Jackson County halts agreement with ATC amid environmental concerns

Jackson County halted the easement for ATC Monday after members of the Board of Supervisors had unanswered questions.

Peter Thomson, River Valley Media Group

The Jackson County Board of Supervisors decided Monday to table signing a resolution to approve American Transmission Company’s easement for the Badger Coulee Transmission Line that will go through several portions of the county forest owned by Jackson County citing forestry practice and environmental concerns.

American Transmission Company is working with Xcel Energy Corp. to build the Badger Coulee Transmission Line that stretches 180 miles from Holmen to Blair and then across to Black River Falls and then follows Interstate 94 to Dane County. The line is expected to be operational in late 2018.

Members of the Jackson County Forestry Committee spoke up during the meeting that they had yet to receive answers from ATC about various environmental concerns that they had.

“At Forestry we have been talking about this for a while. What we understood from day one is that we couldn’t say no – that the law said that. We understood that it would go through the appraisal process, but we had a lot of forestry practice issues. This goes right through the forest, and it is in the state forest plan. We were communicating with them regarding that,” Forestry Committee Chair John Chrest said during the meeting Monday.

Even with the forest practice concerns, Garrett Nix of Weld Riley, which is corporation counsel for the county, did raise the concern that ATC does not need to meet the demands of the county.

“The fact of the matter is, I think they have been good partners to work with thus far. They may be willing to give consideration to us on some of our concerns as an act of goodwill or good gesture to the county. I don’t think they are required to do so, which makes it tough from a bargaining position to have much leverage with them and get them to commit to these things, but we can certainly try,” Nix said.

Since the meeting, ATC and Jackson County have setup a time to meet to discuss the environmental concerns.

“At this point there have been some ongoing discussions and there is a plan for members of the project team to meet with the county in January to continue discussing their concerns,” ATC spokesperson Kaya Freiman said.

Environmental practices major concerns

The Forestry Committee had several issues related to the construction practices ATC would employ while cutting trees in the county forest to make room for the Badger Coulee Transmission Line including protections from invasive species and ensuring that oak wilt would not be spread.

According to Freiman, both of these concerns are being addressed already as standard construction procedures for ATC.

“ATC follows DNR protocols for doing trimming to prevent the spread of oak wilt. This is actually included as part of our permit for the project so it is a requirement that we follow this and we follow the Department of Natural Resources protocol for it,” Freiman said.

To avoid transferring invasive species to other locations, ATC will fence off the areas with invasive species so the vehicles are not contaminated. If the vehicles need to go through invasive species, ATC has specific cleaning protocols for vehicles before moving to the next work area to prevent the spread of the invasive species.

“Invasive species are noted in what we call environmental access plans. These are very detailed environmental maps that our construction contractors use when they are working in the right-of-way,” Freiman said.

An independent environmental monitor that reports to the Public Service Commission is an additional layer employed to ensure these environmental practices are followed.

The Forestry Committee was also wondering if ATC would separate the wood into separate piles based on type to make it easier when companies come to pick up the wood.

Freiman said questions like this are something that is typically talked about with the property owner, which in this case would be Jackson County.

The fourth discussion point Jackson County had was whether ATC would help pay for a fence along Interstate 94 to keep elk and other animals off the road.

“The fence along the interstate was originally built when the interstate was built. It is only 4-foot high,” Chrest said. “The DNR has talked to us and would like a 6-foot fence along there. So we were thinking as a part of this deal they could put a fence up.”

Freiman said projects such as this are items Jackson County could use their $1.9 million environmental impact fee for, but ultimately said that it is a conversation that the county and ATC will need to have.

No other issues

Despite the environmental concerns, the Jackson County Board of Supervisors did not have any issues with the $50,500 ATC would pay Jackson County for the easement.

“I believe that the Executive and Finance Committee’s directive was to go ahead with the offer. We are comfortable with the appraisal that we have been presented,” Nix said.

The appraisal for the easement was conducted by Steigerwaldt Land Services, Inc., which is the same company that does all timber appraisals for Jackson County. Jackson County had the right to request their own appraisal, but felt the appraisal they were offered was fair.

If Jackson County decided to deny the request, there would be legal arbitration and the line would be constructed either way.

In the end, Chrest wanted to make sure that ATC treats the county forest like everyone else does.

“We are just asking that if they are going to go through our forest that they take the necessary precautions to protect our forest just like every other person that cuts a log in our forest,” Chrest said.


Jackson County Chronicle editor

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