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Judge delays construction on parts of $500 mln U.S. power line

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High-voltage power lines and electricity pylons pictured near Berlin. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

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  • Ruling in environmental case temporarily halts work on sections of Iowa-to-Wisconsin power line
  • Companies had planned for construction in Wisconsin to begin this week

(Reuters) - A federal judge in Madison, Wisconsin has temporarily prohibited construction on parts of the Wisconsin segment of a planned 102-mile Iowa-to-Wisconsin power line.

In a Monday ruling, U.S. District Judge William Conley enjoined the beginning of construction work, scheduled for later this month, on sections of the $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek Project on or near federal waters in Wisconsin.

Conley held that the plaintiffs, environmental groups that claim construction of the line was improperly authorized, are likely to suffer irreparable environmental harm should work such as forest clearing commence this month as planned. The federal waters along the line's route include more than 100 wetlands, the plaintiffs have said.

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The above-ground, high-voltage electrical line is a joint project of the American Transmission Co LLC, ITC Midwest LLC and Dairyland Power Cooperative. The companies say it will improve electric-system reliability. The co-owners announced on Monday, before the ruling, that they would begin construction of the line in Wisconsin this week.

Construction on its smaller Iowa segment began in April, according to the companies. The project is scheduled to come into service in December 2023, they say.

The utilities, represented by Perkins Coie, said in a statement that the court ruling "only applies to a small portion of the project in Wisconsin," and as a result they can "continue project construction in Wisconsin in areas not affected by the preliminary injunction."

Eugene Pawlik, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is a defendant in the case, said the Corps does not comment on litigation.

Howard Learner, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center who represents the plaintiffs, called the ruling "a very good sign" for his clients.

The environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Refuge Association, sued the Corps in May, alleging it violated the National Environmental Policy Act in part by granting a Utility Regional General Permit for much of the power line's 90-miles or so on the Wisconsin side.

The agency failed to take a "hard look" at how alternatives to the transmission line could have lessened environmental harm such as bird strikes, they alleged.

In his ruling, Conley wrote that the plaintiffs have "some likelihood of success" with their lawsuit because the approval documents for the Utility Regional General Permit show "no evidence of even cursory analysis of the cumulative impact" of construction along federal waters in Wisconsin.

Such general permits can be granted for projects that will not cause more than minimal individual or cumulative harm, according to the ruling.

The "defendants must acknowledge that soil, habitats, and vegetation would all be truly and concretely impacted" should they begin work in Wisconsin later this month, the judge wrote.

Conley said he expects to rule on the parties' motions for summary judgment within 60 days.

The case is National Wildlife Refuge Association v. Rural Utilities Service, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, No. 3:21-cv-00096.

For National Wildlife Refuge Association et al: Howard Learner of the Environmental Law & Policy Center

For Rural Utilities Service et al: Andrew Smith and Jacob Ecker with the U.S. Department of Justice

For American Transmission Company LLC, ITC Midwest LLC and the Dairyland Power Cooperative: Thomas Jensen of Perkins Coie

Read more:

Enviros sue Corps over $500 mln Wisconsin-to-Iowa power line

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Sebastien Malo reports on environmental, climate and energy litigation. Reach him at sebastien.malo@thomsonreuters.com

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