Two and a half years after Phase II, contractors are starting to get into the sediment control flow.
By Donna Gordon Blankinship
More than two years after the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase II took effect, some contractors are just starting to assimilate and consistently meet federal and local guidelines for sediment control at construction sites.
People who work in erosion control in every state surveyed for this article agreed that education, enforcement, and erosion control creativity are finally starting to normalize. But many states seem to still have a long way to go before they will truly be following the spirit of this new environmental law.
Environmentalists would say it’s been a long wait since the Clean Water Act was amended in 1987, leading to these rules that eventually affected construction sites. Since 2003, contractors have been required to file a stormwater pollution prevention plan (SWPPP) before work begins and to implement the SWPPP as well as monitor it until the project is completed and a report is made to the local environmental agencies, as specified in state law.
Anyone who disturbs 1 or more acres of dirt must file a SWPPP that includes accepted best management practices (BMPs) as outlined by the individual state and have that plan monitored throughout the construction project and do various testing and inspections throughout the project, as specified by both state and local rules.
Because this is primarily a state-regulated program, there are nearly 50 different ways NPDES Phase II is being enforced, and in some cases implementation varies from county to county. Surprisingly, this was not the most common complaint we heard from erosion control inspectors and environmental subcontractors. Their biggest question seems to be why government agencies and inspectors are so slow to approve the newest ideas in BMPs. In many cases, these new BMPs are more effective than the old-fashioned approaches. They are not always less expensive in the short run, but long-term analysis seems to show these new ideas are more cost-effective over time because they can prevent future, more expensive problems.
Creativity is blossoming in the world of construction-site erosion control, environmental consultants say. Now they’d like to see government agencies and inspectors catch up with the new ideas.
Oxford Properties LLC of Atlanta, GA, won IECA’s Contractor of the Year Award in February 2005 for its flexibility and effectiveness. Creative solutions to typical construction-site erosion control issues led to the award, according to Jim Spotts, an environmental consultant with Southeast Environmental Consultants LLC. Spotts says he nominated Oxford for the award because he felt privileged to work with the company that is so willing to try new things and because the company really cared about the impact of its construction work on the environment. Besides, Oxford has a good track record of meeting state and federal guidelines.
Spotts says Oxford deserves special mention for a townhouse development southeast of Atlanta called Oxford Ridge. Before building the new townhouses, Oxford needed to do a great deal of tree clearing before installing silt fence. Spotts suggested the company take advantage of the trees it was already cutting down and turn the tops of trees into wood chips that could be piled up in 12- to 24-inch-high berms near the silt fence to work as a prefilter. The berms were built in a flowing, nonplanned way. They had no preset dimensions. “It works like a champ and looks nice too,” Spotts says.
Everyone on the project was happy with the results, and now other contractors are starting to copy the idea. Spotts notes that one of the benefits of what seems like a new, creative approach is that wood chips are listed in the state’s list of approved BMPs. The only problem is, because of lack of contractor education, few people know how to use wood chips in their SWPPPs. The more common approach he has seen at sites where silt is a big problem has been to install many rows of silt fence to try to catch all the sediment.
“I have a photo of one site in Pennsylvania with 13 silt fences in a short area. It’s unbelievable … and there weren’t any of them working. It was the wrong BMP,” Spotts says.
Oxford Properties was honored by IECA because of its creativity in combining erosion control methods to minimize sediment runoff from construction sites. The association also commented in its award announcement that the company tailored its erosion control approaches to the specific needs of each particular construction site.
Finding the right BMP is a difficult proposition for some projects, Spotts admits. But there is a plethora of new products being developed almost every day. He thinks these new ideas need to be evaluated and included for use in state BMP lists where the idea makes sense. He acknowledges, however, that few states have the resources to do this kind of testing, and most of the testing being done right now is by state departments of transportation. He believes that is a great start; however, what about the products that aren’t useful on transportation projects but make sense for home construction, for example? They aren’t being tested.
“We have a lot of good things bottling up that we don’t have the means to evaluate,” he says.
The Georgia Department of Transportation this year has responded to requests to open up the BMP list to new projects by announcing that it would consider third-party evaluation of new technology.
Spotts, who has a doctoral degree in soil physics, is a retired federal employee who used to work as an inspector and now uses his knowledge to help businesses meet federal laws. He wants to encourage people with novel and creative erosion control ideas to keep developing them. He says the process of development is contagious and eventually the government will catch innovation fever as well.
Not Fast Enough
Roger Singleton, president of Silt-Saver Inc., is one of the entrepreneurs Spotts would like to encourage. After a career as a residential developer in Atlanta, Singleton developed his Silt-Saver product about seven years ago. The product is designed for concentrated water flows and has been tested at the University of Georgia soil lab. Singleton says it has a proven track record and test results to prove it, but that doesn’t mean he can successfully market his idea. After seven years of trying, Silt-Saver has only been approved as a BMP in 13 states. “It has been a major battle,” he says.
The Silt-Saver storm drain inlet filter employs a reusable HDPE plastic frame that is placed over storm drains during construction to keep silt above ground. The company has developed a variety of other new products since Singleton started Silt-Saver, but he has been frustrated by how difficult it has been to get new ideas that work to be accepted by various government agencies.
One thing that seems to be helping move new products and ideas along is the sharing of information and test results across state lines. A number of states have adopted the Texas Department of Transportation’s “approved products list,” which includes products and devices tested by the Texas Transportation Institute. The EPA, in conjunction with the Civil Engineering Research Foundation (CERF), is also testing and verifying various technologies.
The CERF receives financial support from the EPA but takes a market-driven approach to its research. It tests entrepreneurial products in a wide variety of environmental areas from recycling to erosion control. The program is currently conducting tests on 12 wet-weather flow technologies, some but not all of which may be related to erosion control.
Spotts says he believes education will a key to future innovation in the industry and could someday solve this issue of resistance to change. He notes that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been working for years on educational courses for contractors, designers, and inspectors on the new rules. About 25,000 people will need to take these classes once the curriculum is finalized.
Education and Teamwork
Tim Tometich, a project manager and estimator with the McAninch Corp. in West Des Moines, IA, says both education and teamwork will help the industry adapt to the new NPDES requirements. He says erosion control specialists need to educate contractors, engineers, and developers about how to follow the SWPPPs, and folks need to be part of the team effort to monitor the effectiveness of the BMPs.
“I think you’ll see a huge change in the next year or two, and five years from now [these new procedures and regulations] will be part of everyday business,” he says.
He has worked on or observed several projects where this hasn’t been the case, and the lapse in planning and teamwork has sometimes led to expensive problems. He recalls a housing development where the job had been rough-graded in the fall before the snow hit—then the workers left the site until spring.
“The EPA came out in March or April, and we really were just now starting to get back into finishing the job and paving. And there was a nearby creek fairly close to us. What really hurt was no one really paid attention to it during the winter months. In spring, when everything thawed up, it didn’t look good in front of the EPA inspector at all,” Tometich recalls.
Per state and federal regulations, there should have been more weekly inspections and better maintenance of erosion control measures onsite. The SWPPP was not adequate for the project, according to Tometich. For one thing, there was no control of sediment leaving house sites and going into a storm sewer. “Luckily, I don’t think any of the sediment got into the stream, but it was pretty darn close,” he says.
He says problems like this and others that have led to fines have raised awareness in his company about erosion control and the many methods besides silt fence that are available for controlling sediment at construction sites. “Things are changing quite a bit. It’s really interesting,” he notes.
Especially for projects in sensitive areas—such as those next to bodies of water—an erosion control planning meeting usually occurs now at the very beginning of the project. Tometich says contractors work very closely with the erosion control specialists, and a few new ideas have come from the contractors themselves.
One method the company has begun to use more regularly is the sediment basin. On one project Tometich recalls, a drainage ditch ran through the middle of the site so there was always running water, like a creek. Workers put drainage tile on the bottom of the ditch and reinforced sod on the top of the tile and up the sides of the ditch. This method slowed down the velocity of the water and that helped decrease erosion.
Another simple but successful erosion control method has been to change the order of the work done on a construction site. Some areas are seeded and mulched as soon as they are graded instead of at the end of a project when the paving is finished. This early seeding is done on parts of the land that the contractors will not disturb again during the project—the part that won’t be paved or built upon. One of the first times the McAninch Corp. suggested this method was at a housing project in Ankeny, IA, a suburb of Des Moines. The DNR was pleased with the effectiveness of the method and the developer liked the way it saved money, so the company has continued to employ this method, Tometich says.
“You can throw all kinds of methods out there and ways for doing things. There’s a fine line between making the project be cost-effective and making sure it’s feasible to sell houses,” he says.
As Tripp Bishop, senior estimator/project manager for LandSaver Environmental of Richmond, VA, is fond of saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat” as far as erosion control is concerned. And some ways are more effective and more economical than others. He says you have to take a longer view to truly understand the way some methods can save money and time in the long run; sometimes different methods cost about the same but the new way is better for the environment. Bishop says that’s a cost of a different kind.
“Sometimes these new methods are not more economical, but they’re improving water quality. Water is a precious resource,” Bishop says, acknowledging that “the almighty dollar” attracts more attention than the environment in many developers’ minds.
“Environmentalists are looking at long-term ramifications, and that’s why they’re so picky,” he says. He believes that pickiness also saves money in the long term. “If the county would step up to the plate and mandate that people spec some of the new technology, then they would see long-term that it would benefit them,” he says.
As an example, he mentioned the old-fashioned approach of gravel and chicken wire to keep silt out of storm drains. The boxes of rocks have to be moved and replaced each time they get clogged with dirt and debris. By the end of a project they usually cost more than a couple of different new products that work better but have a higher initial cost.
He prefers to use products like ACF Environmental’s GutterGators, which hold sediment and leaves and do a good job of keeping drains cleaned. And when the GutterGators get clogged up, they just need to be pressure-washed and put right back in place. No special equipment is needed to move them, and they are easy to use. Bishop remembers a situation, however, where an inspector would not approve the GutterGators on a job because he was not aware of the new product. “There still are the a lot of people out there who are not onboard with new technology. They’re losing ground every day,” Bishop comments.
He believes the learning curve in metro Richmond is quite steep for everyone involved in erosion control because every county has its own rules and inspectors have their own ideas about enforcement. Some counties are aggressive with both enforcement and accepting new technologies, and others are not moving ahead in either category.
Bishop would like to see Virginia adopt a statewide enforcement model and raise the expectations of everyone concerning responsibility toward the environment. “Some of the things that the inspectors are requiring contractors to do are very much below my standards. In many cases they are not meeting the minimum standards of the State of Virginia,” he says. He believes new technology can help raise the standards, without costing more in the long run.
Bishop, who grew up in a family earthmoving business and has been on construction sites since he was a kid, is in his mid-30s and is very interested in change. “You just have to be ambitious enough to find a way to do it,” he says.
In some states, there are other costs that can be associated with erosion control. In Georgia, for example, private citizens can bring a civil suit against any organization or individual perceived as a violator of the Clean Water Act. Spotts of Southeast Environmental Consultants notes that citizens have been successful in bringing these lawsuits, and many of them have had a lot of merit to them.
He remembers one case that went to court because an individual did some landscaping in his yard and the mud flowed off the site and entered a swimming pool on an adjacent property. This was a therapeutic pool used by an older couple, who won the case.
Georgia’s state law has an unusual provision that Spotts calls the “BMP defense.” If BMPs are designed and installed correctly, the state will not prosecute the person if the BMP fails. That doesn’t prevent the EPA and private citizens from suing, however. The citizens have to give the perpetrator a 60-day notice of their intent to sue, however, and Spotts says that’s a big incentive to “clean it up in a hurry.”
Donna Gordon Blankinship is an author working in Seattle, WA.