Although there is no current litigation directly between the commission and the company behind the project, Presiding Commissioner Wiley Hibbard called the agreement a precautionary measure.

The Ralls County Commission has entered into an agreement with a Washington, Mo., attorney for legal representation involving the Grain Belt Express — a proposed wind energy transmission line slated to traverse the county that the commission opposes.

Although there is no current litigation directly between the commission and the company behind the project, Presiding Commissioner Wiley Hibbard called the agreement a precautionary measure.

The commissioners signed the agreement with attorney Paul Agathen at their meeting April 12. Agathen also represents the Missouri Landowner Alliance (MLA), an organization opposed to the Grain Belt Express.

Agathen represents one other person or entity with regards to Grain Belt matters, he said in an email to the Courier-Post.

According to the letter, a copy of which the Courier-Post obtained through a Missouri Sunshine Law request, Agathen agrees to perform legal work for the county pro bono. The only costs to the county would be reimbursement for Agathen's personal expenses like travel or printing costs. He also represents MLA at no cost.

“I thought this would be an interesting case, and with my background I thought I might be in a better position to help the landowners than someone who had no background in PSC proceedings,” Agathen explained about performing the work at no cost. “Over time, however, as I got to know some of the landowners who are opposing the line, and their various deep-seeded and sincere interests in protecting their families and their land, the project for me has taken on a whole different meaning. I am now fully committed to helping the landowners in whatever ways I can regarding the legal aspects of the case, until some day the project is finally over one way or the other.”

MLA has acted as an intervenor multiple times over the course of the Grain Belt case before the Public Service Commission, and now the Missouri court system. He spoke before the Missouri Supreme Court about the case earlier this month.

“My mindset, and the other two commissioners agreed, is that Paul (Agathen) has been with us since day one,” Hibbard said. “There's no one more qualified to hit the ground running with this.”

The letter indicates that the commission or Agathen can terminate the agreement at any time.

While the county now has an attorney to handle litigation that might arise with regard to Grain Belt, Agathen doesn't anticipate legal action in the immediate future.

“I hope it does not come to that, but I could imagine circumstances under which it is at least a possibility,” he said.

Hibbard was even more optimistic.

“Actually I do not expect anything,” he said. “I think with the Illinois ruling, Grain Belt is basically gone.”

The multi-state, $2 billion project is stalled now in two states.

In Missouri, the company appealed its rejection by the Public Service Commission all the way to the Supreme Court. The state's highest court will determine if the PSC lawfully rejected the project. The PSC said a Court of Appeals decision in a similar, but unrelated, case precluded it from approving Grain Belt, even though most PSC commissioners would have approved the project. The Supreme Court must decipher whether the ruling in the separate case is applicable to Grain Belt.

In Illinois, a court of appeals determined the project can not apply for permits as a utility because it has no utility infrastructure or land on which to place infrastructure in the state.

Hibbard said the county wanted to be prepared. He recalled a local hearing on the project in which a person speaking in favor of Grain Belt said if the PSC approved the project, but counties in the path denied assent, the counties would be sued

“That's why we agreed, just to be prepared,” Hibbard said.

A ruling from the Missouri Supreme Court is forthcoming. If the court rules in favor of Grain Belt, that doesn't mean the project is approved. Grain Belt would need to file another application for its necessary permits.

Reach editor Eric Dundon at eric.dundon@courierpost.com .