Rural Midwesterners Stand Up to Power Monopoly

- By Carl Sack

As American capitalism continues to expand and exhaust itself, it sacrifices the living conditions of more sectors of the working class and the remaining integrity of the environment. Corporate profits can be the only goal, and nothing else is sacred. But when the destructive force of capitalism collides with the lives of ordinary people, it can galvanize even the least political into solidarity and decisive action.

This has occurred in seemingly the least likely of places: rural Minnesota and Wisconsin. The issue is the Arrowhead-Weston power line, a proposed 350,000-volt transmission line intended to be built between Gillam, Manitoba and Wasau, Wisconsin. The line would cut diagonally across northern Minnesota, through Duluth and across northern Wisconsin. In its path are forests, lakes, wetlands, farms and communities, all of which it would greatly harm. The Line has been characterized by environmentalists in the two states as the most environmentally destructive project ever undertaken in either of them.

When such high-voltage power lines cross an area, they radiate a great deal of ambient energy--enough to cause an 80-decibel crackling sound. This static spreads into the ground, and flows into the bodies of anything not insulated from the ground, including animals, trees and people. This electromagnetic radiation has been shown to retard tree growth, decrease wildlife populations, decrease livestock productivity, and cause or aggravate a myriad of diseases in people living nearby, including Alzheimers, leukemia and other cancers. It also makes farmers unable to work their land for fear of being electrocuted by the machines they use or having combustible materials explode.

Because of these effects, the high-voltage line would make adjacent property values practically worthless and wreck the livelihoods of hundreds of the region's residents. But despite the bourgeois powers behind the Arrowhead-Weston Line having tried numerous ways of keeping the rural landowners isolated and acquiescent (including bribery, propaganda and misinformation), the people decided to band together and fight back. In 1999, Wisconsin landowners and concerned citizens formed the group Save Our Unique Lands (SOUL). The group has united workers, farmers, students and small business owners in solidarity to fight the power line.

The group has been holding highly-attended community meetings and rallies and lobbying government officials against the Line. They have had little effect on the politicians (most of whom have ties to the energy industry), but have built up a tremendous base of grassroots support. On February 29, SOUL held a protest which drew about 75 people to a rural property in Midway Township, just south of Duluth, MN. Despite overwhelming public opposition to the Line, the power company has already begun to build footings for its new towers there.

"When we started out five years ago, we were very naieve," said SOUL organizer Mark Liebaert at the February 29 protest. "We thought, if we just work through the legal process, the project would be exposed as unnecessary and it would come to an end." But the reality has turned out much different, and has been a very radicalizing process for the members of SOUL. Locals were soon educated in the ways of the American bourgeoisie, as they learned that the building of the Line had little to do with increasing Wisconsin's power supply, and everything to do with capitalism. A SOUL pamphlet declares, "Dealing with us was merely an unavoidable bump in the road to greater corporate profits. We began to see that the sweatshop workers of Southeast Asia and the farmers of northern Wisconsin were perhaps not so very different after all."

While regional power companies, led by their monopolistic puppet corporation the American Transmission Company, claim that the line is needed to increase the reliability of Wisconsin's power supply, SOUL activists see it as something much different. "The line is [being built] so that the captains of industry down in Milwaukee and Chicago can get the cheap power they covet to run their factories," said SOUL activist George Crocker. In fact, the Line will make possible "wheeling," or increased free trade of energy. Wheeling involves producing energy where it is cheapest to do so and transporting it to the cities, where it is sold to the highest bidder. This practice is a consequence of utility deregulation, and far from making energy more reliable, was a factor in the power disasters in California and New York. But there are billions of dollars to be made by the power companies from it.

"[The Line] is so corporations can make a profit by flooding the Indians of Manitoba and wrecking the climate," said Crocker. The Arrowhead-Weston project is directly linked to proposals for new lignite coal-fired power plants in North Dakota and existing hydroelectric plants on the Churchill-Nelson river system in Manitoba. Lignite coal is very dirty to burn; its emissions are a major factor in acid rain and global climate change. In Manitoba, three million acres of land have been flooded by Manitoba Hydro, which would be directly linked to the Line. This flooding has displaced the Pimicikamak Cree Nation and destroyed the habitat that provided their traditional means of subsistence, creating extreme poverty among these native peoples. SOUL objects to the connection to Manitoba Hydro on the basis of solidarity with these oppressed people.

Despite the incredible organization and enlightened principles that SOUL has managed to acheive, they still have a long way to go in their fight. They are aware that they need to confront the bourgeois powers behind the Line to stop them in their tracks. Liebaert said that in the past five years SOUL has held dozens of public forums, to which they invited the Public Service Commission, which ultimately decides whether or not to grant permits for the project, to listen in. "But we didn't even get a hearing from the Public Service Commission until we shut down [one of their] meeting[s]," he said. In the meantime, $10 million of public funding has been given to the power companies this year to run TV ads promoting the Line.

According to SOUL activists, the entire process has been marked by questionably legal dealings between power companies and public bodies, including local township boards. The power companies own massive sections of the upper midwest economy, including much of the small-time local media, and exert tremendous influence in government. Far from giving up, however, SOUL is ready to face the power companies in court should they trespass where they do not yet have landowners' permission, or try to use Eminent Domain to force that permission. But even so, SOUL activists now realize that they cannot rely on corrupt bourgeois government to come to their aid, and seem willing to escalate their fight to whatever it takes to match the tactics of the power companies. They feel confident that as long as they maintain solidarity, they will win out over corporate greed. Carl Sack

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