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Power line opponents take fight to federal court (UPDATE)

Proposed routes for the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line. Wisconsin regulators approved the project on Tuesday, despite from criticism from Illinois and Michigan officials and in-state groups such as the Citizens Utility Board.

Proposed routes for the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line.

Opponents of the proposed $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line used a federal lawsuit Wednesday to lob accusations of bias against the state regulators who approved the project.

The Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center turned to federal court this week to sue two Wisconsin Public Service Commission members on behalf of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. The legal action argues PSC Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq and Commissioner Mike Huebsch had conflicts of interests that should have prevented them from voting for the 100-mile high-voltage line.

The PSC approved the project in September in the face of concerns that the line was no longer needed eight years after it was first advanced by a group that oversees the Midwest’s electric grid. The power line, which could cost between $474 million and $560 million to build, would run from the Cardinal Substation in Dane County to the Hickory Creek substation in Dubuque, Iowa.

“The Commissioners’ failure to recuse themselves violates the Constitutional due process rights of DALC and WWF and their members, whose private property would be condemned and taken for the massive high-voltage transmission line,” said Howard Learner, ELPC executive director, in a statement. “A fair review of the evidence would show that there are better, more cost-effective, more environmentally sound, and more flexible alternatives for reliable clean energy in the Wisconsin Driftless area.”

Learner could not be reached immediately for comment Thursday. A spokeswoman for the ELPC said the organization was planning to file another court challenge of the project this week.

Once built, the Cardinal Hickory Creek project will be operated by American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative and be paid for by ratepayers in 12 states; Wisconsin ratepayers, for instance, would pick up 15% of the total. Their counterparts in Michigan would pay 21%.

Beyond prevailing in the legal action in Wisconsin, the project must still win approval from Iowa and federal authorities. Provided that happens, construction could get underway in 2021.

The Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation raised questions about Valcq and Huebsch’s alleged conflicts of interest in mid-September, while the PSC was still considering the project. The groups noted Valcq had worked for 15 years as an attorney for WEC Energy Group, which has a 60% stake in ATC, and represented WEC Energy when she was an attorney at the Milwaukee law firm Quarles & Brady.

Huebsch, meanwhile, is an advisory committee member to the Indiana-based Mid-Continent Independent System Operator, which had previously approved the Cardinal Hickory Creek Project. He stands accused of “communicating with and advising” MISO outside the commission’s regular hearings. Huebsch is also faulted for taking part in the PSC’s consideration of the power line even as MISO was seeking to influence the case.

The PSC has responded with a written order denying that critics had shown concrete evidence proving the existence of a conflict of interest. Valcq and Huebsch have each refused to take themselves off the case. Huebsch has said he has had only had “high-level” talks about general policy with MISO officials and has never spoken with them about the transmission line.

Valcq, meanwhile, said she has never provided legal representation to ATC or other parties in the case and hasn’t helped plan the project.

According to the suit, Valcq —since her appointment to the PSC in January — has recused herself from 30 cases that have overlapped with her previous work. Three of those cases involved ATC and We Energies’ parent company, WEC Energy Group. Valcq is also accused of working as an in-house counsel for We Energies and an outside council for WEC Energy Group even as the utility was planning the Cardinal Hickory Creek line.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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