Preserving What's Important: Transmission and distribution projects on protected lands

By Katie Kuehner-Hebert | Dec 15, 2021




While safety is always paramount, line contractors need to take special consideration when working on protected land, a term that encompasses private and public land protected for environmental or historical/archaeological reasons. These can include state and national forests and grasslands, national parks, areas overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), wetlands and nature reserves.

For new power line projects, electric utilities work with agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service to develop mitigation measures specific to the project and area of development, said Reggie Woodruff, U.S. Forest Service energy program manager, land stewardship, in Washington, D.C. The measures are detailed in the environmental impact documents that are used to approve the project’s construction, operations and maintenance.

Reggie Woodruff, U.S. Forest Service energy program manager, land stewardship

“Mitigation is necessary to limit threats to public safety, impacts to climate and to protect the natural resources—water, air, vegetation, various plant and animal species and their habitats,” Woodruff said. “A key concern for existing power lines is the prevention of wildfire, which can be devastating to resources across the spectrum, as well as the interruption of power to communities.”

Preventing wildfires

When working within Montana’s national forests, national parks and BLM property easements during wildfire season, crews at Rocky Mountain Contractors Inc. work cooler “hoot owl” hours—5 a.m. to 1 p.m.—to lessen the chance of starting a fire, said Bob Kruckenburg, safety director for the Helena, Mont.-based contractor, an MDU Construction Services Group company. Then, after crews finish work for the day, they stay at the remote site for another 1–2 hours just to make sure a fire hasn’t started from their activities.

“We use battery-powered chainsaws instead of gas-powered so there are no sparks that could cause a fire,” Kruckenburg said. “In high-grass areas, we use electric weed eaters to clear the land, so we can park our equipment and lessen the chance of fire when the equipment gets hot. In some cases, we avoid welding if at all possible on power line installations or repairs.”

Bob Kruckenburg, safety director for Rocky Mountain Contractors Inc.

Contractors are required to bring firefighting equipment­—fire extinguishers, water cans, shovels and pulaskis (special hand tools for constructing firebreaks)—in case the company’s equipment does spark a fire, he said. Crews also bring water trucks or “buffalo trailers,” which hold tanks with pump systems to wet down an area.

“It’s not like working in an urban area, where nearby fire fighters can quickly come and put out fires. In remote areas with a lot of timber or dry lands, we need to first try to put the fire out ourselves,” Kruckenburg said. “No one wants to be responsible for starting a large fire that results in loss of life and property, so we’re happy to have all these protections in place.”

If there is a red-flag condition where there is a high probability of a fire starting, or if agencies such as the Forest Service are conducting wildfire operations, contractors need to let agencies know “exactly where they’re going, what they’re doing and when they’re doing it,” so the agencies can identify any pre-existing factors that could affect public safety or the safety of contractors, Woodruff said.

BLM’s West-Wide Energy Corridor Guidebook details a number of mitigation measures that line contractors for utility companies need to take when working on transmission or distribution lines on BLM lands that are at risk of wildfires.

First, contractors should consult with local fire agencies to develop a fire prevention plan, and when the threat of wildfire is high, conduct briefings with their crews before work commences.

Contractors should establish a wildfire “watch” person with fire prevention knowledge, and the ability to extinguish ignitions when they are small. The designated person should monitor for signs of fire for at least 30 minutes after line work is complete.

While contractors are expected to extinguish any fires caused by their equipment, they should immediately notify local fire agencies if they are unsuccessful, and then leave the area through pre-identified escape routes or safety zones.

Protecting plants and animals, including endangered species

International Line Builders Inc. in Tualatin, Ore., another MDU Construction Services Group company, often works on protected land, including game reserves and wetlands where there are protected animals, including certain ducks, geese, fairy shrimp, kit foxes and red-legged frogs, said Dan Haggard, senior vice president. For any kind of protected land, environmental mitigation measures depend on the surface area and specific habitats.

“For example, when protected birds are nesting, we are limited to the number of disturbances when driving to and from the location of our work,” he said. “We’re also required to maintain a certain distance from any nests during nesting season. We also can’t work in waterways or dry soil where there are fairy shrimp.”

Agencies such as the Forest Service also want contractors to communicate with local units on the “when, where and what” of the activities that they are going to conduct, so that the local unit can identify whether there are any bird or other types of animal migration that will be going on, or whether there is nesting or mating that might be affected by utility work, Woodruff said.

To prevent the introduction of invasive species (nonnative species that spread aggressively and overtake habitats) on protected lands, Rocky Mountain Contractors crews must first clean their equipment—including directional drills and backhoes—before entering such areas, Kruckenburg said. This prevents invasive species from “hitching a ride” on equipment from one area to another.

“We usually can clean equipment ourselves and have it inspected by the agencies before going onto protected land, but sometimes we are required to come to the agencies’ cleaning stations,” he said.

Wetlands protection is always critical, said Mike McNulty, manager, environmental at ITC Holdings Corp. in Novi, Mich. Best practices include treading by foot, using tracked vehicles or placing construction matting—large mats of either wood timbers or synthetic material that can be pieced together to lessen disturbance of wetlands, floodplains and other sensitive environments.

In addition to wildfire mitigation measures, the BLM West-Wide Energy Corridor Guidebook also provides mitigation measures for working on transmission or distribution lines on BLM land that may have protected species, such as wetlands or other sensitive habitats.

When excavating for buried pipelines or to build new foundations, contractors need to safeguard against the possibility of dewatering any shallow groundwater, aquifers or wetlands within the area. Contractors should avoid or minimize erosion, stream crossings, drainage alterations and hydrologic conduits between aquifers.

Line contractors must also avoid direct impacts to areas that have been flagged as habitats for endangered species or designated sensitive species. Moreover, construction activities upslope of these areas should be avoided to prevent indirect impacts to surface water, including sediment runoff.

Additional considerations

Agencies want to determine if there are any activities going on within protected lands by other members of the public whose safety could be affected by the utility’s project, or if any resource issues would be exacerbated or compounded by utility work, Woodruff said.

“These are general measures that are typically taken on utility projects on forests and grasslands, but a project’s environmental impact documents will spell out any additional measures or more specific measures that need to be taken for that particular project,” he said.

When crews at International Line Builders work near rivers or lakes, the company’s fueling vehicles must be a certain distance away while refueling to prevent any accidental contamination of the water body, Haggard said.

“We also work on protected land within Native American reservations, and their tribal archaeologist members are with us at all times, making sure we are not disturbing burial zones or sensitive areas,” he said. “If we do find artifacts on site, we let them know to prevent further disturbance on those grounds before we can finish our scope of work.”

Before any project starts on protected land, there is “quite extensive” work that falls under the environmental review before contractors can obtain a permit and train their workers accordingly, Haggard said. Some permits will allow for work on different projects within a region, such as the San Joaquin Valley permit for the central valley region of California. For this permit, the company needs to train its workers once for multiple projects in that general area.

“The most important thing for contractors is to make sure workers are trained before anyone is on-site working, and that they are aware of what a permit allows and doesn’t allow, so that the company is always working inside the permit’s requirements,” he said. “Contractors also need to make sure they update their training when bringing new employees on-site, to keep the company from having any hiccups.” //

About The Author

KUEHNER-HEBERT is a freelance writer based in Running Springs, Calif. She has more than three decades of journalism experience. Reach her at [email protected].  





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