EIS not needed for $15 million gas pipeline in northern Dunn County

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MADISON  —  An environmental analyst with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin has determined an Environmental Impact Statement is not needed for a proposed $15 million natural gas pipeline in northern Dunn County.

Wisconsin Gas LLC, doing business as WE Energies, has applied to the PSC for approval to construct a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run from Wheeler through the Towns Hay River, Otter Creek, Wilson and Sheridan and that would cost between $14.5 million and $15 million, depending upon the route chosen.

The report was prepared by Stacy Schumacher, an environmental analyst with the Division of Energy Regulation of the PSC, and was issued February 28.

Land owners along both routes and the Town of Otter Creek expressed concerns about the impact to property, to environmentally sensitive areas and to wetlands.

Wisconsin Gas has stated that the need for a natural gas pipeline is based on a forecast for an increase in industrial growth in the area and a lack of the ability of the Viking Gas Transmission Company to provide natural gas at a specified guaranteed pressure.

The proposed natural gas pipeline would follow one of two routes, listed as Route A and Route B, and would consist of a 12-inch steel main installed in new permanent easements.

Both of the routes start at the Wheeler Gate Station on county Highway N in the Town of Hay River and would end near the intersection of county Highway W and county Highway WW in the Town of Wilson and would tie into an existing eight-inch main. 

Route A is approximately 8.2 miles, would cover 85.4 acres, and would diagonally cross the Town of Otter Creek to county Highway S where it eventually would continue along a Northern States Power Company transmission line easement and would cross state Highway 64 and end at the existing main near Highway W and WW.

Route B is approximately 9.5 miles, would cover 107.3 acres, and would proceed northwest across private land to the intersection with state Highway 25 where it would turn north along Highway 25 to Highway 64, west and north along 480th Street, would cross private land, to 1250th Avenue and travel adjacent to 1280th Avenue to the Northern States Power transmission line easement and north to county Highway W and WW.

Permits

The project will require a Certificate of Authority from the PSC.

The proposed pipeline also will require state Department of Natural Resources permits for waterway crossings and wetland impacts; construction site erosion control and stormwater discharge, water quality and control; and coverage under a Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System general permit for pit and trench dewatering.

In addition, the proposed gas pipeline would require a road right-of-way excavation permit from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and permits from local municipalities for utility construction in road right-of-way, floodplains and for erosion control. 

Trenching

Where the pipeline is installed with open trenching, the trench would be four feet wide by five feet deep.

In agricultural areas, the trench would be deep enough to allow for a minimum of four feet above the top of the pipeline to avoid impacts from farming equipment.

Erosion control, in the form of silt fences and mats, would be installed according to the erosion and sediment control plan provided to the DNR as part of the permit application. 

The permanent easement would be 50 feet wide, and during construction, a temporary 25-foot wide easement would be needed.

After construction, the right-of-way would be cleared up to 20 feet wide to allow monitoring of the pipeline. 

Horizontal drilling would be used to cross wetlands, waterways and roads. 

After construction, a standard WisDOT grass mixture would be seeded, but in areas of high quality wetlands and prairie remnants, a native seed mixture would be used. Monitoring would be required for one growing season until 70 percent cover is achieved.

Wetlands

Route A intersects nine wetlands and would impact four of them.

Route B intersects five wetlands, and two of them would be trenched. The report states impacts of trenching should be minimized by using timber mats, segregating topsoil, and making sure construction equipment and matting is free of soil and debris to prevent the spread of invasive species. 

All other wetlands would be directionally drilled.

DNR personnel participated in the review process of the wetlands as required by state statute.

This project, as proposed, would qualify for a utility general permit under state statutes, and DNR does not anticipate a compensatory wetland mitigation would be required. 

Trout streams 

Route A crosses Otter Creek and Blairmoor Branch.

Otter Creek is a trout stream containing state-listed species and is designated an Area of Natural Resources Interest.

Otter Creek would be crossed eight times by the proposed natural gas pipeline, and the crossings would be drilled.

Both waterways are “high quality” and should be monitored carefully to ensure that if a “frac out” occurs, it is stopped as soon as possible.

Drilling involves creating entry and exit pits on either side of the feature being crossed, and a drilling slurry, usually made up of bentonite clay and water, is used.

A spill of the drilling slurry or a collapse or rupture of a tunnel that releases the drilling slurry is known as a frac out.

If a frac out occurs, the contractor must stop drilling immediately and place barriers, such as hay bales, sandbags or silt fences, to contain the drilling mud and must pump or remove any of the drilling mud by hand and restore the site to pre-construction condition.

Route B intersects seven waterways, including Otter Creek and Blairmoor Branch.

None of the waterways are proposed to be trenched, and no bridges will be installed. 

Forests 

Both Route A and B would impact forest habitat.

Route A would result in 14.03 acres of forest being cleared, and Route B would result in 25.46 acres of forest being cleared.

The forested land contains large numbers of oak and pine trees.

Oak wilt and annosum root rot are two of the concerns associated with clear-cutting forest for the pipeline.

Oak wilt is a fungus that can be spread when trees are cut from spring to the middle of the summer, so it is recommended that the trees not be cut when oak wilt is most likely to spread. 

Applying pruning paint can also help reduce the spread of oak wilt spores.

Annosum root rot affects evergreen trees and also has higher numbers of spores in the spring and fall. Treating stumps with a fungicide would help to prevent the disease from spreading.

Prairies

Northern Dunn County has areas of sandy soils and oak barrens.

Route A passes between parcels owned or managed by the DNR that are oak barrens and have lists available that identify the species of prairie plants.

Prairie remnants along  Route A were identified by the Town of Otter Creek in the submitted public comment. 

The Town of Otter Creek is requesting a more extensive plant survey, and in areas where remnant prairies exist, that Wisconsin Gas does not use the WisDOT seed mix.

According to the report, “In upland areas that are not directly adjacent to areas planted to non-native plants, the (PSC) directed WG to use a seed mix comprised of native grasses and forbs to minimize the spread of non-native plants.”

Route A has three acres of prairie or grassland impacts, and Route B has 10.78 acres of prairie or grassland impacts.

“With the amount of land kept in a natural state surrounding the project area, a more extensive survey of ground flora prior to construction, whichever route may be selected, could identify areas of remnant prairie that would benefit from a seed mix that utilizes more native species and subsequently provides greater benefits to pollinators [birds, bees, butterflies] and other wildlife in the project area,” according to the report. 

Invasives

Construction could cause the spread of invasive species by disturbing the soil and allowing noxious weeds or invasive plants to begin growing.

Construction equipment traveling from an infested area to a non-infested area could also carry weed seeds or fragments of plants that could start to grow.

Equipment used in wetlands and waterways can transfer invasive snails or crayfish and can transport them in water, sand or mud, or fragments of vegetation.

Contractors would be required to comply with Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 40 to avoid and minimize the spread of noxious or invasive species and would follow applicable Best Management Practices recommended by the DNR for utility rights-of-way and wetland or waterway activities. 

Endangered species

An Endangered Resources Review was completed for the proposed gas pipeline routes, and the review was checked and approved by DNR staff.

PSC staff also checked both proposed routes against the Natural Heritage Inventory database maintained by the DNR Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation to identify endangered, threatened or special concern species.

During the comment period, landowners along Route A provided information on a species of reptile found near the project route not previously identified by the database. 

All together, four special concern species were identified for Route A, and four special concern species were identified for Route B.

Along Route A, using directional drilling and erosion control measures when crossing the Otter Creek stream system would avoid direct and indirect impacts to the identified species. 

The DNR’s guidance for the special concern reptile species is to avoid working in the upland nesting habitat within 900 feet of a wetland or water body during the nesting period from May 20 to October 15.

The DNR also recommends installing exclusion fencing to keep the reptiles out of the work area during the nesting period as long as the fencing is installed between October 19 and May 19.

Work can proceed at any time of the year in the fenced area as long as the fencing is maintained. 

The PSC is recommending if the project is approved, a condition be included in the approval requiring Wisconsin Gas to do the habitat survey work, and if habitat is identified, to follow the DNR’s recommendations.

Route B would not cross any habitat for three of the special concern species. The fourth special concern species is a bird, and the project route should be surveyed for nesting pairs within 660 feet of the proposed pipeline.

If nesting pairs are identified, the PSC is recommending that Wisconsin Gas contact the DNR for guidance.

Since the proposed pipeline would involve cutting down trees along both routes, removing the trees during the fall and winter would reduce the chance of impacts to bird species.

Agriculture

Route B has more acres of agricultural land that would be affected by the construction of the gas pipeline than Route A. Route B also has more acres of prime farmland.

The shared part of the route contains a farm with organic certification.

Wisconsin Gas would work with landowners with organic certification or those enrolled in U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs to change construction or restoration activities to follow the requirements for the organic farms or the conservation programs.

A Christmas tree farm and nursery also is located on Route B.

Conclusion

According to the report’s conclusion, “commission staff has not identified any potential environmental effects of the proposed project that could be considered significant.”

Construction would result in short-term localized noise, vibration, and air quality degradation and disturbances to local residents. 

Cutting down trees will result in a change from forested land to grassland or scrub habitat and could have an impact on sensitive species, depending on the time of year.

Any impacts to wetlands or waterways would be reduced by directional drilling, and the DNR has indicated that there would be no need for Wisconsin Gas to mitigate wetland loss.

“This assessment finds that approval and construction of this project is unlikely to have a significant impact on the human environment as defined by the Wisconsin Statute 1.11, therefore the preparation of an (Environmental Impact Statement) is not required,” the report concludes.