In the five years he's worked building wind turbines, Mike Kelly has faced plenty of obstacles, but he's never dealt with challenges like those presented by his "neighbors" near the Mehoopany Wind Farm project in Noxen Township.
Virtually every day they infiltrate the construction site, blocking roads and preventing crews and equipment from passing by. They've also forced the relocation of several of the giant wind-producing turbines and the re-routing of miles of roadways built into the mountainside to reach the sites.
They've created lots of headaches, and they aren't even human.
Kelly and fellow employees are being rattled by hundreds of rattlesnakes that inhabit the section of the mountain where they're working.
The issue isn't so much the threat the venomous reptiles pose to the workers, but the threat the workers pose to the snakes, particularly the timber rattlesnake.
The snake, which is close to becoming endangered, is considered a "special candidate" species, which affords it special protection under the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
The status means BP and its wind farm partner, Sempra U.S. Gas & Power, must take extraordinary precautions to protect the health, safety and welfare of the reptiles.
A snake crossing or sunning itself in the road brings production to a screeching halt as crews must stop the trucks and call in "snake monitors" – specially trained environmentalists who capture the rattlers and move them to the side.
It would be a lot easier to just run the reptile over, Kelly acknowledges, but regulations strictly prohibit the intentional killing of the timber rattlesnake.
It's been real education for Kelly as he's come to realize: BP may one of the biggest petroleum companies in the world, but in this part of the country, rattlers rule.
Once completed, the $250 million Mehoopany project will consist of 88 wind turbines located across a 9,000-acre site in Noxen, Forkston, Eaton and Mehoopany townships. Construction began last October and is scheduled to end on Dec. 31.
The site is a "rattlesnake mecca," home to an estimated 800 to 1,000 rattlesnakes, said Eric Heppen of Shoener Environmental in Dickson City, the company BP and Sempra retained to help ensure the project complies with regulations.
Those efforts go far beyond avoiding crushing the reptiles as they cross the road. Before construction began, extensive studies were conducted to pinpoint the location of snake dens, Heppen said.
"You not only have to avoid the snake, you have to buffer to the point you don't affect a single rattlesnake den," Heppen said.
The efforts have added significant cost and created some major challenges, Kelly and Heppner said. The companies had to relocate roughly eight of the wind turbines and re-route about 10 miles of roadways after snake dens were discovered in the originally planned locations.
There were also some unexpected costs – like the special matting that's placed on the mountainside to reduce erosion of soil once trees are cut. It could not be used because BP and Sempra learned the snakes could not pass through the type of matting that had been purchased.
Kelly, safety manager for the project, said protecting the snakes also tests the patience of workers.
With 33 miles of roads, it can take 10 to 15 minutes before a snake monitor makes it to the location to move the snake.
"You have to stop traffic and wait for the snake to cross, or call in a snake monitor," Kelly said.
Snakes are coldblooded and love to sun themselves on rocks and the dirt roadways. During the peak season of snake activity in June and July, snake monitors were called out as many as 15 times a day, he said.
Some of the workers – many of whom are not fond of snakes – would prefer to take care of the problem "in a whole 'nother way," Kelly said.
"But we won't let that happen," he said. "It's immediate dismissal if you intentionally harm a snake."
The efforts have made a difference. Only about 20 rattlesnakes out of the hundreds that populate the site have been killed, said Kathy Michell, one of five snake monitors employed at the site.
"Samson" is one of the success stories. The timber rattlesnake was discovered on the side of the road about a month ago. It had apparently been run over by an all-terrain vehicle not connected to the project, Michell said.
At first, Samson – named in honor of the biblical figure known for his strength – appeared to be dead. In compliance with regulations, Michell's son, Tom, who is also a snake monitor, picked the snake up to photograph it and record its death.
When he dropped it to the ground, he saw a slight movement.
The snake, which suffered a spinal injury, could not crawl or hold its head up.
Kathy Michell took the reptile home and nursed it back to health. She released it back into the wild last week.
Michell and Heppen credited BP and Sempra for their cooperation in protecting the snakes, noting the companies have gone beyond what they're required to do.
For instance, the companies have voluntarily avoided building on gestation areas for the snakes, even though those areas are not officially off limits.
"It was critical we leave as much habitat as we could," Heppen said. "It ensures their long-time survival."