State's environmental mitigation takes a proactive turn

Suzy Barile

RALEIGH - With last year's introduction of the Ecosystem Enhancement Program, North Carolina Department of Transportation officials are betting that early protection of wetlands and streams - even before right-of-way acquisition has begun - will speed up the permit process of road projects statewide.

It's also possible that environmental engineering firms could see an increase in workload once the program is fully operational.

The joint venture between NCDOT, the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the first of its kind in the nation. The program is designed to reshape mitigation efforts on natural resources affected by highway construction.

"Highway projects, or any type of development project, impact the wetland system," explains EEP manager Bill Gilmore, a civil engineer with 30-plus years experience with DOT and in the private sector.

Often the necessary mitigation - such as rerouting streams or adding new wetlands - and the actual road construction run concurrently. But when environmental issues arise, a project can be shut down until the problems are resolved. That delay can cause a heavy financial burden for the contractors working on the road project.

"The big change is, we will put the mitigation in place before the construction begins," Gilmore says. That should minimize construction delays.

"To do that," says Gilmore, "we have to accelerate our program."

Some $100 million in state and federal funds has been set aside for a two-year transition period in which affected wetlands and streams for hundreds of DOT projects with construction slated to begin between 2005 and 2008 will have mitigation completed before the first bulldozer shows up to begin the highway construction.

"The calendar started July 22, 2003," Gilmore says, "so we've started doing projects to be permitted between 2005 and 2006. In 2005, we'll do those projects for 2007 and 2008, and we'll keep going until we're about seven years ahead."

The planning and implementation of the mitigation work is contracted to environmental engineering firms.

"We provide the specifics of where mitigation is needed and the type, and they provide the proposals for the whole package," Gilmore says.

"There has been a significant amount of restoration work already being performed by engineering firms," says Ron Johnson. As a senior biologist with environmental engineering firm Earth Tech, Johnson has been involved with numerous stream and wetland mitigation projects. "Firms that are already performing work (with NCDOT) are primarily anticipating a shift in who they are working for, and not necessarily an increase in the workload."

What is clear is that with early planning, mitigation and restoration should be performed on better sites and in areas that will produce the most benefits to the environment, Johnson says.

Already some 200 to 260 projects are under review for the stream and wetland impacts associated with them.

"Every year there will be another 100 to 200 projects, each impacting property or having a mitigation site or multiple sites," the EEP's Gilmore says.

With early mitigation, permit-issuing agencies such as the Corps of Engineers or DENR will have longer to ascertain if the steps taken to restore the affected natural resources are working properly, he says.

"If we've just refurbished a stream, it may take seven to 30 years for the system to fully stabilize from Mother Nature's perspective," Gilmore says. "If we get it done and in good health, five or six years from now, when the permit is being requested by DOT, the regulating agency won't have to question the mitigation plan.

"Instead, we will show the work to them," he says.

An example of a delayed project, Gilmore says, is the Raleigh Outer Loop, which has been difficult to keep on schedule because of mitigation issues.

Other benefits of the program include improving the state's natural habitats and protecting stream and water quality.

"Instead of performing foot-by-foot stream mitigation and acre-by-acre wetland mitigation as we have done in the past," says DENR Secretary Bill Ross, "we'll be working with other agencies to develop comprehensive plans to improve water quality (and) habitat protection for entire river basins."

Earth Tech's Johnson believes this "watershed approach to mitigation and restoration is also better than a piecemeal approach."

In addition, EEP's method should help slow the rate that open space is disappearing in the state - more than 150,000 acres a year.

Through an agreement with the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, privately held sites that might be protected voluntarily from future development are included, Ross explains. Landowners willing to participate can sell their property to the state or enter into a conservation easement, a legal agreement that allows the landowner to maintain ownership and gain tax benefits while requiring property owners to give up rights to subdivide or develop land.

The American Council of Engineering Companies/North Carolina supports EEP's efforts "as it is trying to develop a proactive method of providing stream and wetland mitigation for North Carolina and in its efforts to preserve and protect some of its more valuable resources," Johnson says.

What remains is to accomplish the goals.

"The underlying idea sounds very good if everybody who has to works through the process," says Berry Jenkins of the Associated General Contractors of the Carolinas. "If it works and tends to help projects be more dependable, it certainly will be a good thing."

Dependability will be a boon for contractors who often find a project placed on hold while mitigation problems are resolved.

Jenkins says contractors cannot afford to keep idle crews on a payroll while awaiting approval to resume work. Companies also are limited in purchasing or keeping on hand the kind of equipment that typically is needed for large highway construction projects when no money is coming in.

"What we hope for is the stability when the (construction) contract is let," he says.

2004 American City Business Journals Inc.