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Environmentalists continue fight against planned power line crossing the Mississippi River


By Madeline Heim, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Environmental groups have filed another federal lawsuit to stop a high-voltage power line in southwest Wisconsin from crossing the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

The refuge protects more than 240,000 acres of Mississippi River floodplain. It has been designated as Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, as well as a Globally Important Bird Area.

The 102-mile, 345-kilovolt Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line, which will be operated by the Pewaukee, Wisconsin-based American Transmission Co. and its partners, Dairyland Power Cooperative and ITC Midwest, has been a source of controversy — and the subject of litigation — in the region for years.

The eastern half of the line, which stretches from Middleton to Montfort, Wisconsin, was energized last December. The rest of it would route across the Mississippi River to Iowa’s Dubuque County. The transmission companies say it will improve electricity reliability and deliver renewable energy to consumers; opponents say it will have negative impacts on sensitive lands.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association, Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation filed the suit in early March against the Rural Utilities Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seeking an injunction to stop the line from passing through the wildlife refuge.

In the lawsuit, the environmental groups argue that the Fish and Wildlife Service did not give reasonable time for public comment before giving approval late last month for the line to cross the refuge. They also allege that a land exchange between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the power companies — which would give the companies access to the land needed to build the line in exchange for a parcel of land downstream to be included in the refuge — violates the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act.

Jen Filipiak, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, said the suit is the same as one the groups filed a few years ago arguing that the Rural Utilities Service failed to consider alternatives to the high-voltage line, including routing it north or south of the approved route, which would have avoided the refuge. A federal judge agreed, but the transmission companies appealed the decision and the issue was on hold until the Fish and Wildlife Service gave final approval for the line to cross the refuge.

Filipiak said now that part of the line is up and running, public sentiment has shifted to worry about energy projects the transmission companies say depend on the construction of the line — 161 projects across several states.

Her group isn’t opposed to green energy, she said, it just wants to stop the line from crossing important wildlife habitat.

“It’s hard not to say, ‘It’s built, what are we going to do now?'” Filipiak said. “But they still need to connect the line to Iowa, and we still want to protect the refuge.”

The project website for the line lists a completion date of June of this year for the segment connecting to Iowa. In the lawsuit, the environmental groups argue their case should be heard quickly because the companies are already preparing for construction through the refuge.

The $500 million power line project was approved by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission in 2019. In a joint statement about the new lawsuit, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative described the project as “vital to the future of our region’s renewable energy and clean energy economy” and said the suit “could push that future farther down the road.”

Defendants’ agencies declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Madeline Heim is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about environmental issues in the Mississippi River watershed and across Wisconsin. This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, with major funding from the Walton Family Foundation.

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