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What Does Environmental Protection Mean to the Construction Industry?

It is a necessary effort for all contractors to develop an environmental policy. Depending on the project, environmental protection can translate into time, money or both—as well as failure—to uphold a moral obligation to the community.

Failure to conduct an environmental review during the pre-construction phase of a project can lead to severe delays and work stoppages. Waiting on concurrences between third-party engineering firms, the EPA and the Army Corp of Engineers can take several months, create a public relations problem and hold up work. Even when an environmental review is completed, changes to a project may have unforeseen environmental impacts.

The environmental policy should contain a basic commitment to the environment and to environmental compliance.

One pathway to achieve the commitment is to formalize an environmental management system (EMS). An EMS is an organizational tool a company can use to manage environmental responsibilities throughout the company or on a jobsite.

Construction companies generally use an EMS to house information for compliance with regulations: storm water pollution prevention plans (SWPPPs), checklists, permits, best management practices, environmental training and inspection records, to name a few. The EMS may also incorporate sustainability efforts. A company can use the EMS to track any environmental goals or document its contributions to a client’s environmental/sustainability priorities for a project.

An EMS toolkit is available at no cost on the Construction Industry Compliance Assistance website.

Even if an environmental review has been completed, project changes can affect environmental compliance. No matter how rigorous the planning and monitoring, it is likely that something will not occur as planned. Foresight into the following common changes can improve outcomes:

  1. site conditions other than expected (e.g., soils are found to be more erosive or have a higher silt content than described in the technical studies);
  2. discoveries of hazardous materials, or other features that cause a change in construction plans;
  3. safety compromised due to environmental compliance (e.g., the permitted storm water conveyance system causes inadvertent flooding of the roadway);
  4. access (e.g., the need to get equipment into a sensitive area due to restricted space);
  5. changes in construction activities, location or sequencing (e.g., cannot complete in-water work by close of work window, need to change location of permanent or temporary storm water facility, etc); and
  6. environmental commitments shown to be inappropriate or impractical.

Companies that already have an EMS in place are always looking for ways to improve upon their current programs. Environmental protection initiatives that have significant ROI are generally the first to be supported while initiatives that reduce global warming or other “big picture” issues are sometimes met with financial strife.

Here are a few initiatives to consider:

  • Anti-idling initiatives. Save money on fuel by eliminating idling of equipment. When idling, engines consume fuel and produce emissions and hydrocarbons that form smog and emit pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and toxic air pollutants that negatively affect cardiovascular and respiratory health for adults—and especially for children—and contribute to climate change.
  • SPCC programs. Spill prevention countermeasure and control (SPCC) programs are mentioned in SWPPPs and required where large quantities of fuel or oil are stored or at areas where it can be leaked into waterways. Many sites are implementing SPCC programs as a best practice to reduce environmental impacts from smaller quantity spills of gasoline, oil, hydraulic fluid and other common construction contaminants. The programs outline containment, transfer and spill response for materials commonly stored onsite. A “no drop hits the ground” approach can eliminate lost material and environmental cleanup costs.
  • Employee training. Train everyone involved in the construction project to recognize environmental noncompliance events so they can alert management to issues in the field. Provide staff with spill kits and training on appropriate uses so they can further reduce the risk of spilled materials entering waterways.
  • Recycling. The use of roll-off containers for co-mingled recyclable waste (except food waste) provides advantages when hauled to a recycling facility. The major advantages include contractors not needing to alter their jobsite practices, which in turn eliminates the need for recycling signage and associated costs, training their trade contractors and delivery personnel, and monitoring the roll-off box for content contamination. Through recycling, a contractor can save money when the recycling benefits and the avoided disposal costs are combined.

Today, more than ever, contractors need to be aware of their impacts on the environment. A failure to consider environmental effects can test the financial stability of even the best of companies. In addition to the preventative measures discussed, all contractors should consider their exposures and determine if an additional safeguard, such as pollution liability insurance, is appropriate for their operations.

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