Protecting Earth’s Most Precious Cargo
Interview with Jon Swaim, Environmental Specialist, on McGill’s Environmental Team
With the increasing number of bogus social media posts about intoxicated elephants sauntering into empty cities and dolphins swimming through Venetian canals, we started wondering exactly what animals are in our backyards that we do not think about on a normal day – those species that are rare or regularly hidden from view. So we reached out to one of McGill’s environmental team members to get a better view of the North Carolina landscape.
Meet Jon Swaim, Environmental Specialist on the environmental team based out of McGill’s Boone office. With more than 12 years of experience and an MS in Aquaculture, Wildlife, and Fisheries Biology from Clemson University, Jon leads our environmental team in support of McGill’s numerous land development projects, water and wastewater projects, as well as water resource projects.
How is McGill protecting habitats throughout the Southeast?
The main way we protect habitats is by ensuring that our clients follow all of the state and federal regulations and guidelines. We focus on making sure buffer regulations are followed for high-quality streams. These rules primarily protect habitats for aquatics species, such as trout and other fish, frogs, salamanders, aquatic insects, and the like.
McGill performs threatened and endangered species assessments for plants and animals, including the dwarf-flowered heartleaf, Indiana gray bat, and red-cockaded woodpecker. For the woodpeckers and bats, this means restricting removal of certain sizes of specific tree species, and for the plants, this may mean reestablishing a portion of the plants at a new location. Two projects come to mind related to the dwarf-flowered heartleaf – Stinger Park in Bessemer City and a solar farm near Claremont. In both of these instances, we developed a plan to relocate some of the dwarf-flowered heartleaf to other areas conducive to its growth and adjusted designs to protect existing habitats.
In some cases, we assist a client who has come to us under violation of regulations, and we complete a corrective action plan where we do a stream or wetland restoration. For example, if the client builds a road, puts a creek in a pipe, and builds a road over that pipe without getting a permit, McGill will go back in and have them remove the pipe, reestablish banks, and create a plan for any additional work to reestablish the vegetation.
We concentrate on making sure that during construction, our clients are following the rules that the state, US Army Corps of Engineers, and US Fish and Wildlife Service have set.
What can the environment tell us about our work as engineers?
The aquatic insect species that we observe are an indicator of good water quality. You can use the diversity and abundance of bugs to determine if you are doing a good job downstream, in terms of sediment and erosion control, as well as with our wastewater treatment plants. If there are several different species of aquatic insects downstream, you know that your water treatment is working properly. They are baseline for good water quality. If you have good bugs in the stream, then the stream is healthy.
How is McGill continuing operations, including environmental permitting, through COVID-19?
While the state is under stay-at-home orders, McGill is continuing to move projects forward by staying in touch with regulators, who are also under stay-at-home orders. They have limited their site visits but are continuing to do desktop reviews for smaller projects. We are still performing site visits. For larger projects, we are making sure that we are prepared for when site visits are planned later this year.
Are there any rare animal species that we might see start coming out of the woods during this quarantine?
I’ve heard, anecdotally, from some locals in Surry County that red wolves have been spotted that used to be here some 200 years ago and were designated as endangered in 1967. Everybody says they see mountain lions, but the state says they do not exist anymore.
Why did you choose to work in environmental services?
Growing up, camping and fishing made me want to work outside as much as possible. The work we do at McGill in some ways facilitates habitat disturbance in order to move projects forward, but we work diligently to follow the rules and minimize that disturbance while, at the same time, maintaining the budget for our clients.
What do you like about working for McGill?
McGill is a really conscientious company, as the environment goes. Everybody says that doing the right thing and being honest is important. McGill’s integrity makes it easier for my team to balance meeting the needs of the regulators and doing what is best for our clients.
What kinds of services can our environmental team provide potential clients?
For one thing, McGill can perform a pre-purchase site evaluation. A well-rounded analysis of potential environmental issues during the due diligence stage of property acquisition can detect issues early in the land development process, saving money and time, and provide developers with a baseline of information to aid in their decision-making process. Recently, McGill’s environmental services team performed a pre-purchase site evaluation in Henderson County. Read in detail about the challenges, solutions, and results the team provided to Henderson County in this case study.
McGill also provides the following environmental services:
- Regulatory Permitting
- Stream Restoration
- Environmental Assessments
- Water Quality Investigations
- Environmental Assessments for Grant Applications
- Restoration Plans After Violation