Concern for the desert tortoise in Southern California arose when a transmission line project sought to pass through a sensitive wildlife habitat and archaeological sites. Protocol for permitting and suspension of the work was necessary to get back on track.
The smallest things can bring a massive construction project to a grinding halt.
Before construction began on a major electrical transmission project in Southern California, environmental monitors surveyed the site for sensitive plant and wildlife habitat and archaeological sites. A particular concern was the desert tortoise, a state and federally protected species. The good news: Pre-construction survey teams found no desert tortoises along the route.
“But when construction started, that’s when someone saw a tortoise crossing the road,” says Sean Daly, one of the Burns & McDonnell segment lead monitors on Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project (SCE’s TRTP).
Monitors followed protocol and notified regulatory authorities. To protect the tortoise, the construction contractor was asked to suspend work in potential desert tortoise habitat for a couple of days until new protection measures could be put in place. These measures included having crews install exclusionary fencing at certain tower sites to prevent tortoises from entering a work area and falling into construction holes. Magnetic signs were developed so they could be placed on trucks and other equipment to remind workers to look under vehicles so they didn’t accidentally drive over a tortoise.
“The tortoise story illustrates how environmental monitors, construction managers and contractors can work within regulations and still keep projects moving forward,” Daly says. “Violations of state and federal regulations, even unintentional ones, can result in financial penalties or even shut a project down.”
Getting Out Front
The National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, and other federal and state regulations govern construction activities that can impact the habitats of protected plants and wildlife or cultural resources sites. Burns & McDonnell provides teams of construction monitors who know the regulations, communicate them to contractors and work to find creative solutions to challenges that invariably arise.
The TRTP, for example, is bringing electricity from wind turbines in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles to the Southern California grid along with resolving electrical system constraints in the Los Angeles Basin. In late 2009, the first three segments of the 11-segment project were completed. Burns & McDonnell had more than 15 environmental monitors on the job at any given time to make sure contractors followed the regulations. Burns & McDonnell monitors worked collaboratively with SCE’s cultural and paleontological monitors to address and mitigate any impacts on historical sites, including a crossing through a partially explored Native American Village.
“If you don’t have a high level of regulatory compliance, the project can’t move forward and won’t get done,” says Dan Pearson, the Burns & McDonnell environmental program manager for the TRTP. “Protection of breeding birds and endangered species was a primary component of the requirements governing progress on the TRTP. Extraordinary measures are required to keep crews working to erect transmission towers and string 500-kV conductor through mountains, deserts, forests and nearby residential areas.”
Sometimes environmental monitors must manage complex and detailed mitigation plans to keep a project in compliance. On the TRTP, measures range from the exclusionary fencing and vehicle checks to protect the desert tortoise to the organized collection of every bolt and tiny piece of metal from the job site to make sure the endangered California condor doesn’t ingest the objects or carry them back to chicks in the nest.
“Flexibility in monitoring plans is essential,” Pearson says. “Monitors can’t predict when or where a finch might build a nest. But when the birds chose a million-dollar bulldozer, we had to be ready with a plan for keeping the project moving without that equipment until the fledglings left the nest.”
Construction monitoring also keeps workers from increasing project impacts. Daly spent many hours visiting a wetland mitigation site in Wichita, Kan., checking that design guidelines were followed on the project, which diverts flood waters from a creek to a manmade wetland.
At the Long Run Seep Nature Preserve in Lockport, Ill., workers were using heavy equipment to repair an underground crude oil pipeline.
“Special timber mats were placed on the ground to avoid creating ruts in important wetlands,” says Jack Finley, a senior environmental scientist. “But before the mats could be used, they had to be cleaned to prevent the transport of noxious weeds into the preserve.”