Mesa Lab Electrical Conduit Project

Q

It has been shocking to watch the utter disregard for environmental impacts during the current electrical conduit project that has caused considerable damage to the NCAR Mesa Lab property. Two aspects are particularly troubling:

1. A 60-foot-wide swath cutting directly across the upper meadow of the mesa has been bulldozed down to bare dirt. Why wasn't it planned to have construction vehicles drive over the existing sod, thereby minimizing the land cover destruction to a much narrower path where the actual trench is dug, and facilitating faster recovery of the prairie grass? Even if prairie grass sod is compressed by vehicles, the root structures still survive, thus encouraging faster regeneration of the grass; those root structures have now been destroyed.

2. Why didn't the path of the new electrical feed follow the existing NCAR road? This would have eased access for construction vehicles and minimized environmental damage to the prairie grass ecosystem of the upper Mesa meadow.

The shortgrass prairie ecosystem is particularly vulnerable to disruption under the best of circumstances, but by bulldozing down to bare dirt, even under the most optimistic time frame for regeneration, it will take at least a decade for the grass to begin to reestablish itself, and probably two decades before the grass is anywhere near the state it was in before it was destroyed this summer. It is inexcusable that the contractor was allowed to simply bulldoze native undisturbed prairie grass sod to bare dirt. It took longer than 10 years for the prairie grass to be reestablished after the steam tunnel was dug across from the Fleischmann Building to the Mesa Lab years ago, and that was with continuous re-seeding and watering of that much shorter stretch. The current nearly-quarter-mile slash across the mesa meadow will first turn into a weed patch even with dedicated re-seeding, and then only years later will a semblance of the prairie grass ecosystem return. In effect, the current disturbance of the land cover will be a scar across the upper meadow for the duration of most of the careers of the current UCAR/NCAR staff now working in the lab.

I presume the excuse given for cutting directly across the upper meadow was cost--it was a shorter distance between two points. But the bulldozed path is not a direct line, and the twists and turns of the "shorter" route probably only saved a few hundred lineal feet over following the road up the mesa. Was that weighed against the environmental damage? This project has all the earmarks of a low-bid project with little thought given by the contractor or NCAR management to the lasting environmental damage that has resulted.

Is there an environmental oversight or review of projects with such visible and drastic consequences? Current NCAR management is given the responsibility for preserving the natural resource of the Mesa Lab environment. I.M. Pei himself has said one of the proudest accomplishments of his design is the minimal environmental impact of the access road in sweeping around the periphery of the NCAR property, as opposed to other designs that would have had the road cut more directly and visibly up the side of the Mesa. The latter would have been cheaper, but he recognized his responsibility to preserve the Mesa environment as much as possible. He would be very disappointed with what the current NCAR management has allowed to happen to this resource.

[The following is additional clarification that was requested of the questioner from the responder with reference to the Staff Notes article, New electric service to Mesa Lab (April 2008).

This article is part of the reason I wrote my question, since certain statements in the article now do not make sense given how the project has been executed with seemingly maximum environmental impact instead of the minimal environmental impact promised in the article, such as this line from the article, for example: "The design process will adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act to determine the environmental impacts."

What part of the National Environmental Policy Act recommends bulldozing native prairie grass sod down to bare dirt in a 60-foot swath over a quarter-mile path? Is there any part of the National Environmental Policy Act that actually deals with shortgrass prairie ecosystem disturbance? And if the construction project were going to make that severe a disturbance, why not do it below the roadway on the east side, such that there would be a separate but parallel bike path (like the one over Vail Pass). It would not have to be on the same plane as the existing road, but below the road on the original grade of the terrain. Then instead of facing a decade-plus re-seeding effort, a simple paving project over the filled trench would provide a two-way bike path parallel to the road but below and separate from it. That would certainly be safer than widening the road with a bike lane adjoining it on the uphill side. That plan doesn't allow for downhill bike traffic, and still allows the opportunity for bikes on the "wider" road to interfere with traffic.

 

Answered on August 19, 2009

A

The questioner's statement contains seven questions that I am able to identify. I will try to answer them in the order in which they appear.

1. Why wasn't it planned to have construction vehicles drive over the existing sod, thereby minimizing the land cover destruction to a much narrower path where the actual trench is dug, and facilitating faster recovery of the prairie grass? With the exception of a "lay-down area" on either side of the lower roadway crossing, the project has attempted to maintain a 30-foot-wide path for the new feeders. In several locations this was not possible due to extraordinary circumstances and resulted in wider areas. The path was cleared of surface rocks and obstructions to create a safe and workable surface for the construction vehicles that needed to access the trenched area. The 30-foot width of the path was the minimum that could be used and still allow the equipment needed to accomplish the project to operate and be turned around. The surface rocks removed from the pathway will be replaced as part of the revegetation phase of the project.

2. Why didn't the path of the new electrical feed follow the existing NCAR road? Cost is one important factor. In addition, the existing electrical feeders, water service, and communications fiber and conductors supplying the Mesa Lab are located alongside the existing roadway. The only safe way to install new feeders alongside the road would have been to shut down the Mesa Lab's utilities (and hence the lab) for the length of the project, which would have been several weeks.

3. The bulldozed path is not a direct line, and the twists and turns of the "shorter" route probably only saved a few hundred lineal feet over following the road up the Mesa. Was that weighed against the environmental damage? The path of the new feeder follows a carefully designed path that will allow us to reestablish the original drainage paths to the meadow, thus minimizing environmental impact.

4. Is there an environmental oversight or review of projects with such visible and drastic consequences? The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that federal agencies review all projects for environmental impact. A Phase One Environmental Site Assessment was prepared for this project as required by NEPA and was reviewed by NSF's Large Facilities staff and legal counsel. A copy of the assessment is available for viewing at the Physical Plant Services (PPS) office in CG2.

5. What part of the National Environmental Policy Act recommends bulldozing native prairie grass sod down to bare dirt in a 60-foot swath over a quarter-mile path? NEPA does not provide recommended construction practices. As noted above, the swath is 30 feet wide, the minimum required to do the construction.

6. Is there any part of the National Environmental Policy Act that actually deals with shortgrass prairie ecosystem disturbance? No, NEPA does not address specific ecosystem disturbance. Details on the role and purpose of NEPA can be found here.

7. And if the construction project were going to make that severe a disturbance, why not do it below the roadway on the east side, such that there would be a separate but parallel bike path (like the one over Vail Pass)? Using the area below the roadway on the east side, for either a separate but parallel bicycle path such as the one over Vail Pass, or as the route for the new feeders, would be limited to the lower sections of the road. The area east of the roadway in the upper part of the road drops off sharply. Using the upper portion of the roadway would therefore require building a shelf on the east side of the roadway on which a bike path or a feeder route could be placed. Building such a shelf would be quite expensive and would require importing large amounts of structural fill that would greatly change the topography of the area.

In addition, a separate pathway on the east side of the road would be closed during winter weather conditions because snow accumulated on the road would be plowed onto the separate bike path. Keeping a separate bike path clear under winter conditions would require additional equipment and staff currently not budgeted for. The bike path as planned, along the west side of the road, will be maintained along with the roadway and have a minimal impact on maintenance operations while providing year round access for bicyclists.

John Pereira
Director, Physical Plant Services