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Utility companies seeking to build a $500 million power line across southwestern Wisconsin want to know what’s motivating one opposition group, prompting a rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Driftless Area Land Conservancy is fighting efforts by three utilities to build a high-voltage transmission line between Dubuque and Madison.

Attorneys for the utilities have sought to question DALC executive director David Clutter and to force the land trust to turn over eight years of internal communications regarding the line and to identify “the individual/s that first proposed having DALC oppose the Project.”

They also want to question Clutter about discussions between DALC representatives and other opponents as well any conversations he had with his board of directors regarding two already constructed power lines.

“ATC is clearly seeking to harass the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and penalize people for participating in the process,” said Howard Learner, an attorney representing DALC. “This is an attempt to punish an individual and a group … and to send a warning message to everyone else: … If you intervene … we’re going to seek your hard drives.”

The ACLU, which is neutral on the power line proposal, said the inquiries into the internal communications “can chill” the exercise of rights protected by the First Amendment.

As utilities embrace clean energy, some lobby for a more democratic solution

The two sides are expected to argue their cases in front of an administrative law judge on Tuesday.

A joint venture of American Transmission Company (ATC), ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative, the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line would stretch across more than 100 miles of the Driftless area. The costs — and any possible benefits — would be shared by ratepayers in 12 states. Wisconsin’s share is about $70 million.

Cardinal-Hickory Creek map

The utilities and some environmental groups say it would deliver cheap, clean wind energy from Iowa, saving ratepayers money. Opponents question the public value, saying it would enable little new wind energy and damage important conservation areas.

DALC, which protects land in and around the proposed power line corridor, is represented in the case by the Environmental Law & Policy Center. The legal firm has assembled a team of experts including a former head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to testify against the project.

In legal briefs, the companies argue that DALC’s motivations bear on the credibility of any evidence DALC’s hired experts might present to the Public Service Commission, which will decide if the project is in the public interest.

The companies say public statements by DALC members about the project entitle them to see evidence about the group’s internal communications.

ATC spokeswoman Alissa Braatz declined to say Monday why the company believes DALC’s motivations are relevant but said more information would be revealed at Tuesday’s hearing.

David Clutter and George Meyer: ATC power line slows transition to low-carbon future

DALC argues that information is irrelevant because neither Clutter nor any of its members are testifying as experts in the case and the motivations of any individuals have nothing to do with whether the utilities can prove the project meets statutory requirements.

The conservancy points out that the utilities did not object to or question its interest in the case when the group sought to intervene in the proceedings. DALC is among dozens of organizations and individuals with intervenor status.

DALC’s attorneys argue granting the utility companies’ request would establish a new precedent that would make it harder and more expensive for citizens and non-governmental organizations to participate in such cases, giving utilities an even greater advantage.

“To do so would open a huge door,” Learner said. “It would greatly expand proceedings.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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