Judge allows investigation of potential bias in Cardinal-Hickory Creek decision

Nicole Aimone, Editor-in-Chief

A Dane County Judge is set to potentially overturn permits for the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission lines, if environmental groups can prove at least one out of the three approving Public Service Commission (PSC) regulators held a conflict of interest when approving the project.

The Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC), out of Dodgeville, along with various other environmental groups, sued the Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month, to stop the permitting of the $492 million power line project that would span throughout Iowa and Southwestern Wisconsin.

DALC and the other suing parties assert the Army Corps violated federal law when it failed to take an in-depth look at environmental impacts these power lines would have on surrounding lands, water and wildlife—some of the power lines are set to be built along the Mississippi River.

The groups say the Corps did not conduct an independent investigation of the project and did not consider alternatives, but instead relied solely on information from federal agencies.

The groups also assert that former PSC Commissioner and decision-maker for the Cardinal-Hickory Creek lines, Mike Huebsch, had a conflict of interest in the decision to approve a permit, due to interactions or relationships with an owner of the project, and that Huebsch should have recused himself in the vote.

In addition, the groups claim Rebecca Valcq, PSC Chair, had perceived conflicts of interest due to her prior employment with WEC Energy Group, which is a majority owner of American Transmission Company, one creator of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek lines.

“This ruling has many implications for our case. Recall that our primary rationale for opposing this line is that the environmental and social costs of the line are not worth the gains – energy demand is flat or declining in Wisconsin, the line would be ‘open access’ and as such would carry fossil fuel energy,” said DALC in a statement regarding the court’s decision. “There are green energy solutions currently available that are less expensive and less environmentally detrimental. We will continue to provide good research for the courts to rule on the merits of the approval.”

Circuit Court Judge Jacob Frost ruled last Tuesday that the suing groups will be allowed to investigate for a conflict of interest. Frost ruled if the plaintiffs can prove conflict of interest in at least one of the three voting PSC members, he will overturn the project’s permit and the case will be sent back to the PSC.

“The right to an impartial decision maker is fundamental to due process,” Frost said in his ruling. “Violation of that right would taint the entire proceeding.”

The original ‘OK’ for the project was given in August of 2019.

While the case could return to the PSC for another vote, original approver, Huebsch has since been replaced by Tyler Huebner, an engineer and former director of Renew Wisconsin, a non-profit organization focused on clean and solar energy in the state.

“So let’s celebrate that the judge agrees with our position that the perceived conflict of interest by Commissioner Huebsch is truly a big problem – and if it’s true, the whole process is tainted,” said DALC. “But now we must work to fairly and completely gather the evidence to prove this conflict of interest did exist.”

Frost ruled the groups had until August 2021 to gather proof of conflict.

Howard Learner, the president and executive director for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an environmental law advocacy group out of Chicago, is the lead attorney for the Plaintiffs.

The PSC declined to comment, per state agency policy, according to PSC Communications Director Jerel Ballard.