MADISON - The Public Service Commission on Thursday approved Superior Water, Light & Power's construction of an estimated $16.6 million transmission line to bring more power to the Enbridge Energy terminal.

Called the Nemadji Project, the 1.9-mile, 115-kilovolt line would extend from a substation to be built near the Calumet Petroleum refinery to the Enbridge terminal property.

The line will run through a largely industrial area congested with oil and natural gas pipelines and storage tanks, and railroad tracks, which complicates selecting a route for the line, according to the PSC order.

The new line extends from an existing Enbridge substation southwest along the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway track to an existing substation on Stinson Avenue. Then along the rail corridor to just south of the intersection of Hill and Stinson avenues, and to the Calumet Refinery.

The line also crosses 26 wetland complexes, totaling 15.4 acres. Two wetlands, covering about 1.7 acres, would be filled for the construction of the substation station and its new access drive, and a storm water retention pond. The approved route also requires clearing about two acres of forested wetland and 3.3 acres of upland woodland.

Although the PSC ultimately concluded the project will not have an undue adverse environmental impact, environmental advocates, Clean Wisconsin, contested the adequacy of routes under consideration.

State law requires power line builders to propose preferred and alternative routes for the PSC to evaluate. While, the alternative SWL&P proposed did not qualify as a reasonable alternative, Clean Wisconsin contended that was because it would cross a 33.2-acre conservation easement granted to the city of Superior by Murphy Oil U.S.A. and established by the Army Corps of Engineers.

"If SWLP were allowed to circumvent (environmental law and PSC) rules relating to alternatives in this docket, future ... applicants could attempt to guarantee selection of their preferred siting option by proposing an alternative that is not feasible - and citing this case as precedent for being allowed to do so. Creating precedent that encourages such an approach would undermine the integrity of the alternatives analysis required by (state statutes)," Clean Wisconsin wrote in opposition of the PSC approving an environmental study of the project.

The argument did not persuade the PSC, which concluded that alternative route is a feasible one as nothing prevents the Corps of Engineers from modifying the existing conservation easement.

"If the (Corps) was certain that it would not amend the conservation agreement, it would have expressed more than a preference not to do so ... and there is nothing in the record firmly establishing that it is unwilling to make any modifications if required. The Commission further finds the modification of the easement would not conflict with federal policy," according to the PSC order.

A Clean Wisconsin attorney was not available for comment on the order.

Although Enbridge has been planning to pipe more crude oil from Canada and North Dakota through Superior, SWL&P treasurer Paul Holt said the purpose of the Nemadji Project is to catch up on Enbridge's expansion during the past two decades.

"It's not so much what's coming tomorrow but the growth we've seen in the Superior area in the past 10 to 20 years," Holt said.

The new transmission line and substation gives Enbridge more electric power if they push more crude oil south through their pipeline but Holt said he has not received any communication from Enbridge that ties the project to expanding the oil pipeline's capacity.

Enbridge, SWL&P's biggest customer, directly benefits from the project and will pay about 45 percent of its cost, Holt said.

While all SWL&P's electric customers will pay a share of the project's cost, Holt estimated it would amount to a fractional increase in their electric bills.

Transmission line costs represent a small portion of an electric customer's bill and recovering the cost of this new line can be spread over many years and not just from Superior area residents but from all customers who benefit from the increased reliability the project brings to the transmission grid, Holt said.

The Enbridge terminal is currently served by the Gary-Stinson power line, which links electric systems in Duluth and Superior. The new line and substation will form a local network that takes Enbridge's additional electric demand solely off the Gary-Stinson link and creates a redundant line that can isolate other areas served by the Gary-Stinson line from outages, according to the PSC order.

Holt liken the project to adding capacity to one of two electric extension cords that bring power from Minnesota to Superior. The Gary-Stinson line has "too many taps" or connections on it, and the Nemadji project gives it another loop to potential outages due to overloading.

The line would require a 100-foot-wide right of way and new right of way would be acquired where necessary. The Nemadji substation would be built within the Calumet refinery property. The utility will purchase property from Calumet for the substation.

SWL&P anticipates staring construction of the substation and line this summer and having both facilities in service by October, Holt said.