From turtle rescues to trenches: How Consumers Energy is constructing a $550M pipeline in Michigan
A parade of backhoes and earthmovers clank over M-52 north of Chelsea in Washtenaw County.
They skirt a trench the depth of a two-story house and rumble up the hill, dust clouding behind them. Crews clad in neon green and hardhats scramble to collect old tires that formed a pathway for the machinery’s metal treads over the highway. Radios squawk.
Soon, a drilling rig controlled by a joystick will pull a new segment of pipeline below the roadway and into the trench.
From there, it will continue, uninterrupted, for dozens of miles across five counties, eventually bringing natural gas to heat homes across the state and replacing a parallel line dating back to the 1940s.
To the untrained eye, it’s a chaotic scene.
But to Consumers Energy engineers, the $550-million pipeline project is an efficient machine — one made possible by years of planning and careful attention to the little details, down to the tadpoles who live in its path.
“There’s a lot of thought that goes into the construction work,” said Lindsey Johnson, principal environmental engineer with the Consumers project. “How can we make sure nature is still able to do its thing, and we’re still able to do ours in conjunction?”
The Jackson-based utility’s planners say this summer’s ongoing construction illustrates their approach.
Many hurdles had to be cleared to get to the point where some 500 people are out in the field six days a week along the pipeline’s construction path between Chelsea and Williamston. Snakes and bats had to be counted. Property easements arranged. A slew of permits were applied for.
Today, the project marches ahead. Here’s what it looks like from the inside.
Turtle catchers on patrol
Two men in chest-high rubber waders and boots trundle through the work zone, lugging a plastic bin between them. Inside, water sloshes back and forth and so do a half-dozen painted turtles.
The reptiles found themselves on the wrong side of an orange silt fence at the edge of the pipeline’s right-of-way — intentionally fluorescent to designate sensitive habitat.
Luckily, they met two herpetologists who are part of a team of some dozen wildlife specialists who patrol the work zones each morning looking for frogs, turtles, snakes, and other creatures.
Their work started two years earlier, with monitoring to compile data on species along the route, including the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake.
Michigan’s only venomous rattler is listed as a threatened species, and its habitat guided re-routes of the pipeline project, Lindsey Johnson said.
Zach Johnson and his partner Zac Wigington, with Grass Lake-based Herpetological Resource and Management, knee-deep in mud, gently drop turtles into a bog on the other side of the orange fence along the pipeline.
Michiganders take painted turtles for granted, Zach Johnson said.
“Hopefully we can keep them common,” he said. “They won’t be common if we don’t keep doing this.”
In the work zone, the wildlife teams also trap Blanding’s turtles, a “species of concern” in Michigan, and collect eggs for incubation and later release back into the wild.
So far, they’ve removed more than 2,000 animals from the right-of-way, and have incubated almost 200 turtle eggs, Lindsey Johnson said. In the area north of Stockbridge where Wigington and Zach Johnson were working, crews marked and protected a fox den, where a mother and three young cubs lived.
Still, the pipeline work can be destructive. Trees must be cleared for 30 feet on either side of the new pipeline, and the route traverses wetlands, streams, and four state parks.
That’s why the herpetologists’ work is so important, Consumer engineers say. They’ve tried to implement environmentally-friendly techniques, like reusing felled trees as basking areas for turtles, and placing bales of straw, jute, and coconut fiber to minimize erosion, Lindsey Johnson said.
Zach Johnson said that the turtle spotters get help from heavy equipment operations as they sometimes have a better vantage point.
“That’s the culture that we’re trying to create — that everything matters, and every creature matters,” Lindsey Johnson said.
Planning for the massive pipeline project began early
The pipeline under construction this year is the first phase of a two-year replacement effort ultimately spanning Washtenaw, Livingston, Ingham, Shiawassee, and Clinton counties.
The existing pipeline was reaching the end of its useful life, and even with Consumers’ clean energy plan it needed to be upsized for reliability in delivering natural gas to customers, said Juliet Matko, a Consumers project manager.
The line carries gas purchased by the utility at the Ohio and Indiana state lines, as well as north from Canada. It’s most active during the summer when Consumers buy the fuel at a lower rate and puts it into storage fields for use during the winter heating season, Matko said.
Consumers began planning to replace the aging line in 2016, she said, and it was approved by the Michigan Public Service Commission in 2020.
The design for the most part uses “parallel construction,” where the new 36-inch pipeline is installed alongside the existing 20-inch line, which will be emptied and decommissioned.
The undertaking involved working with scores of landowners along the route, with access to some of their property secured via eminent domain proceedings. Not all are supportive of the project, with some objecting to the route’s impact during the permitting process and others bemoaning the tree-cutting involved.
The utility has worked with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to minimize the distribution of critical habitat, Matko said.
At 17 points along the construction this year, crews are using horizontal directional drilling, where a machine bores into the ground and then pulls the pipe with it, reducing above-ground disturbance.
The technique is used to get under highways, like M-52, sensitive waterways, and natural areas. It’s also costly and puts the pipeline deeper than normal, so it can’t be used across the whole project, Matko said.
Construction works like ‘assembly line,’ engineers say
By the fall, some 30 miles will be complete, and that’s because things are moving quickly.
“Think of an assembly line but the product stays still and the crews are the ones that move,” Matko said. “It’s very efficient.”
Workers with Consumers contractor, Snelson Companies, Inc., mark the right-of-way. Tree clearing happened over the winter, in part to reduce the spread of oak wilt and ensure roosting bats aren’t present.
Then, another team installs fencing to prevent erosion and lays down temporary mats for machinery. The area is graded and then 80-foot segments of pipeline are trucked in and placed.
Specialized welders carrying their power on the backs of pickups join the segments, and workers use X-ray and pressure testing to evaluate them before they’re placed in the ground.
Finally, trenches are dug, the pipeline placed and the soil replaced. When crossing streams or wetlands, crews have to keep them flowing with pumps and often work shifts exceeding 12 hours to complete the work in one sitting, Matko said.
Consumers have developed several seed mixes for restoring the pipeline area, including some based on native plants that serve pollinators, Lindsey Johnson said.
“We’ve taken a lot of deliberate time in picking materials that are good for the environment and useful for our business partners that are out there working for us,” she said.
Drive around the work area north of Chelsea, and you’ll likely see all stages of the process. Work won’t stop until the pipeline is serviceable this fall.
And next year, the whole thing will begin again on the remaining 25 miles to the north, while some crews go back to put the final touches on restoration to the south.