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Officials in two Missouri counties said they plan to deny permits to the Grain Belt Express transmission project despite a state Supreme Court ruling last month that limited their authority to do so.

The Missouri Supreme Court said in a July 17 ruling that it’s up to state regulators to judge the broader merits of transmission projects, and that local governments may only consider whether project meet certain safety standards when operating around public roads.

The decision hasn’t swayed officials in at least two of the eight counties where the developer, Clean Line Energy Partners, still needs local permits.

“We represent the people who put us in office,” said Bud Motsinger, presiding commissioner in Caldwell County, a county of about 9,000 residents east of Kansas City. “We’re opposed to it because (residents) have indicated their opposition to it.”

Motsinger said all three county commissioners would vote to deny any sort of permission to the Grain Belt Express project, a 780-mile, high-voltage line that would carry wind energy from western Kansas to Indiana.

There’s similar resistance 100 miles east in Randolph County, where presiding commissioner John Truesdell expects two of the three commissioners to vote against any permit for the project to operate around county roads. His concerns, however, go way beyond the issue of road safety.

“I believe this line causes cancer,” Truesdell said, although there is no consistent evidence that this is true, according to the National Cancer Institute. “The other thing is that they want a 200-foot easement. You’re talking over half a football field.” Clean Line equipment would need to traverse a wide swath of cropland to reach the line for maintenance, Truesdell said.

And furthermore, “You can’t grow anything over 10 foot high under their lines. Corn grows 10 foot high. And half of our crops are corn. When you put towers on, you limit that ground from having any kind of irrigation system.”

Other county officials were more resigned. After the court ruling, Wade Wilken, presiding commissioner of Clinton County, said he received calls from constituents “wanting to make sure we are against giving (Clean Line) permission.” At this point, though, he said he was uncertain whether the county has any basis to withhold permits.

“What (the justices) said is that the only public interest determination to be made in Missouri is by the Public Service Commission,” said Hans Detweiler, vice president of development for Clean Line Partners. “So the counties… .should not be making their own public-interest determinations. They should only look at engineering questions.”

The Supreme Court said the Missouri Public Service Commission made a mistake when it denied the company permission to move ahead with the project because it lacked approvals from the eight counties along the route. It ordered regulators to reconsider the decision based on other criteria.

Clean Line has run into a delay in Illinois, as well. A state court in March ruled that Clean Line does not qualify as a utility under Illinois law, and that it must return to the Illinois Commerce Commission and demonstrate that before it can be granted a certificate to allow the project to move forward.

In Missouri, meanwhile, Detweiler said he and his company “look forward to reaching out to the counties again in the very near future and restarting the dialogue with the counties about those permits.”

Paul Agathen, a lawyer who is spending his retirement representing the opponents without charge, disputed the characterization that the ruling leaves counties with little or no discretion. More litigation may be needed to determine where the line lies, he said.

“It is fairly murky, and I’m guessing the courts are going to have to make that decision.”

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Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.