By: Todd Schulz

In late May, Consumers Energy helped ensure the survival of a rare turtle species in Michigan by releasing 19 juvenile Blanding’s Turtles rescued from the construction path of the Saginaw Trail natural gas pipeline replacement project back into their natural wetland habitat in Genesee County.

The turtles came from eggs of adult females that were safely removed from the pipeline path in 2019, then returned when construction was complete. A herpetologist contracted by Consumers Energy incubated the eggs and nurtured the juveniles over the winter until they were large enough to have a good chance of survival from predators.

This is the second consecutive year, we’ve released turtles rescued during the Saginaw Trail project. Last spring, a separate group of 12 juvenile Blanding’s Turtles were released after being successfully incubated and given a “head start” that included acclimating to natural temperatures, eating a live diet and learning to catch food themselves.

The turtle release is just one example of our commitment to protecting Michigan’s environment during the Saginaw Trail Pipeline and South Oakland Macomb Network, multi-year projects spanning several counties in Southeast and mid-Michigan.

“These projects are wonderful examples of a win-win for our customers and the environment. By installing new pipelines, we modernize our system and enhance natural gas safety and reliability for customers. At the same time, we’ve taken numerous steps to ensure that we protect the land and numerous animal species around the newly installed pipelines,” said Jim Sunday, Consumers Energy director of project management for gas transmission.

The Blanding’s Turtle is listed as a Species of Special Concern and is protected by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and proposed for Federal protection. While it has a lifespan of over 80 years, the Blanding’s Turtle does not reach sexual maturity until about the ages of 15-20. Hatchling and juvenile turtles suffer very high mortality rates from midsized mammal predators. It may take an adult female decades to produce enough turtles to help keep the population stable.

Pipeline employees also enhanced the turtle release habitat by placing trees removed from the pipeline path into the wetlands to create additional protective cover, basking sites and food sources such as aquatic insects and tadpoles.

Turtles aren’t alone. During the past three years of construction on the Saginaw Trail Pipeline over 30,000 amphibians and reptiles have been safely relocated from the pipeline path such as frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles, and snakes. Other animals protected during pipeline work include several species of nesting birds and small mammals.

Here are a few more ways we’re protecting the environment on pipeline projects:

Saving Red Foxes from Mange

During construction of the South Oakland Pipeline project, the construction team and environmental lead were frequently visited by curious red foxes. They became unofficial mascots and the team looked forward to seeing them. When the foxes began losing fur and suffered weight loss, the team discovered they were suffering from mange, almost always fatal to foxes once they contract it. A mange treatment program was initiated that required continuous direct monitoring during feeding to ensure only the foxes received medication. Treatment worked and the foxes regained their red fur coats just in time for winter.

Bringing Back Bees and Butterflies

A special pollinator mix was used to restore more than 125 acres of wild and wetland areas along the Saginaw Trail pipeline route to create new habitat for butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Along the South Oakland Macomb pipeline route 1.5 acres was planted near an existing pipeline valve site. It surrounds a wetland complex that was seeded separately with a Michigan native wetland seed mix.

Working Together

Consumers Energy has worked closely with the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in 2019 and this year is working the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority to protect the environment along the final phase of the Saginaw Trail Pipeline route. This is in addition to numerous local governments along the pipeline routes.

Chipping in to create biomass fuel

Pipeline construction crews use wood mats to create temporary roads that reduce environmental impact and keep heavy equipment and trucks from bogging down in muddy, wet work areas. After three years of construction on the Saginaw Trail Pipeline project, there were 4,400 used wood mats in disrepair and unfit for service in 2020. The question: What to do with nearly 5,500 tons of damaged wood?

Sending the wood to a landfill was not the best value for customers or the best environmental option. Instead, we partnered with Mid-Michigan Recycling to have the wood chipped to create fuel for the Genesee Power Station, a 40-megawatt biomass power plant near Flint.

Donation helps dam removal project

In 2018, a portion of the Saginaw Trail Pipeline went through the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and we worked closely with the refuge to minimize the project’s environmental impact. That relationship led to an opportunity to help the city of Corunna, which is removing a deteriorating dam on the Shiawassee River that dates to the 1800s.

Corunna needed trees to build a “toewood” structure submerged in the river to stabilize its banks and prevent erosion when the dam is gone. We donated about 160 hardwood trees — many with their root balls — cleared from the pipeline project right-of-way. The toewood structure provides habitat for fish, bugs and aquatic species and makes the river more accessible for kayaking and other recreation.