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

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

Residents of Oklahoma and Cleveland raise concerns over the environmental impact on two counties. ACCESS Oklahoma Turnpikeroutes, the project’s engineering firms, explained the timeline of environmental impacts studies, how these studies affected previous projects, as well as the process for addressing the problem of water pollution.

The $5-billion turnpike project has been unveiled for 15 years. Residents have formed opposition groups since then. Pike Off OTAThe group advocates against the construction new turnpikes. According to the group, 665 homes will be destroyed in order to build the turnpike. However, the OTA has yet not confirmed how many homes will be affected.

Below is a Q&A session with Kirsten McCullough (environmental team leader at Garver Engineering), which is working on this project, and David Streb (president of Poe and Associates), another engineering firm that is working on this project.

This interview was edited to be concise and clear.

Beth Wallis: Do we have any idea if the environmental impact studies for this project will be done prior to the OTA begins buying homes and acquiring properties?

Kirsten McCullough says: Yes, generally, the environmental process will be completed before any property acquisition. The only exception would be owners who approach OTA to purchase their property. OTA will review those cases as they come up. They do require the environmental information to confirm that the property will be required. If the environmental study shows that something is wrong with the alignment, then OTA won’t be buying property they don’t require.

Wallis: If Wallis contacts the OTA about acquiring a property before the study is complete, how will the OTA know if it would be necessary?

McCullough: This is just an evaluation of the property’s location within the larger corridor we’re studying. It’s also a risk analysis as to whether we believe that the property will end up being in alignment.

Wallis: Will Wallis’ environmental impact survey be available to the public before the buyout is completed?

McCullough: We are able to make findings available. One point I would like to clarify is that we are not actually producing one environmental report for the entire corridor. We’re doing several technical studies and a water and wetland designation. This is how we do it. We will be conducting a threatened-and endangered species habitat assessment, as well as a cultural resources survey, archeological survey, and historic property survey. These studies will be used to inform different agencies about the potential impacts on these resources. The results of the study can be made available to the public. Only exception would be archeological information. Federal law protects this information.

Wallis: How long does it usually take to finish the studies?

McCullough: We expect to complete all of the studies in a year. That would be for the entire program and not just this corridor. As a first step, we have some construction projects in other areas. We will be looking at the south extension as well as the east-west connector.

Wallis: Do they know when the studies will begin?

McCullough : Within the next month. We will notify all property owners in advance of starting the studies so they are aware we will be there to look at their properties and collect other information.

Wallis: I want the topic of groundwater pollution and aquifer contamination to be addressed because Norman residents have a lot more water problems than they do now. What are the best ways to ensure their water is safe to drink?

McCullough – Groundwater protection in the Aquifer is all controlled through Oklahoma’s Water Quality Standards, developed by The Water Resources Board and enforced yearly by the Department of Environmental Quality. These two agencies will be crucial in our discussions about the potential impacts of the project and what we can do to mitigate them. The most significant concern for roadway projects regarding water quality or air quality is the buildup of sediment during construction. You remove vegetation from large areas to make way for construction. This helps stabilize the sediment. This gives it more room to move into streams and groundwater.

Protective measures during construction are crucial to ensure that sediment is contained. It’s especially important to have these measures in place if there is a storm or rain event during construction. A construction compliance team is part of the OTA. Their sole purpose is to monitor construction and ensure that all erosion control, sediment control, and other environmental commitments made by contractors are met.

Wallis: We spoke to several residents concerned about erosion levels in the area of South Extension. Are you aware of it and trying to mitigate it during construction?

McCullough, I didn’t know about that. That is good information. It would be interesting to know where it is happening, and if it is flooding or erosion.

Wallis: While there have been concerns about the whooping crane and people have seen them, there have also been some reports of some. There are documented reports of whooping cranesDuring migratory stop. Are there concerns about whooping crane injuries during development?

McCullough: We want to prevent that. We have measures that, during construction, if we see whooping cranes within a mile of any construction site, we make sure they are not harassed and bothered until they leave the area. This is a fairly standard practice since whooping cranes, which are protected species, are included in all of the construction projects.

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Wallis: I have spoken with the director WildCareThe wildlife rehabilitation center. They are concerned about the impact of the turnpike’s proximity on the health and welfare of the animals they care for and the possible influx of orphaned and sick animals. What can be done to help these animals

McCullough – We have had discussions with [the director]. They aren’t certain if their facility will be able to remain due to the location and noise. That’s a difficult decision they will need to make. We’ve heard a lot from people about wildlife in general. We’ve heard from them about deer and turkeys, bobcats and even foxes. There are many species that aren’t necessarily protected under the laws, but they are still very important and are of concern to the community. We’ve made a commitment to WildCare to continue working together.

What can be done to reduce these impacts? We know that the lake provides important resources for animals. There may be an opportunity to create a roadway that allows wildlife crossings or other means that they can access the lake. Perhaps there is an opportunity to create habitat for them to use in addition to the existing Thunderbird habitat. The turnpike authority is keen to create mitigation that will benefit the entire community. The OTA is interested in creating mitigation that will benefit the community and not just purchasing credits. This is a common mitigation strategy.

Wallis: What can we do to prevent the destruction of Rose Rock, a barite? This is a major concern for residents.

McCullough – The Rose Rock was one of those resources we discovered from the community but that wasn’t on our radar when we created this project. We have been in touch with people who have information about the rose rocks and have asked for maps showing their location so that we can at the very least know where they are and how they relate to the corridor we are discussing. Is there anything we can do to reduce their impact if they are found in that corridor? You could also consider removing other areas that would protect the rose rocks if it’s affecting them. Or maybe we can offer an educational opportunity for the public to learn more about rose rocks. Perhaps we can make an interpretive display. I don’t really know. These are just ideas. They are just ideas. But, they could be used to talk about how we can offset that impact. 

Wallis: When did the environmental impact studies for Kickapoo’s Kickapoo project come out? Is it before or after the buyout of Kickapoo?

David Streb : It was done before there was a buyout.

Wallis: Did the results of those studies affect the design or construction plans for the Kickapoo turnpike?

Streb – There was an area to the east from Luther Road that had more to offer. It wasn’t a study of environmental issues. It had more to do the best place to cross a river. It was the shortest span and had minimal impact on the environment. The other crossing locations of the river were longer and had a greater effect on the environment.

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