The owners of a controversial transmission power line project in southwestern Wisconsin are asking the state's Public Service Commission to allow them to refile an application after learning a former commission board member, who ultimately voted to approve the project, was communicating with a power company employee and a company contractor.
This week, American Transmission Company, or ATC, and ITC Midwest issued a joint press release stating they filed a request to rescind and reopen their application for a Public Service Commission certificate of public convenience and necessity for the 102-mile Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line project.
"ATC and ITC Midwest discovered information last week that indicates former Commissioner Mike Huebsch engaged in regular communications over several years using the Signal software application with other individuals, including an ATC employee and a former independent contractor for ITC and while the CPCN application was pending," said the statement.
The release said the companies have no information indicating the messages were about the transmission line ultimately approved by commission members, including Huebsch, in August 2019.
"The individuals involved in this situation have maintained longstanding personal relationships with each other; however, we are aware this information raises concerns about one of the commissioners who granted approval of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Project," said American Transmission Company President Mike Rowe. "We understand the speculation this presents, which is also why we have made this unique request to the PSCW and are sharing this information with our employees, our stakeholders and Dane County Circuit Court."
The companies said the communications between Huebsch and the workers came to light during the discovery phase of lawsuits filed against the project by the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, along with Dane and Iowa counties.
Howard Learner, of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, is representing the conservation groups in court. He said the conversations between Huebsch and employees seeking Public Service Commission approval compromises the entire permit process.
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"What's going on here is that ATC and ITC came out yesterday and, 'Our senior officials have been having secret Signal encrypted messages, communications with one of the commissioners at the Public Service Commission,'" said Learner. "And that is just absolutely inappropriate ex-parte communications."
Learner said the commission should start the permit process over with a "fresh set of eyes."
He said Huebsch's messages undermined public confidence in the board's ability to fairly consider the merits of the project, and members should recuse themselves from the case. Learner said state statute allows for a senior member of the Public Service Commission or a retired judge to decide on a new application from the companies.
Learner said the revelations about company employees communicating with the lead commissioner on the case has added to public opposition of the Cardinal-Hickory Transmission Project.
"The fact of the matter is, this is a huge and costly proposed transmission line that would cut a wide swath through the Driftless Area landscape in southwest Wisconsin," said Learner.
A spokesperson with the Public Service Commission said commissioners are reviewing the applicants' request and there isn't a timetable on when the commission could respond to the request.
Editor's note: American Transmission Company is an underwriter of Wisconsin Public Radio.