Utilities building a $492 million transmission line have appealed a federal judge’s ruling that blocks the project from a crucial crossing through a wildlife area.
U.S. District Judge William Conley in January ruled federal agencies had improperly approved permits needed to allow the line to cross the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which forms the border between Wisconsin and Iowa.
American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest, and Dairyland Power Cooperative are building the 345-kilovolt Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line between Dane County and Dubuque, Iowa. The project has faced a series of legal challenges from environmental groups since it was approved in late 2019.
In his ruling, Conley found the power line wasn’t compatible with the purpose of the federal wildlife refuge, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Rural Utilities Service had failed to conduct a proper environmental review of the project.
Utilities, however, asked the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday to stay Conley’s ruling while it decides the case. The utilities argue the power line serves the public interest, and any delay in the project could drive up the cost of construction. Crews started working on Wisconsin’s portion of the power line even though Conley’s ruling prevents construction on federally protected areas.
The utilities had planned to start work on the river crossing in late fall or early winter, a timeline intended to prevent harm to wildlife and wetlands. The “carefully choreographed” sequence of work could be upended by the ruling, the utilities argue.
“Given the district court’s ruling, it is unlikely that the co-owners will be able to commence construction at the river crossing this winter, which will increase construction costs and the risk that the Project will miss its crucial December 2023 in-service date,” according to the utilities’ appeal.
In their appeal, utilities say even a two-month delay in construction could cause WEC Energy Group and Madison Gas & Electric to lose between $15 million and $20 million in 2024. The transmission line is also needed for the 300-megawatt Badger Hollow Solar farm, a project the utilities have already invested $390 million in.
Owners of the power line have already spent more than $150 million on the project in Wisconsin and Iowa. Proponents say the project is a crucial link to expand renewable energy in the Midwest.
Cardinal-Hickory Creek is the last in a series of transmission projects approved more than a decade ago by the Midcontinent System Operator, or MISO, which regulates the power grid in the Midwest.
“The Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line will help ensure the cost-effective, renewable and reliable energy that consumers are seeking is available and affordable,” said ATC Director of Construction Sarah Justus. “MISO, Wisconsin regulators and Iowa regulators have determined the project is necessary to reduce energy costs.”
The environmental groups Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, meanwhile, have argued the utilities should stop construction of the line without permission to cross the wildlife refuge. The ratepayer advocate Citizens Utility Board also asked the utilities to stop work, arguing utilities would profit from the project at the expense of ratepayers even if the line is never finished.
Even though construction is underway on parts of the line, the utilities lacked a permit to cross the wildlife refuge before Conley’s ruling. The refuge runs more than 250 miles along the Mississippi River from Rock Island, Illinois to the Chippewa River, near Eau Claire.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last summer withdrew a permit to build in the refuge that it had previously approved, saying it had issued the permit in error. Instead, the agency began studying a land transfer that would give the utilities 19 acres within the refuge to build the line.
Conley, however, found the proposed land swap to provide a right-of-way for the line through the refuge wouldn’t fit with its status as a protected wildlife area, either. In their appeal, the utilities argue Conley’s “speculative” ruling should not have considered the land swap because the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t yet approved the proposal.
The appeal is part of a series of legal actions challenging the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project. The Wisconsin Supreme Court last month held oral arguments in a case to decide if environmental groups had the right to question a former regulator accused of bias in approving the project.
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.