue to live as they lived in the city.
"Back in the old days it was unheard of for people to have air conditioning
in their cabins. Now it's common," Connor said. "It's time that people
realize that they are part of the problem, not the solution. The whole
idea that this is a conspiracy to pave over the North Woods is ridiculous.
All we are asking for is some consistent power."
One key member of Thompson's cabinet - the state's chief environmental
regulator - is dissenting. George Meyer, secretary of the state Department
of Natural Resources, said he is against the line as proposed.
PSC hearings heated
While frequently framing the battle as the little guy vs. the moneyed
interests, SOUL also has complained loudly that the PSC hearings in November
and December were unfair to typical property owners. The PSC changed its
process for the transmission lines hearings, under the guidance of Ed
Marion, a former state Justice Department attorney who also served as
chief of staff for Thompson.
For the first time, the PSC allowed citizens to submit their comments
in writing, but those who did so had to be willing to answer questions
from the opposing side's attorneys. The questions are typically used by
attorneys to discredit or clarify the testimony of their opponents' witnesses,
Having that opportunity is important, because PSC commissioners are
expected to read about 3,000 pages of documents from the hearings before
they make their final decision, the lawyers say. The commissioners attended
some of the hearings, but missed most of the testimony during the two-week
period. The new rules produced some heated exchanges, some of which neatly
summed up the battle now joined in the North Woods. One such encounter
took place in Rhinelander on Nov. 28 after 78-year-old Lola Strong said
she opposed the line. Strong said she had seen research concluding that
electromagnetic fields from such lines have the potential to cause cancer.
After her testimony, Trevor Will of Milwaukee law firm Foley & Lardner,
who represents Wisconsin Public Service, said he wanted to cross-examine
"Are you a physician?" he asked.
After a few seconds of silence, she shot back: "No, I am not. I am just
a grandma trying to keep the environment in shape in the North Woods."