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This is a rendering of the proposed four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River.

Minnesota Department of Transportation, Associated Press

An eyesore, used to justify another one

  • Article by: LISA PETERS
  • September 8, 2011 - 8:18 PM

Almost 50 years ago, a few hundred people came to the Stillwater junior high school to hear arguments for and against Northern States Power Co.'s proposed plant on the St. Croix River.

It was a local controversy, but the issue had attracted the attention of a nation waking up to environmental pollution.

Conservationists considered the power company's plan to build on the scenic river "the first steps in an industrial invasion of the lower St. Croix Valley," according to a Washington Post story.

I was just a kid, but a river neighbor of mine, Carl Pemble, testified at the Senate subcommittee hearings in Stillwater.

A chemical engineer, Carl was the president of a citizen's group opposing the plant. He claimed that the plant would pollute the valley's clean air and warm the river's cool, spring-fed waters.

Despite months of gathering scientific data and political support, Carl's group, Save the St. Croix, lost the fight to keep the coal-fired plant with its 800-foot smokestack off the river. But the group succeeded in several significant ways.

Its relentless focus on the warm-water issue forced the state of Minnesota to impose cooling towers on the plant's design. The scientific data provided Congress, then considering the Clean Water Act, with a fresh example of industry's impact on rivers.

And the controversy helped launch the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the federal law that now protects the St. Croix and other scenic rivers across the country for the "benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations."

In the decades since the power-plant fight, Twin Citians, in cars filled with cheap fuel, flocked to the St. Croix to live and play. Many used one of the key river crossings, the old, narrow lift bridge at Stillwater.

Then they turned around and crossed the same bridge every day because their jobs remained in Minnesota. Traffic backed up, and people started to demand a bigger bridge with no lift span.

Americans, in the form of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, had anticipated such pressure and had prohibited any major new public works on the river.

Walter Mondale was one of the law's original sponsors. Today, Minnesota's congressional leaders are taking a different stance.

Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sen. Amy Klobuchar are trying to force an exemption in the law to accommodate a $700 million freeway bridge. It would hang like a banner from blufftop to blufftop just upstream from the focus of the 1960s controversy.

Klobuchar explained her position on Minnesota Public Radio: "There's a huge power plant with a huge tower with steam coming out. That is where the new bridge is proposed to go. And when you look at that, you realize that this isn't exactly a residential area or a scenic moment."

The scenery may be a little off, but the irony is dead-on. The power plant that once inspired Americans to pass environmental protection is now being used to justify environmental degradation.

The proposed freeway, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has testified, "would be instrumental for economic development for decades." Carl Pemble's daughter, Audrey Halverson, puts it another way: "They'd sell lots like crazy if they built the bridge."

Johnson is calculating economic value with a model that has, for centuries, helped degrade our country's clean air and clean water. It asks: What can we build on this land, and what can we extract?

Economists at the University of Minnesota and Stanford University are promoting a new economic model that asks different questions: What is nature worth to us?

What's the value of the services that a healthy ecosystem provides? The Natural Capital Project  has downloadable software to help our leaders answer those questions.

If only our leaders were asking them.

I no longer live on the river, but I still swim in it. The water is still refreshing, in part because Carl Pemble and so many others scribbled mathematical calculations on notebook paper, attended hearing after hearing and finally got cooling towers.

If the freeway bridge is built, drivers would have a great view of those towers -- and the river, too -- but they will probably be driving too fast to notice.

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Lisa Peters, a writer, spent her childhood summers at her family's cabin on the St. Croix River. Today she lives on the Minneapolis riverfront and blogs about her neighborhood at www.bridgenumber9.com.

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