Citizens of Southwestern Wisconsin testified during public hearings in Alma and Centerville in March of 2012. Most urged the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) to reconsider its approval of CapX2020, a high-voltage power line that begins in Brookings, South Dakota and will cross the Mississippi near Alma. The line will follow the river south from Alma to an area near La Crosse. A petition against the project, with 1,635 signatures, was presented during the March public hearings that were dominated by residents who feared the high voltage lines are not only unneeded, but would damage their communities.
Following a recent court decision, those voices will not be heard.
On October 26, 2012, a Dane County, Wisconsin Circuit Court judge denied an appeal by Citizens' Energy Task Force (CETF) to reconsider the PSC decision to approve CapX2020. Because of a legal technicality on the part of CETF, the public testimony was dismissed and not considered as part of the appeal process.
Capx2020 is a project by a consortium of upper Midwestern energy companies, including Xcel Energy. The project will bring a 345-kilo-Volt power line from Brookings, South Dakota to the Twin Cities, then cross the river near Alma, Wis. and follow the river to a substation near La Crosse. One-hundred-and-fifty-foot steel towers will support the line.
The fight over CapX2020 has been going on for years. Planning for the project began in 2004, and project officials applied for a certificate of need—the first step in approval—from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in 2007. Citizens raised concerns and several grassroots organizations, including CETF, No CapX2020, and the United Citizens Action Network, have tried to stop the approval of the project in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Those efforts have been unsuccessful. There is an active appeal over a segment of the line near Cannon Falls, Minn., but the project has a green light from the state governments of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Construction began in May 2012 on a segment running from Brookings, South Dakota, to Hampton, Minnesota. CapX2020 spokesperson Tim Carlsgaard said that construction north of Rochester will begin this month and construction in Wisconsin is planned for 2014.
In 2007, CapX2020 received a permit from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission for a line running from Brookings to Big Stone, South Dakota, near the site of a large coal-fired power plant. A second coal-fired power plant, Big Stone II, was planned for the area but denied by South Dakota authorities. Opponents of CapX2020 say they fear that the line will end up carrying coal-fired electricity.
Carlsgaard said that the CapX2020 line will help carry wind energy from South Dakota. A new natural gas plant near Brookings will help "back stock" the wind energy, according to Carlsgaard.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Ann R. Smith ruled that the appeal, a "petition for judicial review," could not be heard by the court because the CETF's attorney, Carol Overland, who was bringing the petition, was not licensed in Wisconsin and had not received an order from the court allowing her to appear.
The CETF said that Overland's right to represent CETF in Wisconsin had already been challenged by the PSC before a Wisconsin Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Overland filed a motion with the ALJ asking him to authorize her participation in the proceedings. The ALJ did not issue a formal order, but allowed Overland to participate in all of the proceedings.
CEFT spokesperson Joe Morse, of Winona, said that the organization assumed that because Overland was allowed to participate in the ALJ's proceedings, that she would be allowed to appear before the Circuit Court, as well. Judge Smith ruled, however, that the ALJ did not have the authority to allow Overland to appear before the Court because he is a part of the executive branch of government, not the judicial branch.
According to Morse, the PSC said the intent of this ruling was to "assure the public was not harmed by inadequate or unethical representation." CETF Steering Committee member Irv Balto, who also testified at the public hearing in Centerville, said he didn't believe that was the issue. "The PSC heard testimony from Overland," he said. "I believe that they did not want to have judicial review."
Morse said that Overland is highly qualified and represents people around the country in transmission cases, so "it's completely without basis to say that the public would be harmed [by her participation]."
There was no precedent for the situation, Morse said, and so the judge could have ruled differently.
"The bottom line is that the PSC did not want the decision reviewed," he said. "They did everything they could to prevent that from happening."
The overwhelming majority of people who spoke at the public hearings last March were opposed to CapX2020. They raised concerns about potential health risks (high-voltage lines are believed by some to cause childhood leukemia and other health problems) and concerns about environmental and aesthetic damage to the area, which could hurt land values and tourism. The energy isn't needed in the region, but local rate-payers will be paying for the line, many said.
Others spoke in favor of the line, or at least in favor of the proposed river route because it wouldn't run through their property overland and because it was the least expensive route on the table.
However, because of the decision to deny CETF's appeal, what citizens said at the hearing, for or against CapX2020, is moot.
"My neighbors said, 'What can we do? They'll just do it even if the general public says they don't want it,'" said Buffalo City resident Patricia Mertes, who spoke at the hearing in Alma. "That's the sad part about America right now. Whether its CapX or frac sand or anything, your average American feels like he doesn't have any say anymore."
Not Giving Up
"We've lost the battle, but we have not lost the war," CETF said in a message to its supporters, announcing the judge's decision.
Balto said CapX2020 is not "a done deal" and that CETF will continue to fight the construction of CapX2020 and another proposed line from La Crosse to Madison.
The next steps for the organization include continued challenges in the Wisconsin courts over the PSC decision, working with Wisconsin legislators, a challenge to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over transmission authorities' decision-making process, and efforts to create legislation in Wisconsin similar to the "Buy the Farm" law in Minnesota. The Minnesota "Buy the Farm" law gives affected property owners the option of making power line companies buy their property in full. Currently, CapX2020 plans include purchasing easements within 75 feet of the 150-foot towers.
CETF representatives met with Wisconsin State Senator Jennifer Schilling in Madison on December 11, 2012 to discuss energy policy and power line approval processes. Morse said he is hopeful that Wisconsin legislators can help give the public more voice in those processes.