New Environmental Initiatives Underway in Virginia

Jan. 1, 2000

Among the environmental initiatives developed in Virginia is an erosion and sediment control certification program for contractors. Starting in January 1999, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) began discussions with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (VDCR), the agency charged with certification of the erosion control industry, to add another certification program to its inventory. At that time, VDCR certified erosion and sediment control inspectors, plan reviewers, and program administrators throughout the Commonwealth. Their certifications were focused towards local programs of the conservation districts and local inspectors, plan reviewers, or those responsible for administration of a local program.

The new certification would require contractors performing work on VDOT rights of way to have an individual with an erosion and sediment control contractor certification. VDCR developed a one-day training class with an exam at the end. The class consists of a morning session to discuss laws, regulations, and the state minimum standards for erosion and sediment control. The law and regulations address why erosion and sediment control are important and what the State of Virginia considers important to protect its natural resources. The state minimum standards discuss the minimum achievable levels of performance to satisfactorily protect the environmental.

That class is followed by a one-hour session taught by VDOT staff to discuss specific environmental specifications and the differences between the state law and VDOT specifications. Over the years, VDOT has developed specifications for the control of erosion and sediment transport that are particular to linear construction projects. VDOT developed an incremental seed specification in the 1960s that is still successfully used today. It requires a contractor to seed slopes as follows:

  • Slopes with vertical heights of 20 ft. (6 m) or greater shall be seeded in three equal increments of height. Slopes whose vertical height is more than 75 ft. (24 m) shall be seeded in 25-ft. (8-m) increments.
  • Slopes with vertical heights of less than 20 ft. (6 m) but more than 5 ft. (2 m) shall be seeded in two equal increments.
  • Slopes with vertical heights of 5 ft. (2 m) or less may be seeded in one operation.
  • Seeding operations shall be initiated within 48 hours after attaining the appropriate grading increment or upon suspension of grading operations for an anticipated duration of greater than 15 days or upon completion of grading operations for a specific area.

The afternoon session discusses structural and vegetative practices and ends with a written exam. The structural-practices portion discusses how to build control measures (such as sediment basins and traps, check dams, diversion berms, and silt fences) and what they are designed to accomplish. The vegetative-practices section discusses different types of temporary and permanent vegetation effective in various parts of the state to control erosion. It emphasizes the effects of vegetation in limiting sheetflow and allowing water to infiltrate rather than turn into a natural force that will cause rill or gully erosion at or near construction sites.

The class is completed with VDCR staff giving a written exam to all participants. The exam tests what the students have been taught and measures their comprehension of the subject matter. As of this writing, approximately 1,300 contractors have attended one of the classes with a 92% pass rate on the exam. It is anticipated that 2,500-3,000 contractors will ultimately receive this training and certification. It impacts not only the roadway contractors, but also the utility contractors, private developers working under permit to construct entrances to their development from a public road, and maintenance contractors or VDOT staff directing hired equipment operations.

VDOT’s new specification requiring the contractor certification allows a contractor to perform land-disturbing activities as long as the person holding the certification is physically on the project. If the certified individual is sick or on vacation for a day and no other certified individual is available to cover the project, work is stopped until the person holding the certification is once again available on the project.

In addition to the contractor certification program, VDOT is sending all of its inspectors (both consultant and in-house), project engineers, and anyone on staff responsible for permitting or inspecting land-disturbing activities to VDCR inspector certification classes. This will include another 1,200-1,500 individuals on staff or working for VDOT through a consultant inspection company.

All certifications are good for three years. After that, inspectors must attend a two-day basic erosion and sediment control class to maintain their certification. Contractors must attend another one-day contractor certification class. Both classes are designed as refreshers for those holding certifications and to bring them up-to-date on the latest thinking in the erosion and sediment control industry.

To help keep VDOT’s erosion and sediment control program on track, its environmental staff has made some additional specification changes. Stumps and other vegetative waste generated on VDOT projects cannot be buried. The material may be burned if the locality where the project is being built will issue a burning permit. With Virginia air-quality standards as restrictive as they are, burning permits cannot be issued in most urban areas. In other areas, the vegetative waste must be taken to a licensed landfill or chipped and beneficially used as mulch or for fuel. This is opening a whole new industry using stump grinders to create mulch, which can be recycled and used to help stabilize slopes or used for fuel.

In areas where a water-quality permit has been issued by either a state or federal agency, the contractor is required to leave a 100-ft. (30-m) buffer around the permit site until the contractor is ready to start the structure in that area. Once the area is cleared and grubbed, the contractor is required to prosecute work to completion of the structure for the permit site. This specification will effectively protect sensitive bodies of water identified and requiring a Corps of Engineers or Virginia Marine Resources Commission water-quality permit.

A third initiative VDOT has undertaken to further protect Virginia’s natural resources is to require the contractor to stabilize, at his own expense, any area that he cannot actively prosecute work on in a 15-day period if that area was cleared as a result of his own negligence. This specification is designed to maintain the natural vegetative cover for as long as possible during the construction of a project. A contractor cannot simply clear the entire project and let it sit for long periods of time with only marginal perimeter controls to prevent sediment from escaping.

Why have VDOT and VDCR undertaken this joint venture? The outcome that VDOT management will achieve is a better-trained construction work force managing the construction in a way that protects the natural resources while moving Virginia’s transportation program forward. The contractor certification classes focus on how to build the controls, what they are designed to accomplish, and why they are needed. The inspector certification classes focus on what to look for while inspecting, what the law and specifications say, and what the controls are designed to accomplish. The disposal of vegetative waste specification was designed to accomplish two things. First, it complies with a new regulation that requires methane gas and groundwater monitoring wells wherever vegetative waste is buried. Second, it prevents VDOT from having to handle the vegetative waste again at some future time with another transportation improvement. The limitations on clearing specifications are designed to provide as much natural protection as possible for as long as possible during the construction process.

About the Author

James Barrett

James R. Barrett, CPESC, is head of VDOT's Erosion and Sediment Control Program and serves as president of IECA's Mid-Atlantic Chapter.