Bg & E Slows Progress Down To Turtles' Pace

Environmental Concerns Heeded

May 19, 1991|By Daniel P. Clemens Jr. | Daniel P. Clemens Jr.,Contributing writer

In a tiny patch of wetland near the Bush River, spotted turtles are mating.

This annual rite, involving perhaps a dozen turtles, probably would go unnoticed had not progress and wildlife crossed paths ineastern Harford.

Concern about the turtles bubbled to the surface when Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. started work on extending power-transmission lines in the area. Plans called for clearing a path through the turtle habitat.

But after a plea by an Edgewood resident who studies the turtles, the company decided to delay clearing operations in the area until late summer.

"It's not just business at all costs," said Gregory J. Kappler, an environmental scientist for the company. "We can doit (the project) and not be disruptive of nature."

All this for acreature that's not even listed as an endangered species in Maryland, though it is in some other states, Kappler said.

The turtles probably wouldn't be frolicking in thewetland today if BG & E had commenced with original plans to begin clearing in the area in April.

Harford's burgeoning residential and commercial growth has increased the need for power, so the company is extending power-transmission lines from its Otter Point substation to a facility that will be built not far from the banks of the Bush River near Perryman.

"We have to build transmission lines," Kappler said of the $6.5 million project. "There's no other way to get power to the people."

The extension will cover 4.6 miles with lines passing over parts of Otter Point Creek and the Bush River. The towers, from 100 feet to 160 feet tall, will suspend eight lines -- six conductors and two ground wires -- capable of carrying 230 kilovolts.

Not surprisingly, the company's right of way for the power-line path traverses a variety of terrains, including woodlands, waterways and the turtle-inhabited wetlands.

Thespotted turtles were brought to Kappler's attention by Rich Legre, an Aberdeen Proving Ground researcher who's been conducting an independent study of the reptiles for 11 years.

With the help of his friend, Dave Holland, an Edgewood resident and postal employee who sharesan interest in reptiles, Legre has spent some 2,000 hours watching the turtles, tracking their movements and patterns of mating, laying eggs and raising offspring.

Hoping to avoid having more than a decade of work disrupted, Legre requested that work in the area be delayed until the turtles move out on later this summer.

Kappler took the request to the project manager of the line extension, and plans were reworked to accommodate the turtles and their mating.

"It will cost us money," he said. "But it's a very important, significant habitat."

Spring rains left the wetland inundated, but as summer wearson, the water will begin to recede and the area will dry up. The turtles will follow the water, and the company can continue tree-clearing with less of an impact.

By the time the water and the turtles return in the fall, the clearing will have been completed, Kappler said. Clearing work was halted at the end of April and will continue in September.

The company is employing other tactics to try to complete the project while minimizing the effect on the environment, Kapplersaid.

For example, a resident pointed out a rare American chestnut tree sitting in the power-line path.

Though the half-century-oldtree is not a picture of health, the path was altered slightly to sidestep it.

"It was very prevalent in Colonial days," Kappler said of the American chestnut that was eradicated by a 1904-1940 blight.

"But in all my years of running through the woods, this is the first I've seen. It's on its way out, but they're so few and far between."

Not far from the chestnut, near the banks of Otter Point Creek, a

75-year-old oak juts into the sky. Hundreds of honey bees swarm the base of the tree, their hive lodged in a crevice in the trunk about four feet from the ground.

Kappler said that tree, too, will bespared, partly because it bends away from the power-line path, but also to avoid unsettling the bees.

The company is focusing its clearing efforts on so-called high-growth trees, such as oaks and hickories. Low-growth trees -- such as dogwoods and some beech trees -- will be spared because they aren't expected to grow high enough to interfere with the wires.

Why all this apparent concern for the environment?

Much of the motivation is driven by increased legislation aimed at protecting the landscape. Companies that engage in land-clearing operations must take into account wetland regulations, sediment-erosion control strictures, and critical areas laws, to name a few.

Recently passed state tree-preservation legislation will mean additional considerations for developers and other companies.

"Environmental regulations today are phenomenal," Kappler said.

Yet Kappler insists the company's desire not to unduly disturb the land comes fromthe top down.

"We do think of the environment," he said. "That's the way we do it."

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