"I'm trying to anticipate and manage environmental issues related to a construction project, but I am having a hard time finding resources. What are some construction-related environmental issues I should keep an eye out for since this appears to be an overlooked area?"
The best approach to this issue is to certainly address it in the pre-construction setting. While there are many regulations that address environmental issues, the responsibility for this falls on many of the parties involved in a construction project. In general, the owner has responsibilities to disclose known hazardous materials and control their release, and the contractors working on the site have responsibilities to protect their workforce from workplace hazards. Volumes can be written on who is responsible for what issue, but here is a summary of some pre-construction considerations that should be employed to address both building-related hazardous materials and site-related impact and hazardous materials.
Building-Related Hazardous Materials The impact of not performing a building survey for hazardous materials can result in unnecessary exposures to workers and the environment, as well as cause considerable construction delays and potential regulatory fines. Asbestos is the most common hazardous constituent that is addressed in a pre-construction building survey. An asbestos inspection always should be addressed in a building survey, along with gathering records that may exist of previous inspections performed on the property. One mistake many people make, however, is thinking that their property is too "new" for asbestos to be present or that the material was removed in a previous abatement of thermal insulations from the property. There actually is no specific date of construction recognized by regulators that will indicate a building is free from asbestos. Asbestos can be found as a contaminant in glues, mastic, surfacing materials, flooring and roofing materials in many properties built even in the early 2000s. In many cases, your path of construction and the building materials it will impact is the best route for an inspector to investigate in instances where there is not an opportunity to perform a comprehensive, whole-building inspection. Getting access to all layers of building materials, down to the structural components of the building, is important. Licensed, certified asbestos inspectors would perform this service.
Site-Related Hazardous Materials Working in and around the soil on site, commonly referred to as "site work," can create environmental impacts that also need to be addressed. Site excavation and moving soils during grading will unearth whatever is present in the soil but also can impact how groundwater and surface water exist at the site. Knowing what is in your soil (and buried within it) is very important, as prior construction could have resulted in buried building materials. Additionally, prior use could have contaminated the site with a wide variety of products like fuels, petroleum products, coolants, chemicals, and building materials like asbestos. Your site's soil and the groundwater flowing through/ under your site also can be impacted by surrounding properties. If your property is down gradient from a former gas station, dry cleaner, or auto body shop, for example, this history could impact what is in your soil. This is a very important issue and often is overlooked until someone on the site becomes concerned with odors or worker exposure. It can impact soil disposal considerations because all landfills want to know what is in the soil they are getting. It also will impact potential future vapor intrusion of chemicals from the soil or the groundwater under your site into your building. This term, vapor intrusion, can refer to volatile organic chemicals present in the soil or groundwater and can affect not only future indoor air quality in the building but also worker exposure during the excavation, earthwork, and laying of utility pathways.
While the site soil and groundwater issues can seem daunting, much of this can begin to be addressed by performing an environmental site assessment according to ASTM standards. This process looks at the site use history, history of buildings on and around the site, and if there is a potential for site impact by this history. Certain parts of the country also are in areas where radon-a naturally occurring, odorless gas-may be present and can be tested for in the property. Before one shovel goes in the ground, this information will help alleviate future regulatory concerns about how your site soil is processed, transported and disposed of.
Keith Pokorny, LEED AP, Vice President of Environmental Services, has more than 25 years of experience in Environmental, Engineering, and Construction Management services. He specializes in large project coordination and assists clients in implementing construction-related capital improvement programs.
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