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Voinovich School Researchers Submit Study to Department of Energy

Madison Koenig
October 22, 2014

After months of hard work, a research team from the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs submitted a Primary Headwater Stream and Wetland Mitigation Conceptual Design report to the U.S. Department of Energy earlier this month.

This report is a part of the School’s work related to the ongoing cleanup activities at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PORTS) in Piketon, Ohio.

This mitigation report provides information that the DOE, its contractors, and the public can use as decontamination and decommissioning (D&D) of the site progresses. It’s possible that the cleanup process may affect natural water features in the area like streams and wetlands, and under the Clean Water Act, the DOE must find ways to offset any potential destruction.

Whenever possible, the DOE makes an effort to avoid harming natural features like wetlands. However, sometimes that damage is unavoidable, which is where the Primary Headwater Stream and Wetland Mitigation Conceptual Design report becomes useful.

“The PORTS site has a lot of really interesting natural resources, but also a long industrial history,” said Natalie Kruse, assistant professor at the Voinovich School. “One of the things we started looking at in terms of the decommissioning and decontamination of the site is, what are the natural resources on the site that could be protected or preserved?”

In the event that natural resources on the site are damaged, DOE will need to mitigate those consequences. Jen Bowman, senior environmental project manager at the Voinovich School, said that the goal of the mitigation conceptual design plan was to find ways to address such damage.

“In general, when development of any type is being proposed for an area where you’re going to impact wetlands or streams, you have to think of how to mitigate those sensitive areas that would be damaged,” she said.

The research team members were Kruse; Bowman; Kelly Johnson, an associate professor in biological sciences at Ohio University; Gary Conley, a research associate with the Consortium for Energy, Economics and the Environment at the Voinovich School; Rob Wiley, an ecology consultant with Good Grounds LLC; and Steve Porter, a data and GIS specialist at the Voinovich School.

In order to plan a strategy to reduce the severity of potential damage or to develop mitigation options for unavoidable damages, the researchers first had to understand which water resources would be affected. The researchers split the report into two sections: wetlands and primary headwater streams.

For the wetlands, the team referenced a report conducted by Stantec, a third-party consulting company, which showed the location of existing wetlands on the site. “Wetland mitigation is really big in terms of regulations,” Kruse said. “When you impact wetland areas through construction, there are pretty strict requirements on mitigating them.”

The team was able to use a recent Voinovich School habitat survey of the site in their conceptual designs for the construction of mitigation wetlands. The report gave the team valuable information on soil types and existing plant life.

“We knew about what soils would likely hold water and what areas already have the right sort of plant life to establish wetland plants," Kruse said. "We then used GIS tools to look at what volume [of water] you could hold back with a small dam and, for different sized dams, how much volume you could create.”

After avoidance, the first step in wetland mitigation is to look at existing wetlands and the potential to expand the existing wetland footprint, Bowman said. If the efforts to clean up and repurpose the site would harm wetlands, the mitigation report suggests other wetlands that could be expanded or enhanced.

“In the future, if the wetlands on-site were proposed for expansion or enhancement, DOE would need a full-scale engineering plan'" Bowman said. "This plan provides a conceptual design of what the [wetland] footprint could be and what the estimated new water cover would be.”

The focus of the research was different for the primary headwater streams, which are small feeder streams that start high up in the watershed and eventually drain into larger streams.

“The land that drains to them has to be less than one square mile, and they’re typically shallow—some of them hold water all year and some of them don’t.” Kruse said. “They’re very important ecologically to stream systems.”

Unlike the wetlands, the goal was not to find places to build new headwater streams—that’s not really an option when it comes to streams, Bowman pointed out.

“The best you can do for primary headwater streams is to protect already existing high-quality primary headwater streams, through conservation easements or environmental covenants,” she said.

To do this, the research team performed a quality assessment of the different streams on the PORTS site. First, they assessed the habitat of the stream, looking at features such as depth of water, the type of substrate or basic material that formed the streambed, and whether water was continually flowing. Once the habitat assessment was done, they completed a biological assessment by looking at what kinds of creatures could be found in the stream.

“You look for macroinvertebrates, salamander and salamander larvae, and for small fish," Kruse said. "The presence or absence of each of those things and what species are there dictates the quality of those streams. So if you have a stream that supports a breeding population of salamanders, that suggests that it’s higher quality than one that doesn’t, for example.”

“So a lot of time catching bugs in the creek,” she added.

The team used evaluation guidelines from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to grade the habitat quality of the streams.

The research team sorted the areas with streams into three general categories: preserve, conserve, or restore. They also color-coded the individual streams.

“We've found that there are actually a lot of pretty high-quality sites," Kruse said.

This map, along with the rest of the information in the report, offers the Department of Energy a framework for planning the future of the PORTS site, Kruse said.

“What that [report] gives DOE is a great source of data to make decisions about what areas to protect or conserve, what areas could you use for mitigation or construction, and what areas are low quality now that could either be improved or could not be improved," she said. "It gives them a lot of information about potential future uses.”