How our Environmental team advanced an infrastructure replacement project in an area with multiple endangered species

The American Society of Civil Engineers has a D rating for Michigan’s energy infrastructure. Since 2021, consumers have been experiencing outages during storms due to aging infrastructure. In fact, according to a report written in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Energy, over 70% of America’s transmission lines are over 25 years old. If these don’t get rebuilt or repaired in the coming years, it will only cost more money, and the demand will rapidly outpace the ability to replace them.

The process of replacing current infrastructure requires diligent foresight and planning as the permitting process itself can take up to 10 years. Recently, however, our Environmental team obtained a unique-to-Michigan permit that can help companies complete projects in a timely and cost-efficient way.

Atwell was hired to provide environmental consulting services for a proposed 70-mile transmission line rebuild extending from Riggsville, Michigan to Port Calcite, Michigan, and to Rockport, Michigan. After decades of weather, erosion, and disturbances in surrounding areas, the transmission line in place had worn away, leaving much to be desired. Thus, it was time to look at what lay beneath and replace the entire 70 miles of transmission line.

 

“When we replace transmission lines or lay new lines entirely, there are a lot of factors to consider that many may not realize,” said Bourke Thomas, Atwell’s Vice President of Environmental Services. “Our Environmental team was brought on to conduct field surveys to analyze any potential endangered species that may be impacted and protect current habitats. If a project crosses through critical habitat for an endangered species, the complexity of a project dramatically increases as does the cost of the permitting application process.”

Atwell got to work surveying the projected rebuild site for any signs of wildlife or plant species that may be threatened or endangered. Over the span of just a few weeks, Atwell team members walked the full 70 miles of transmission line to understand the potential impacts surrounding plant life and wildlife. In the process of doing so, the team made a discovery that could have had massively detrimental effects to the projected timeline of the restoration. While conducting a field survey, four federally endangered species were found: an Eastern Massasauga rattle snake, the Hines Emerald Dragon Fly, a Hungerford’s crawling water beetle, and the dwarf lake iris.

Upon discovery, Atwell moved quickly to set up a thorough investigation into how these species lived, when they were most active, and when they were dormant or hibernating. “If the construction processes were to begin when the species are active, you risk harming a much greater number than if building commences while they are dormant,” said Thomas.

The next phase in the project was crucial for the safety of the species as well as the timeline of the project. To obtain a permit to proceed with the project and reduce as much impact to the endangered species habitats, Atwell had to work with the U.S. EPA, U.S. Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

The survey data collected was compiled into a detailed report for the USFWS. It was this report that helped Atwell get a permit through a Small Federal Handle. This specific permitting process is rarely used in Michigan but was granted to the team due to exceptional and thorough reporting. The report was so well written, Atwell was approved to begin breaking ground earlier than anticipated.

Atwell played a major role in surveying, analyzing, and collecting data on the endangered species that ultimately resulted in lower costs and a shorter timeline for our client. The team’s thorough research helped ensure a safe project all while saving the client time and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

 

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