Wisconsin environmental groups win temporary halt on construction of Cardinal-Hickory Creek Line, if they pay $32M bond

Environmental attorney claims bond amount is 'fundamentally unfair,' blocks community groups from civic participation

Vermont Electric Power Company transmission lines
Vermont Electric Power Company transmission lines are seen Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 in Waterbury, Vt. Toby Talbot/AP Photo

A Dane County judge has temporarily stopped construction of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line if environmental groups challenging the project can post a $32 million bond.

The new line being constructed by American Transmission Company, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power is planned to stretch from Dane County across southwest Wisconsin and the Mississippi River.

The Driftless Area Land Conservancy, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and several counties and municipalities have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the project in both state and federal court.

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The case before Dane County Judge Jacob Frost specifically challenges the permit issued by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, claiming that two members of the commission should have recused themselves from the decision due to perceived conflicts of interest on the project.

The case is currently on hold while the Wisconsin Supreme Court considers part of the conflict of interest question. But environmental groups asked Frost earlier this month for an emergency injunction to pause construction on the project, saying the utility companies planned to start clearing the right-of-way for the line starting on Oct. 25.

Frost agreed to that injunction during a hearing on Monday. But Howard Learner, attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center who is representing the environmental groups, said the judge claimed that state law requires the plaintiffs to post a bond equal to the cost of delaying the project in case their lawsuit does not succeed.

“It just is fundamentally unfair that the conservation groups and Dane County and Iowa County prevail on the merits, that the judge finds that we’ve met the legal standards to grant an injunction to stop a transmission line that was illegally approved, but unless we can post a $32 million bond, then the line goes forward anyway,” Learner said.

He said the statute defies common sense and “impairs meaningful citizen participation” for environmental and community groups that don’t have large amounts of funding available.

Learner said he is working with Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation to figure out how to respond. He said there is no timeline required by the court to post the bond amount.

The environmental groups are also hoping they may succeed in request for an injunction from a federal court, which is scheduled to consider the motion on Friday.

American Transmission Company declined an interview request but said in a statement that the utility companies were disappointed in Frost’s decision to approve the injunction.

“The Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line Project is vital to the future of our region’s renewable energy and clean energy economy. Construction of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project is well underway, with nearly six months of construction completed in Iowa. If the bond requirement is met and the injunction becomes effective, this injunction will cause needless construction delays, postpone the delivery of essential project benefits to electric consumers, and add unnecessary costs to this essential capital project — costs which will ultimately be passed along to energy consumers,” said the joint statement from ATC, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power.

A spokesperson for Dairyland Power was unavailable for further comment.