Construction of the $5.8 billion Ford Blue Oval SK Battery Park in Glendale, Kentucky, is one of the largest economic developments in the history of the Commonwealth. What many don’t know, however, is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District’s Regulatory Division played a significant role in getting the project off the ground by ensuring the developer met necessary environmental and cultural resource requirements.
The new facility will produce batteries for the next generation of Ford’s electric vehicles, but even before construction could begin, USACE had to approve Ford’s permit application to ensure the avoidance, minimization and mitigation of impacts to “Waters of the U.S.,” in accordance with Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
“The mission of our regulatory program is to protect the nation’s aquatic environment and navigation while allowing for reasonable development through fair and balanced decisions,” said Eric Reusch, Chief, Regulatory Division, USACE Louisville District. “Our team worked expeditiously through all facets of the permitting process to issue a permit in under 120 days, which allowed this historic project to continue on schedule.”
USACE evaluates permit applications for essentially all construction activities that occur in the nation’s waters, including wetlands. When applicants are planning construction or development that would impact those waters, a permit is often required.
The construction project, which sits on 1,500 acres in Hardin County, Kentucky, disturbs approximately 728 acres, including streams and wetlands. To mitigate for impacts to those streams and wetlands, the permittee paid for compensatory mitigation credits at a cost of approximately $20 million dollars.
The district’s regulatory team was also involved with ensuring compliance of Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
“Those are areas of the regulatory program that most people aren’t as familiar with,” said Sarah Atherton, a project manager in the Louisville District’s Regulatory Division. “As part of any Department of the Army permit, we determine whether or not the project would have an adverse effect on endangered species or historic properties. If it would cause an adverse effect, we must work with the resource agency and the applicant to mitigate for these impacts through a Biological Opinion or a Memorandum of Agreement.”
During the permit process, USACE coordinates with federal, state and local agencies, interest groups, and the public.
“Our archaeologist, Leiellen Atz, who was assisting with the review, found that a family cemetery was located within the proposed footprint of the facility. Three marked graves had been relocated in 2003, however it was recommended at the time that additional survey work be conducted,” said Atherton. “Therefore, the Corps requested the applicant (Ford) work with a qualified archaeological consultant to determine if additional graves were indeed present in the indicated location.”
During the consultant’s fieldwork, 19 additional unmarked graves were identified in March 2022.
“There was a significant amount of public interest in the unmarked graves, but in a situation like this our primary concern is that we are being respectful of the family and ensuring that the situation is handled with the utmost care and respect,” said Leiellen Atz, Archaeologist, USACE Louisville District. Once the graves were discovered, the district hosted a virtual press conference to ensure accurate information was being shared.
“Because we were easily able to identify the descendants, all parties—to include the State Historic Preservation Office and the Kentucky Heritage Council (KHC) — were able to quickly come together to agree on a path forward,” said Atz. “The site ultimately did not meet requirements to be registered on the National Register of Historic Places, but we needed to ensure that all human remains and associated burial items were appropriately relocated to another cemetery.”
“We held an in-person meeting with descendants of the individuals in the cemetery and representatives from the KHC to discuss the relocation plan prepared by Ford’s archaeological consultant to ensure that the family felt it was appropriate,” said Atz.
The cemetery relocation, performed by Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc. (CRA), began on May 18, 2022. The graves, dating back to 1840-1900s, were relocated to an adjacent property owned by one of the descendants.
Representatives from the Louisville District visited the site while excavation was ongoing and observed that CRA was conducting the excavations with respect and care to ensure that all remains, and associated items were removed.
A special condition was included in the permit prohibiting Ford from working near the cemetery until archaeological excavation and removal of all interments was completed, Atherton noted. This coordination allowed the applicant to proceed with their aggressive timeline.
Atherton said the scale and complexity of this project is a testament to the breadth and depth of the Corps’ Regulatory Program.
“We were also evaluating the permit application under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. Threatened and endangered species listed as potentially present in the project area included the gray bat, Indiana bat, northern long-eared bat, and snuffbox mussel. Tree clearing was proposed onsite which would remove potential roosting and foraging habitat for the listed bat species,” said Atherton.
“In instances like this, when a project is likely to have an adverse effect on the listed bat species through tree clearing, the USACE, in conjunction with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, requires the permittee to perform mitigation through adherence with an existing intra-service Biological Opinion. The applicant made a voluntary contribution to the Imperiled Bat Conservation Fund to ensure the proposed tree clearing would not jeopardize the continued existence of the listed bat in accordance with Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act,” said Atherton.
USACE issued a permit for the Ford Oval SK Battery Park on May 20, 2022, after all environmental and cultural consultations were completed and all permit conditions were met.
However, issuing a permit isn’t the end of the story for the district’s regulatory team.
After a permit is issued the regulatory team follows up with compliance checks to ensure the applicant is adhering to the permit conditions.
“We go out and visit the site to see if they are building what was authorized and ensure they are not causing additional impacts to waters,” said Atherton. “For example, are sediment/erosion control measures being implemented, is the permittee in compliance with other requirements in the permit, those types of things.”
The compliance and enforcement of permit decisions is an integral part of the process and ensures continued protection of the nation’s aquatic resources even after construction is complete, said Atherton.