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Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line: Ban on river crossing stands, for now

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A federal appeals court says utilities building a controversial power line connecting Iowa and Wisconsin will have to wait until at least this fall to cross the Mississippi River.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday denied the utilities’ request to stay a lower court ruling blocking the river crossing, leaving the order in place while the utilities and power line opponents argue its legality.

The ruling, which opponents hailed as a win, could potentially delay completion or drive up the cost of the $492 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek line if the higher court eventually allows a river crossing.

Earlier this year, federal Judge William Conley sided with four conservation groups that sued to stop the line between Dubuque and Middleton, finding the environmental review was inadequate and the project is incompatible with the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

Conley also ruled that a proposed land exchange cannot be used “to evade Congress’ mandate” for the refuge, which covers 261 river miles between Rock Island, Illinois, and Wabasha, Minnesota.

Attorneys for American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative appealed Conley’s decision and asked the appeals court to suspend his order blocking the land swap, which they said would delay the December 2023 completion date.

They said in court filings the delay would increase construction costs, which are passed on to ratepayers, “compromise reliable operation” of the Midwestern power grid, and potentially limit output from new clean energy projects that could power millions of homes.

In a written statement the utilities said Monday it’s too early to determine if the in-service date will be affected by the appeals court’s schedule, which calls for oral arguments in September.

The three-judge panel, which has twice reversed Conley’s rulings in the case, rejected the utilities’ claim that the order is likely to be overturned and would cause irreparable damage.

“This is a big deal,” said Howard Learner, lead attorney for the conservation groups.

Approved Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line route map

Power line opponents have appealed the lower court’s refusal to halt construction on either side of the river, which Conley said amounts to “little more than an orchestrated train wreck.”

The utilities have spent nearly $277 million so far on the project, according to a progress report filed in late April.

Most of the work on the Wisconsin portion has involved cutting trees and laying mats to support heavy equipment, but ATC says it plans to begin work on foundations this month and says it could begin stringing wire later this summer.

Utility regulators in Wisconsin and Iowa have ignored or denied requests to pause construction on what consumer advocates have called a 101-mile “bridge to nowhere.”

“What the heck is the (Wisconsin) Public Service Commission doing to prevent ratepayer money from being wasted?” Learner asked. “They’re creating their own train wreck.”


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