by Jeffery L. Juergens, Newpark Mats & Integrated Services
Environmental compliance is crucial when constructing transmission lines. Ground protection, in particular, is important in environmentally sensitive areas with remote access.
The most recent “Wetlands Status and Trends” report by the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found an increase in the classification of sensitive territories as wetlands from 2004-2009, likely a result of increased preservation efforts. Nevertheless, the same period experienced an overall loss of 62,300 acres of wetlands, according to the report.
More than 50 percent of migratory bird species and more than 30 percent of plants and animals live in wetlands throughout the U.S., according to the Endangered Species Act. As a result, utilities in recent years have increased their efforts to comply with regulations.
Transmission line construction particularly threatens plants and animals in wetlands.
But there’s a way to comply with regulations and mitigate damage to sensitive areas. Many companies are turning to matting technologies that protect the ground and workers.
Prioritizing Ground Protection
Meeting local, state and federal regulations can be timely and costly. To construct in wetlands, companies must obtain certifications and permits, such as the Section 401 Water Quality Certification. They also must implement mitigation plans that comply with Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers regulations, along with any state or landowner restrictions. Additional steps, however, are involved for companies that frequently cross over private lands to access work sites. Obtaining permission to access the land and then protecting the ground drive costs up further.
Heavy machinery, creation of temporary access roads, confrontation with waterfowl and cross-contamination of sites all can damage vulnerable habitats of native species. The damage and potential regulatory infractions also can delay projects, resulting in further ground exposure in wetlands.
But that’s how mats help. And lighter, advanced composite mats call for fewer trucks and transports.
Utility construction from July 1 to Oct.1-typically the regulatory low-flow period-affects wetlands, sensitive areas and local animal species least, according to data from the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development. But for transmission line construction, project managers often are limited to winter months, which provide better ground protection, according to the Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin. Weather during the coldest months, although better for the environment, can be tough for construction. Liner damage, workplace injuries and accidents often delay projects. Operators, however, can speed projects by using composite mats. Interlocking mats significantly reduce maintenance and downtime attributed to shifting, gapping or differential movement that can cause equipment damage and slips, trips and falls.
Cross-contamination-the transport of exotic plant species such as purple loosestrife, for example-is another potential consequence of transmission line construction that can compromise the ecological balance of wildlife habitats in wetlands, according to the Wisconsin PSC. Wood mats, in particular, are likely to absorb contamination or carry contamination with them into new territories.
Single-unit mats, however, allow no room for leaks or gapping. Also helpful is a mobile cleaning system for the mats that reduces the amount of water required, risk of site-to-site contamination, overall costs and water waste.
Transmission line voltage also can damage work sites and injure wetland species. Newpark’s Dura-Base EPZ mats offer equipotential zone (EPZ) features that can minimize the impact of potential electrical accidents as a result of high voltage and contact, decreasing the impact on exposed ground by distributing the voltage across the surface of the mats.
Aluminum mats that have been used to create an EPZ at ground level are not as well-suited for environmental or safety concerns. Voltage that reaches equipment or exposed ground can harm the surrounding terrain. Dura-Base advanced-composite mats also contain an additive to eliminate static buildup.
Transmission line construction companies must be more conscientious of their impacts on the environment and related public perceptions.
Transmission line developers can encourage better collaboration with affected communities when communication channels remain open. And developers who share how they use environmentally sensitive technologies can gain better support and access from landowners.
Jeffery L. Juergens joined Newpark Mats & Integrated Services in October 2010 as president. The company makes Dura-Base EPZ mats and the fully automated T-REX Mat Cleaning System.