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Otter Tail plans $10.5 million power line upgrade to start in 2015

BEMIDJI — Citizens of Bemidji got an additional chance to weigh in Thursday on a massive electric power line upgrade expected to take at least six years and $10.5 million dollars to complete. The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board is in the process of deciding whether to grant Otter Tail Power Co. a permit for the project, which is intended to help Bemidji’s power grid keep pace with increased demand as the city grows.

The upgrade would gradually take out about eight miles of above-ground 69 kV power lines and replace them with larger 115 kV lines from 2015 to 2021. The power line system to be switched runs in an arc through the west side of Bemidji, curves to the south of Lake Irving and ends close to the Sanford Center. About a half-mile of completely new 115 kV line will be added toward the middle section of the arc where the old 69 kV line did not run.

During Thursday’s public hearing on the project, local engineering and surveying firm Widseth Smith Nolting presented findings from its environmental assessment of the project, which included an investigation of how the line upgrade could possibly affect areas such as public health, local wildlife and the aesthetics of the Bemidji area.

At a previous hearing in May, members of the public had voiced concern over the potential adverse health effects of the increased electromagnetic field (EMF) that would result from upping the capacity from 69 kV to 115 kV. As WSN acknowledged in its written report, there is a tentative correlation between the EMFs produced by power lines and cancer but scientific studies have not yet established a cause/effect link between the two. The EMF’s strength also drops off substantially the farther away a person is positioned from the power line, the environmental assessment said.

The health impact was brought up at Thursday’s meeting by commissioner Kristi Miller, who asked Brian Ross, director of environmental services at WSN, about it after his presentation.

"There’s a slight connection between EMF… and childhood leukemia, but a very weak link," Ross said.

He added part of the reason the 115 kV poles are higher in the first place is to mitigate EMF exposure.

Kathy McKeown, a resident of Yellowhead Road near the power line, remained unconvinced.

"I know there are studies out that say EMFs aren’t a big deal, but there are plenty of studies that say they are a big deal," she said.

WSN’s report also discussed the new line’s potential hazard to birds in the area such as bald eagles and kestrels as well as waterfowl. Just one bald eagle nesting site has been identified near the path of the upgrade and large bird collisions are generally more common with smaller power lines than larger ones, the assessment said. Nevertheless, WSN said the DNR has recommended several hundred feet of the project have "bird diverters" installed on the line to make it more visible for birds where it crosses the Mississippi River south of Bemidji.

The new poles holding the expanded power line will extend higher in the skyline than the 69 kV line, at an average height of 70 to 90 feet with 11 feet of the pole buried underground compared to the old poles’ 50 to 60 feet with 10 feet buried, said Cindy Kuisimi, supervisor of land rights and permitting at Otter Tail Power Co.

She said the line will be more aesthetically pleasing even with the larger poles because there will be fewer poles total to potentially block someone’s view.

Underground transmission lines would cost 10-15 times more than above-ground lines, WSN’s assessment said.