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Environmental groups sue Corps of Engineers over power line permit; project faces 4 lawsuits

A proposed high-voltage power line between northern Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin faces yet another legal challenge.

Environmental groups sued the Army Corps of Engineers in federal court Wednesday over its permit allowing utilities to place towers in the Mississippi River for the $492 million project known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association, Driftless Area Land Conservancy and three other organizations say the agency violated federal environmental law by failing to take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of the 102-mile line on public waters and lands, wildlife, recreation and property values.

The groups say the Corps did not conduct an independent environmental review, instead relying on the work of other federal agencies, and failed to look at alternatives.

“The Army Corps of Engineers short-circuited the process by failing to look at the impacts of a huge transmission line with 20-story towers through key conservation areas, waterways and wetlands,” said Howard Learner, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

A Corps of Engineers spokesman said the agency does not comment on litigation.

This is the fourth legal action brought by the Environmental Law & Policy Center on behalf of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and others against the project, a joint venture of American Transmission Company, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative.

In a joint statement, the utilities said the lawsuits could delay the delivery of “low-cost, renewable energy,” slowing the nation’s progress toward carbon-free electricity and increasing costs to ratepayers.

“The Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line Project is vital to the future of our region’s renewable energy and clean energy economy,” the utilities said. “Yet the litigation being pursued by the Environmental Law & Policy Center and affiliated organizations in state and federal courts could push that future farther down the road.”

This week Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, a nonprofit organization backed by utilities, developers and environmental groups, included Cardinal-Hickory Creek in a list of 22 “shovel ready” projects that could enable delivery of 50% more wind and solar energy. But the group says cumbersome permitting and environmental reviews are a hurdle to building more such projects.

Savings questioned

Opponents of the line say it would deliver minimal if any ratepayer savings while the total cost to ratepayers, including maintenance and utility profits, would be more than $2 billion. They argue small, local renewable energy projects would provide greater value with less impact on the landscape.

The high-voltage line would use 14 towers – up to 20 stories high – to carry wires along a 260-foot-wide corridor through the refuge from the Turkey River bottoms in Iowa to the site of a former power plant north of Cassville.

The project would disturb about 39 acres of the 240,000-acre Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

Construction of the line is expected to begin this fall barring a court injunction.

Learner said he’s working with the federal government to expedite the legal proceedings.

“We’re going to ask the court to provide a reasonable opportunity to consider the merits of the plaintiffs’ complaints before damaging construction begins on the transmission line,” Learner said. “That’s just plain common sense.”

Other challenges

The Driftless Area Land Conservancy, along with Dane and Iowa counties and several municipalities, have sued the Public Service Commission in state court over its 2019 decision to authorize the line. The conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation have also filed federal lawsuits against the PSC and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over claims the permitting decisions were flawed.

Last week, the group Driftless Defenders submitted a petition with more than 46,000 signatures calling on three federal agencies to reconsider approval of the project.

“This is not a NIMBY issue,” the petition states. “The enormous number of signers from all across the United States demonstrates that this is a national issue. People are committed to preserving all of our country’s refuges, not just the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge.”