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Energy & Environment

Q&A: Engineers address water pollution concerns, environmental impact studies timeline for Oklahoma Turnpike Authority project

lakethunderbird.jpg
sasha55068 / Flickr
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Lake Thunderbird in Norman

As residents in Cleveland and Oklahoma counties raise concerns about the environmental impact of two ACCESS Oklahoma Turnpike routes, the engineering firms involved in the project explained the timeline of environmental impact studies, how those studies have affected past projects and the process for addressing water pollution.

Since the unveiling of the $5-billion, 15-year turnpike project, affected residents have organized into an opposition group, Pike Off OTA, which advocates against the construction of new turnpikes. The group estimates 665 homes will be destroyed for the turnpike, though the OTA has yet to confirm how many homes will be affected.

Below is a Q&A with Kirsten McCullough, the environmental team leader for the engineering firm Garver, which is working on the project, and David Streb, the president of Poe and Associates, another engineering firm working on the project.


This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Beth Wallis: Do we know if the environmental impact surveys for this project will be done before the OTA begins to buy homes and acquire property?

Kirsten McCullough: Yes, in general, the environmental process will be complete prior to any property acquisition. The only exception to that would be any owners that approach OTA now about wanting to be purchased, and OTA will be considering those cases as they come up. But they do want the environmental information to confirm that the property is going to be needed. If the environmental study ends up with something that causes us to shift the alignment, then OTA doesn't want to be purchasing property that they don't need.

Wallis: If residents do approach the OTA about acquisition before the study is done, how would the OTA know if that property would be needed?

McCullough: That's just going to be an evaluation of where that property is within the larger corridor that we're studying, and just kind of a risk analysis at this point as to, do we think that property's going to end up being in the alignment or not?

Wallis: Will the environmental impact survey be accessible to the public before the buyout?

McCullough: We can make findings accessible. I do want to clarify one point, that we aren't actually producing one single environmental report for the entire corridor. The way we're doing this is we're doing different technical studies, and we're doing a water and wetland delineation. We'll be doing a threatened and endangered species habitat assessment and we'll be doing a cultural resources, archeological and historic property survey. And those studies will be used to consult with different agencies about the impacts to those particular resources. So the results of the study certainly can be made public. The only exception to that would be the archeological information. That information is actually protected by federal law.

Wallis: How long does it take to complete the studies?

McCullough: We plan to have all of the studies completed within a year or so, and that would be for the whole entire program, not just these corridors in this area. So we have some early construction projects in other areas that we're starting with as a first step. We will be studying the south extension and the east-west connector.

Wallis: Do we know when those studies are going to start?

McCullough: Within the next month or two. We will be notifying all the property owners prior to starting those studies so that they are aware that we'll be in the field and looking on their properties for different information.

Wallis: I want to talk about aquifer and groundwater pollution, because that’s a big concern with Norman residents, they already have a lot of water problems. What measures are going to be taken to mitigate that pollution, and how can you ensure that their water is going to be clean for them to drink?

McCullough: The protection of groundwater in the aquifer is all regulated through Oklahoma's water quality standards developed by the Water Resources Board and enforced by the Department of Environmental Quality. So those two agencies are going to be very important for us in conversations about what impacts could the project potentially have and what measures to do. The biggest concern, typically with roadway projects for water or air quality, is sediment that's created during construction. When you clear a large area for construction, you remove the vegetation, which is what stabilizes the sediment. And so it has more opportunity to move into the streams and into the groundwater.

So protection measures during construction will be very important to make sure that the sediment is contained and controlled. Particularly if we have a storm event or rain event during construction, that's when it becomes really important to make sure that we have those measures in place. The OTA is actually going to have a construction compliance team. Their sole purpose will be to monitor construction and make sure that all of the erosion control, sediment control measures, plus any other environmental commitments that have been made are followed through by the contractors.

Wallis: We’ve talked to a few residents that have concerns about the erosion level that’s happening in the area of the south extension. Is that something you are aware of and trying to mitigate in construction?

McCullough: I wasn't aware of that. That's good information to know. I'd be interested to know kind of where that's happening and if that is an erosion issue or a flooding issue or a water table issue, that would be good information.

Wallis: There have been some concerns about the whooping crane, people have seen them there, there have been some documented reports of whooping cranes there during migratory stops. Are there any concerns about whooping crane harm during development?

McCullough: We hope to be able to avoid that by implementing measures during construction that say if whooping cranes are spotted within even a mile of the construction site, we stop and make sure that they're not harassed or bothered until they depart the area. And that's a pretty standard note because the whooping cranes are protected species that we put in all of our construction projects.

Wallis: I’ve spoken with the director of WildCare, the wildlife rehabilitation facility. They’re extremely concerned about how the proximity of the turnpike will affect the wellbeing of the sick and injured animals they care for, and the potential influx of orphaned animals. What can be done for these animals?

McCullough: We have had conversations with [the director]. They're not sure right now if their facility is going to be able to stay, based on the location of the alignment, and whether the noise and other things are going to be too much of an impact. And that's really a decision that they're going to need to make. But in terms of the wildlife in general, we've heard from a lot of the folks about deer and turkeys and bobcats and foxes and lots of species that aren't necessarily protected by the laws, but are still certainly important and of concern to the community. So I think that's something that we've committed to work with WildCare moving forward.

What can we do to try to mitigate some of those impacts? We know the lake is an important resource for the animals. And so perhaps there's an opportunity to maybe design the roadway with wildlife crossings or something that could facilitate their being able to access that resource. Or perhaps there's an opportunity to create some habitat that they could use in addition to what's already at Thunderbird. The turnpike authority is very interested in creating mitigation that is going to benefit the community. The OTA wants to make sure that instead of purchasing credits somewhere, which is a typical mitigation strategy, that maybe we can come up with something that's actually of benefit to the public, to the community, to Lake Thunderbird, to the area that we know the impacts are going to be around.

Wallis: What can be done to mitigate the destruction of the barite Rose Rock, which is also a big concern of residents?

McCullough: The Rose Rock is one of those resources that we learned about from the community that wasn't necessarily on our radar when we developed this project. We've been working with the folks that have information about where those rose rocks are, and have requested information about maps to show where they are, so that we can at least start to know where they are and in the relationship to the corridor that we're talking about. And then if we do determine that they're in that corridor, is there something we can do to maybe mitigate that impact somehow? And if that's affecting some of the rose rocks, but maybe trying to set aside other areas that protect them? Or maybe creating some sort of opportunity to educate the public about the rose rocks. Maybe we can create some sort of interpretive display or something. I don't know. I mean, these are all just ideas. But they’re things that we could talk about in terms of how do we offset that impact? 

Wallis: When on the timeline for the Kickapoo project did the environmental impact studies come out? Did it come out before or after the buyout?

David Streb: It was done before the buyout.

Wallis: Did any of the results from those studies change construction or design plans for the Kickapoo Turnpike?

Streb: There was an area where we went to the east of Luther Road that had more to do. It wasn't so much an environmental study. It had more to do with the best place to cross the river. And it ended up being the shortest span and had the least amount of direct impact to the natural environment in that location. The other locations for the crossing of the river were much longer and had more effect on the natural environment.

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