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Iowa woman sues Utilities Board over approval of Palo Alto County wind project

An Emmetsburg, Iowa, woman is suing the three members of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) over their abdication of oversight responsibility regarding a wind turbine project now under construction in Palo Alto County.

Bertha Solomon Mathis filed suit in U.S. District Court against the three board members, claiming they violated her constitutional rights and state law by failing to hold public hearings in the county before construction began on the 170-turbine project.

Mathis also claims the IUB was unable to provide copies of documents they used as the basis for their approval of the project. She had filed an open-records request for schematics showing the proposed location and capacity of transmission lines that will send electricity from the turbines to a substation. The board told her via email on May 24 that they had no such documents.

In her suit, Mathis asks that the IUB provide a list of the turbines planned for the county and the precise location of each one. The county supervisors in 2017 approved all 198 turbines on a preliminary site plan presented to them by the developer and MidAmerican Energy, but the final list and specific locations have not been made public.

Mathis also asks that construction cease until the IUB holds a public hearing in the county. Iowa code requires that the IUB conduct public hearings about wind projects in counties in which they are planned, unless a project generates fewer than 25 megawatts of power. The project in Palo Alto County will generate 340 megawatts.

Even though a wind project can produce hundreds of megawatts via numerous turbines connected to multiple transmission lines, the IUB has ruled that each transmission line and its turbines are one facility. Thus, a wind project can skirt numerous state requirements when each line is considered an individual facility rather than merely one segment of a comprehensive project – as long as the turbines connected to a single line never exceed 25 megawatts of power.

Based on the IUB’s interpretation, the 170-turbine Palo Alto County project is not a 340-megawatt facility but is instead 15 separate “facilities,” each generating less than 25 megawatts.

Mathis submitted the open-records request after she and her husband lost a district court case based on whether a wind project should be considered for approval in its entirety or as a series of standalone lines. The Iowa Supreme Court in May upheld the lower court’s ruling that affirmed the IUB’s interpretation of “facility” as a single transmission line and the turbines connected to it.

“Because the IUB didn’t hold public hearings as they should have when planning began in 2015, we’ve had no formal opportunity to express our concerns about the density and location of the project as well as the potential health effects and environmental impact,” Mathis said. She has requested a jury trial.

Mathis and six other plaintiffs had also sued the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors, saying the supervisors erred when they didn’t consider environmental and health impact studies before approving the project two years ago, and that they adopted as their own a wind ordinance submitted and drafted by MidAmerican. The district court granted a summary judgment in the board’s favor; the state Supreme Court agreed.

Electricity generated by the Palo Alto County turbines will be transmitted to MidAmerican customers in Iowa and two other states.

Each turbine costs $2.65 million, for a total of more than $450 million for the turbines alone. MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, will receive more than $10 billion in federal tax credits for the project. The rush is on among wind project developers; tax credits for wind generation will be phased out after December 31 this year.

The case is Bertha I. Solomon Mathis v. Richard Lozier Jr., Geri D. Huser and Nick Wagner. Filed July 12, 2019, in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Sioux City Division. Case number 3:19-cv-03035.