Grabbing Opportunities

May 1, 2001
A few days ago a reader wrote in, describing a situation we’re hearing about too often lately: erosion and sediment control on construction sites – or rather, the lack of it. The letter writer, Doug Wolf, works for the Division of Soil Conservation in Indiana – “the land of seasonally saturated soil” as he describes it – where dewatering a site is a big undertaking. “Whenever a hole is dug, it usually fills with water, and the pump discharge from these excavations is basically sludge. In a recent case the contractor was pumping cappuccino-colored water directly into a tile drain that went into a creek,” he writes. “It’s a nice smoking gun for inspectors to find.” The situations he described in his letter prompted me to call him up. Isn’t there some local resource, I wanted to know, to help people learn how to avoid that, and why? There are several, he replied, and he’s one of them, with a standing offer to personally provide a training session any time, any place, perhaps piggybacked onto a required safety meeting. His division, along with Soil and Water Conservation Districts from several counties, also puts on contractors workshops during the winter, hauling truckloads of dirt, tons of riprap, and various ESC products into a huge building at the state fairgrounds. The state has had good luck in offering training to farmers, whose slow season is predictable and who can be lured in with a free dinner and a demonstration. But construction workers? “When’s the downtime?” Wolf asks. “We try to schedule events in February, but we’ve had some years when they couldn’t get off the backhoe because the weather was too good.” Sometimes his best opportunities to get the word out come from his presence on-site, though that’s a time-consuming process.Another training woe he’s encountered is that most people don’t master a particular practice overnight – or at least not during a one-day class. He had the demoralizing experience of visiting a job site a few months after putting on a workshop. “The highlight practice installed during the workshop was a sediment trap, showing the correct installation and sizing and dealing with the rock spillway structures-not too difficult, but if they’re not designed right, they’re a mess.” Wolf was greeted by an enthusiastic construction-site foreman. “He said, “˜I came to your program. It was great!’ He had four or five of these things on his site, and they were all just heaps of rock-and the wrong rock size, to boot.” He concedes, “There are days when I have my dark moments and I wonder what I’m accomplishing. But over the past 10 years we’ve made some monumental leaps.” There seems to be a tremendous opening here for suppliers and distributors, if not to sponsor lengthy training sessions, then at least to provide quick product demonstrations. I asked Wolf how willing companies are to supply materials or to participate in hands-on demos. “It varies tremendously,” he replies. “In our demonstration field days we would have a kind of Sears catalog of different erosion control blankets and other products, trying to get as many different kinds as we could. Here we were, highlighting their products. Sometimes they opened the vault for us, but often it was hard to make connections.” Where’s the advantage to the supplier in all of this? Although the workers themselves probably aren’t the ones specifying the products, it sure doesn’t help a company’s image if its product, poorly installed, is seen as the culprit for a muddy stream. And whenever people do have a choice in what measure to use, they’ll often choose one that’s familiar. “The opportunities out there are just astronomical,” says Wolf. “The number of people who need to know is phenomenally big.”