The decision to stretch a high-voltage power line across the Minnesota River at Belle Plaine has shocked and angered local residents who had hoped the CapX2020 project to expand the state's transmission grid would pass farther south, near Le Sueur, Minn.
The Public Utilities Commission picked the river route Thursday, completing the intensely debated transmission line route that had been in the works since 2008. The decision can be appealed.
A route that would have brought the 345-kilovolt transmission line across the river at Le Sueur had been labeled as the preferred route since the beginning, only to fall by the wayside when a complaint about possible effects on area eagles -- later withdrawn -- delayed the approval process in September 2010.
"It was like a bait and switch," said Vicki Wolter, a Belle Plaine resident who rallied neighbors and attended the commission meeting. "Let's let the people of Belle Plaine believe this isn't going to happen and in the end, flip it over and catch them off guard."
Randy Fordice, a spokesman for the CapX2020 project, said the power companies did as required by state law: identified two distinct routes and assigned preference to one at the time of the application.
The fact that the Le Sueur route was labeled preferred at the beginning did not mean that it would be chosen, he said.
"We looked at the entire record [developed during the permitting process] and decided we would slightly prefer the Belle Plaine crossing," Fordice said.
He said there were nearly 30 public meetings in the area while the routes were being considered.
The 250-mile transmission line running from Brookings County, S.D., to a substation near Hampton in rural Dakota County is part of a larger project to expand Minnesota's transmission grid. Construction will begin in 2012 and the line will be operational by 2015.
Eleven utility companies have banded together as CapX2020 to lead the $1.7 billion project that will add 700 miles of overhead wires across the state, capable of moving 4,500 megawatts of electricity.
A line connecting Hampton to Rochester to LaCrosse, Wis., is in the permitting process.
Aside from the roughly 70-mile section near the Minnesota River crossing, the rest of the Brookings-to-Hampton route was approved in September.
A letter sent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- after the period for comment closed -- prompted the PUC to send the river crossing route back to an administrative law judge for more analysis.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its letter in late October, saying, "We do not currently have sufficient biological evidence to determine conclusively that more bald eagles would be affected by one crossing alternative or the other."
The judge ruled that the Le Sueur crossing could go forward, and that the Belle Plaine crossing was a viable alternative.
By then, the power companies were leaning toward the Belle Plaine crossing to avoid conflict with scenic right-of-way rules along Hwy. 169 near Le Sueur and because there is already a smaller power-line crossing the river at Belle Plaine.
Opponents of the Belle Plaine route note that it will bring the power line within a half-mile of Oak Crest Elementary School and the planned site of a future high school.
Gary Steinhagen, a Belle Plaine school board member, is concerned about the safety of students and about his family and farm. The transmission line will be about 150 feet from the barns where he has 110 adult dairy cows and about an equal number of younger cattle. He's worried about stray voltage doing harm.
He said people understand that the line had to go somewhere, and "You feel bad pushing it off on anybody else."
But the way residents thought it was going to Le Sueur, only to have it end up in Belle Plaine at the end and catch people off guard, makes it worse.
"It did pit some neighbors against neighbors, some communities against communities," Steinhagen said. "I think maybe if the PUC would've handled it a little differently, they could've maybe avoided all that."
Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056