A federal judge has blocked a power line under construction in Iowa and Wisconsin from crossing the Mississippi River after finding the government’s environmental review was inadequate.
Judge William Conley’s ruling throws the fate of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line into question just months after utilities began construction on the $492 million project.
Conley sided with four conservation groups that sued two federal agencies over approvals of the contentious 102-mile line between Dubuque, Iowa, and Middleton.
In an order issued Friday, Conley said the Rural Utilities Service’s environmental review did not give adequate consideration to alternatives and therefore failed to comply with federal law.
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He ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to grant a right-of-way through the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge was “arbitrary and capricious” and that the line is not compatible with the refuge’s mission.
Conley additionally found a proposed land exchange cannot be used “to evade Congress’ mandate” for the 240,000-acre refuge, which stretches from Rock Island, Illinois, to the confluence of the Chippewa River near Eau Claire.
Conley noted the utilities waited until after the lawsuit was filed to change their right-of-way permit application, and the Fish and Wildlife Service “suddenly ‘discovered’ errors” in its approval just a week before arguments were due.
The utilities then proposed a land swap, which the Fish and Wildlife Service endorsed but Conley said is equally incompatible.
Meanwhile, the utilities have continued construction on either side of the river, which Conley said “amounts to little more than an orchestrated train wreck at some later point in this lawsuit.”
The case was filed by the Environmental Law and Policy Center on behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Driftless Area Land Conservancy, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife.
Two of the groups, Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, are pursuing separate cases in state and federal court to block the line, a joint venture of American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative.
Howard Learner, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, called the ruling “a tremendous win” for conservation groups that have been fighting the line for years.
“This is a protected national refuge that’s not where you’re supposed to go,” Learner said. “The federal agencies’ responsibility is to protect the public’s interest, not the utilities’.”
The utilities issued a statement saying they were reviewing the decision but are “committed to completing this project, which will reduce energy costs, improve electric grid reliability, relieve congestion on the transmission system, support decarbonization goals and help support the interconnection of renewable generation in the Upper Midwest.”
Spokespeople for the Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Conley gave the parties until Jan. 24 to advise him on any next steps.
The utilities announced they had begun work on the Wisconsin portion of the $492 million project despite an injunction temporarily prohibiting work on or near federally-protected waters.
A separate federal lawsuit challenging the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s permit is on hold while a state court resolves similar conflict of interest challenges.
Meanwhile the state case — before Dane County Circuit Judge Jacob Frost — is on hold while the Wisconsin Supreme Court considers whether former commissioner Mike Huebsch must submit to questioning from power line opponents and whether his private communications with utility executives created an appearance of bias that could invalidate the line’s state permit.
The utilities have separately appealed a federal court injunction barring construction in wetlands and other federally protected waters.
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