By: Elizabeth Withers, NEPA Compliance Officer, Los Alamos Area Office, with John Stetson, Pacific Western Technologies, Ltd.
On the day DOE issued the Draft EIS for the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), LANL biologists discovered a nesting pair of Mexican spotted owls (Strix occidentalis lucida) – which had only recently been listed as threatened – in the canyons directly below the proposed site. Today, this nest site, at the edge of a major explosives testing facility, is one of the most successful breeding nests of spotted owls in the entire Jemez Mountain range.
Looking back over the DARHT project’s history, we can discern many NEPA lessons learned. (See, for example, the case study on DARHT in the Lessons Learned Quarterly Report, December 1995, page 12, and the Legal Update in June 1996, page 8.) But while the DOE NEPA process for the DARHT facility EIS ended – at least in a technical sense – in January 1996 with the issuance of the Mitigation Action Plan, the environmental stewardship and efficiency initiated by this NEPA process continue.
NEPA Process Leads to Site-wide Habitat Management Plan
LANL sits atop the Pajarito Plateau at an elevation of about 7,000 feet. Erosion has produced a series of fingerlike mesas separated by deeply incised canyons. The remote setting, combined with limited public access, made the site suitable for its original defense-related mission and also preserved threatened and endangered species habitats.
After the discovery of the Mexican spotted owls in 1995, DOE and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) agreed through the Endangered Species Act consultation process on specific mitigation measures for management of threatened and endangered species habitat. The Record of Decision for the DARHT Facility EIS (60 FR 53588; October 10, 1995) documents these commitments. The Mitigation Action Plan, which followed from the Record of Decision, specifies DOE’s plans for implementing these measures.
In accordance with the Record of Decision and the Mitigation Action Plan, DOE and LANL in March 1996 began to develop a site-wide management plan for the long-term protection of LANL’s threatened and endangered species. (LANL also contains habitat for bald eagles, peregrine falcons, southwestern willow flycatchers, and several state-listed species.) Under the direction of LANL Project Manager Teralene Foxx, LANL’s Ecology Group completed the plan in October 1998 – slightly under the budget of $3 million and within the timeframe of three years. The plan sets goals and objectives, defines species-specific "Areas of Environmental Interest" – areas within LANL that are being protected because of their significance to biological and other resources (map, next page) – and defines levels of monitoring. According to the LANL group leader, Diana Webb, it is the first comprehensive, "fence-to-fence" management plan to consider all threatened and endangered species at a large DOE site. An important milestone was reached in February 1999 when the USFWS concurred with the plan. "Having this inter-agency agreement in hand means that we no longer have to address Endangered Species Act compliance under the piecemeal, case-by-case approach that we formerly used," Ms. Webb said.
Benefits Prove Long-lasting
The Habitat Management Plan has already saved time and money (box, next page). Previously, LANL prepared about 10 to 12 Biological Assessments per year at costs of $30,000 to $50,000 each. USFWS concurrence required three to six months. With the Habitat Management Plan now in hand, only large projects will require Biological Assessments – and these will have a substantial baseline on which to build. The Geographic Information System database and mapping system used in this effort are available for future studies. Already two major EISs – the LANL Site-wide (DOE/EIS-0238, January 1999) and the Conveyance and Transfer of Certain Land Tracts at LANL (DOE/EIS-0293, Draft, February 1999) – have integrated this information into their Ecological Resources analysis. As a result of the Habitat Management Plan process, coordination between DOE and USFWS has been streamlined.
The NEPA process for the DARHT facility not only analyzed impacts to valuable biological resources, but also provided a legacy of mitigation measures developed through inter-agency coordination. We now have a better understanding of threatened and endangered species at LANL. More importantly, the site-wide management program for protection of biological resources will provide important information for decision making regarding future proposed actions.
Habitat Management Plan Promotes Efficiency in NEPA Reviews
The Habitat Management Plan has proven beneficial to NEPA reviews at LANL, including EAs and categorical exclusions. For an ongoing EA on siting a new power line to the Laboratory, for example, information in the plan enabled the Laboratory Utilities Division to avoid critical habitats from the beginning, thus avoiding potential redesign costs and delays. These avoidances, although not directly quantifiable, are nevertheless important benefits.
Compact Disc Earns Award
LANL published the 30 separate reports related to the Habitat Management Plan (more than 1,850 pages) on compact disc, saving $40,000. Some 254,000 sheets of paper – 25 trees – were spared, as well as the associated printing chemicals. For this innovation, LANL’s Environmental Management Division presented the LANL Ecology Group with a pollution prevention award on Earth Day 1999.
In addition, the team received Certificates of Appreciation for contributing to DOE’s Pollution Prevention Program from Daniel W. Reicher, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
For more information about the NEPA process for the DARHT facility, contact Elizabeth Withers at email@example.com or phone 505-667-8690. For copies of the Threatened and Endangered Habitat Management Plan Overview and a compact disc of LANL’s reports (box, below), or for any related questions, contact Teralene Foxx at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 505-667-3024.