Consumers Energy touts restoration solutions for Saginaw Trail natural gas pipeline
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In 32 years as an independent environmental inspector, Tom Hess says he’s never seen a utility company more dedicated to habitat preservation than Consumers Energy.
“Consumers Energy is the best,” says Hess, who owns and operates Minneapolis-based Tanager Services. They look for ways to do better – to do more than the requirements. They’re doing it simply because it’s the right thing to do to help the environment and the planet stay healthy and diverse.”
The company has invested in innovative ecosystem restoration solutions throughout the Saginaw Trail natural gas pipeline replacement project – a $610 million, four-phase effort to replace nearly 80 miles of pipeline through Michigan’s Saginaw, Genesee and Oakland counties. Along the way, the route crosses habitat that’s home to countless birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. Even the smallest of them are important to Consumers Energy.
When Hess pointed out that the grass being grown over completed sections wasn’t ideal for habitat development, the company decided to develop their own pollinator-friendly seed mix. “For me it was like taking a kid to a candy store,” says Hess. “I worked with a company to develop a native seed mix that didn’t require any special preparation, could be planted using regular equipment, and was self-propagating. The idea was, instead of planting fast-growing grass and then constantly having to mow, we vegetate with plants that sustain habitat.”
The initiative worked, Hess says, and it wasn’t long before the animals started moving back in to the re-planted zone. It’s proved to be valuable habitat for pollinators and other animals that depend on them.
“If you have plants the animals don’t know, they don’t come. If you have plants that are native, they thrive. I’ve been back in the same area, and now I see turkeys and bees and butterflies.”
As part of the company’s commitment to protecting Michigan’s ecosystems during the multi-year project, they have a team of biologists on the job before and during construction, Hess says. These professionals live-trap turtles, including the rare Blanding’s Turtle, removing them safely from the construction zone and, hopefully, giving their population a boost.
“They’re endangered because they take a long time to reproduce, and there aren’t a lot of younger turtles,” Hess explains. “In the wild, skunks and raccoons dig up the eggs to eat them. Hatchlings that do survive often get eaten by shorebirds.”
Consumers Energy funds a program to incubate eggs and hatchlings removed from the workspace. Once they’re bigger, and stand a better shot at survival, they’re released to “sanctuary habitats far from roads and agriculture,” Hess says. “Consumers Energy doesn’t have to do all of that, but they do.”
It’s not just the biologists on site who care about the local fauna. Hess says the crew often get involved with animal protection, too.
“For a couple years I had a ‘save a critter, get a coin’ program,” he says. “It became kind of a game. Workers would report each other’s saves: katydids, praying mantises, mice, worms, frogs, snakes, toads, tadpoles, a fawn. One guy saved so many animals I called him Zookeeper. As a group, we have saved hundreds and hundreds of animals. Consumers has developed this culture of environmental respect. It takes just a moment to lift a snake out of our work zone and move it to safety.”
The environmentally friendly option isn’t always the cheapest option, but for Consumers Energy, it’s not about the bottom line, Hess says. The company is willing to spend the extra dollar to go the extra mile, even when it comes to the equipment being used on work sites.
“There are environmental blankets that keep hillsides from eroding,” Hess explains. “The cheaper variety has a monofilament plastic netting in it that they say degrades over time, and it probably does, but the real problem is the small openings: the snakes get trapped because they can’t back up to get out. It catches the feet of birds, and can become a gill net in water.”
Instead, Consumers Energy invests in a version made of all-natural fiber, which decomposes fully in just a season or two. It’s woven so that “if an animal gets stuck in there, and it wriggles, the hole gets bigger and bigger until they can get out,” Hess says.
Crews strive to restore habitats in complex ways and simple ones. “If there are ponds, we set aside logs to put back in them for turtles and frogs,” Hess adds. “We try to think ahead and put things back the way we found them. Consumers Energy has decided that its impact matters, and it wants to take care of its corner of the earth.”
To keep abreast of developments along the Saginaw Trail Pipeline and the work being done to protect the surrounding land, visit consumersenergy.com/saginawpipeline.