By Joe Kelly

Courthouse News

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Two environmental groups sued Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission in federal court Wednesday, claiming it violated due process in approving its part of a multistate power line corridor that will take private lands through eminent domain.

The Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, claim the Public Service Commission, or PSC, and three of its commissioners ignored clear conflicts of interest and biases, including damning testimony from environmental experts, in approving a 345 kilovolt, 17-story-high transmission line that will run more than 100 miles through Wisconsin, cutting through several protected wildlife refuges.

Construction of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line entails the condemnation and taking of private property in rural Dane, Grant and Iowa counties in Wisconsin. The counties are in the Driftless Area, a rugged swath of forested ridges unaffected by glaciation that once spread across parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

The 33-page lawsuit calls out the PSC for failing to force two of its commissioners to recuse themselves from the approval process due to entanglements with the private entities pushing for the project, which the plaintiffs say will cost Midwest ratepayers more than $2.2 billion over the next 40 years and could have catastrophic environmental impacts.

They say that “the decision-making process was imbued with at least an appearance of bias and a lack of impartiality, if not actual bias and a lack of impartiality, and conflicts of interest,” which defeats the purpose of open meetings and a transparent adjudicative process.

They say the transmission line is not even necessary for the region’s power needs. In short, “it is not needed to ‘keep the lights on.’”

The environmentalists say that defendant PSC Commissioner Rebecca Valcq had conflicts of interest due to her connections with WEC Energy Group, a large Midwest energy firm whose subsidiary, We Energies, serves in Wisconsin. WEC Energy Group owns a 60% interest in the American Transmission Company, a private energy company headquartered in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, an advocate for the project.

Valcq served as regulatory counsel for We Energies for nearly 15 years until 2014, during which time the transmission line was conceived of while she was representing the energy company. She then represented the energy company while working for nationwide firm Quarles & Brady before being appointed to the PSC this year.

An email Wednesday seeking comment from American Transmission Co. was directed to the PSC, which declined to comment on pending litigation. The PSC’s final decision approving the project, released in September, downplays the alleged conflicts of interest and says the motions for recusal were not timely in any case.

Defendant PSC Commissioner Michael Huebsch also has conflicts of interest, the plaintiffs say. In January this year, Huebsch joined the advisory committee of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, another private entity owned by public utilities and transmission companies involved with the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line.

The commissioners’ connections to the energy companies were acknowledged during the approval process by the commissioners themselves. The complaint states that Valcq opened an Aug. 20 public meeting by explaining that Huebsch would lead PSC’s deliberations because of his connections to MISO.

The lawsuit also challenged the process by which the PSC would take private land project.

Paul Bickford, for example, is a member of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and is a co-owner of Bickford Farms, an organic farm in Iowa County, Wisconsin. According to the complaint, the project would build five to seven transmission towers on his property, cutting across his farmland.

If built in its current iteration, the high-voltage transmission line would begin in Dubuque County, Iowa, run more than 100 miles through the Driftless Area and end at a transmission substation in Middleton, Wisconsin.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that Valcq and Huebsch should have recused themselves from the approval process, that the PSC’s final decision is void because they did not, and that the entire process violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ due process protections.

The plaintiffs are represented by Stephen P. Hurley with Hurley Burish of Madison, and Howard A. Learner with the Environmental Law & Policy Center of Chicago.