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PSC reevaluating permit for $500M power line in light of former regulator’s secret messages

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission on Thursday moved to reconsider the $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line after documents showed a former commissioner traded encrypted messages with employees of utilities developing the project.

Documents uncovered during a legal challenge to the project show former PSC member Mike Huebsch communicated with a utility employee, a utility contractor and others through the encrypted messaging app Signal for several years before voting to approve the project in 2019. Utilities American Transmission Co. and ITC Midwest jointly asked the PSC to rescind its previous approval of the transmission line and allow them to seek a new permit for the project in light of the discovery.

The commission voted 2-0 during a meeting Thursday to issue a notice that it plans to rescind its approval of the project. PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq said the commission’s action doesn’t reopen its consideration of the Cardinal-Hickory line, but gives parties in the case a chance to file comments through mid-July.

“In 20 years, I can’t recall this ever happening, a certificate issued and a recipient asking to give it back,” she said.

Commissioner Tyler Huebner, who replaced Huebsch on the PSC, abstained from Thursday’s vote due to his previous work for RENEW Wisconsin, a renewable energy advocacy group. After its vote on the project, the commission convened in closed session to discuss legal challenges related to the project.

“This is an unusual request, but given the circumstances that keep surrounding this case, in several venues in court, I think it is appropriate and a reasonable request,” Commissioner Ellen Nowak said.

ATC, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative would jointly develop the 102-mile, 345-kilovolt transmission line, which would run from Dane County to Dubuque, Iowa, and had planned to break ground on the project this fall.

But number of legal challenges have followed the project since the PSC approved it in late 2019. Environmental groups working to block the line in court obtained documents through the discovery process that show Huebsch had a number of contacts with proponents of the transmission line while he was leading the commission’s consideration of the project.

Documents from a federal court case showed Huebsch had unsuccessfully sought to become Dairyland’s CEO shortly after leaving the PSC and approving two of the utility’s projects: the Cardinal-Hickory line and the the Nemadji Trail natural gas plant in Superior. Opponents of the transmission line also raised questions about Huebsch’s contact with the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, which intervened in the PSC’s proceedings to consider the project.

A Dane County judge last month issued an order saying he’d rescind the PSC’s approval of the transmission line if opponents could show any commission members were biased, or appeared to be biased, when they approved the project.

Then on Monday, ATC and ITC Midwest filed a request with the commission asking it to rescind its previous approval of the project and reconsider the line after court documents showed Huebsch had traded messages with utility employees and an ITC contractor.

The revelation led Howard Learner, of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which is leading legal challenges against the project, to call for a new group of regulators to reconsider the process. He also said the Wisconsin Department of Justice should investigate “what they were saying, who knew about it, and when.”

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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