Speaking of Dirt

March 1, 2004
By Carol Brzozowski

With Phase II of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) in effect, the challenge for engineers, contractors, and developers now is to determine-and put to use-the best methods for controlling sediment at a job site.

According to Arthur Miner of A.J. Garrett and Associates, an erosion control company in West Des Moines, IA, sediment control has come a long way in the past few years yet still has a long way to go. “The people who should be involved are taking it much more seriously,” he says.While some municipalities are tightening up sediment control measures, others still seem to be sitting on the fence. “Now that we have Phase II kicking in, I’m seeing operations as usual, and that is too bad,” says Jerald Fifield, president of HydroDynamics Inc. in Parker, CO. “We can have a Phase II, a Phase III, and a Phase XX, and if we don’t have anymore enforcement out there, passing all of these additional laws isn’t going to matter at all.“The changes are beginning. Smaller municipalities are starting to pass rules so they don’t have [the Environmental Protection Agency] coming down on them. It’s fine to pass rules to protect the environment, but if we’re passing these rules, we’d better be ready to enforce the rules and have qualified inspectors and people who know what they’re looking for so we all can work together to minimize the amount of sediment pollution sites.”Fifield, who has written extensively about sediment control, points out a distinction: Dirt is what leaves an original site, and sedimentation is dirt causing problems because of where it ends up. “There is erosion control, there is sediment control, and then there is sedimentation. There are big distinctions. Sediment is particles suspended in runoff water that vary in size and shape and are a result of erosion that has occurred due to rainfall or other means.”Fifield notes that sediment control methods have been relatively ineffective for most suspended particles, except for particles “that are like large spans and have a heavier mass.”One technique used to deal with sediment in runoff is flocculation. “You add polyacrylamide [PAM], and it chemically bonds together suspended clay particles to make them larger so you can get a deposition to occur,” explains Fifield. “It is usually introduced as water is flowing to, say, a sediment containment system. It can also be introduced on hillsides, although the research is still out as to the effectiveness.” Fifield says the biggest drawback to using PAM effectively is that it has to be mixed with water and takes a lot of “tender, loving care” to make it work right. In addition, the wrong PAM can be detrimental to fish life downstream.

When PAM is introduced, it increases the size and weight of the particles and can start developing an effective sediment containment system. The correct PAM is not toxic to fish.

Still the most effective sediment control measures are effective erosion control practices, Fifield says. “Essentially you have to do erosion [control] as you’re doing the construction process, compared to erosion control at the end of the construction process, which is different. Fortunately contractors and developers are finding out that implementing erosion control practices as the construction activities occur can be done in a cost-effective manner.”Aicardo Roa-Espinosa, an urban conservationist with Dane County Land Conservation in Wisconsin, notes that the goal of a sediment control plan is to deal with the problems on-site and that control and strict inspection help cut down on potential problems. He also is experienced with the use of flocculants for sediment control. “We don’t want soil loss to become sediment. Once you have sediment, you have to clarify the ponds of sediment with the use of coagulant and flocculent. It has to be a chemical treatment. And it’s very difficult.”Roa-Espinosa says Dane County is the only one in the country using a coagulant and flocculent for water clarification. He has developed a control measure using PAM.Practices vary throughout the country on what is being used for sediment control. Miner’s company previously used primarily silt fence for sediment control but now advocates other measures, such as berms, blankets, and matting, to provide the most efficiency for the dollars invested. Miner, a former Department of Transportation employee, does a great deal of work for the state, county, and city transportation departments. “The state is very serious about making [sediment control] effective, and that feeds down to counties and cities,” he says. “They’ll listen to our suggestions, but they have very stern policies they want to follow, and we have to bid accordingly.”For example, the company put in compost on 15 ac. of land and then applied a wood-fiber hydroseed mixture on top of it. “It’s kind of extreme, but it works for controlling sediment,” he says. “It was a steep slope on a freeway grading project that went into a river. We’ve used hydroseeding and hydromulching to keep sediment out of the river.”One of Miner’s company’s most challenging sediment control jobs involved a project near the Des Moines River. “The slopes were incredibly steep with loose soil, and we had to try to stop it,” he notes. The company laid down erosion matting and hydroseeded mulch. As it was a steep area, silt fences were placed adjacent to the other measures taken. Sales Manager Corey Simonpietri of Landsaver in Richmond, VA, says his company has changed its practices to become more proactive in the services it provides. Landsaver, which handles a variety of erosion control projects, is a division of ACF Environmental.Although the company has installed best management practices, with the contractor agreeing to maintain whatever was done, it is getting an increasing number of requests from clients-especially large homebuilding companies-for a regular system of inspections. “They don’t necessarily want to know every in and out, every code, and every regulation that has to be maintained on a site. They’re looking for somebody who can help them do that,” Simonpietri says.
Landsaver is employing a variety of methods for sediment control, including Gutterbuddys, silt fences, erosion control blankets on drainage ditches during mass grading projects, and check dams or silt dikes in small drainage ditches.
The company is experimenting with silt dikes for truck entrances, especially downhill entrances, “so you can run over them and not restrict access but at the same time keep the sediment from flowing out of the site,” says Simonpietri.Ron Jueneman is with R.L. Jueneman Construction in Hanover, KS, a company that works extensively for the state in providing seeding, silt fencing, and erosion control blankets. He uses silt fence in areas under construction, and if the area needs ponding, he’ll do that too. Circumstances dictate how Jueneman approaches sediment control.“With a silt fence, if you try to use it like a pond dam, it won’t work. You need to put it in at intervals so it has a chance to keep the water slowed down and put it in on a gradient basis so it works similar to a terrace channel. If you try to put it in just at the bottom of a big hill and expect it to work, it won’t. It’s not designed for that, and it isn’t big enough.” It works better on areas where there is a dike with an inlet pipe through it, he adds.Jueneman concedes that silt fences have a bad reputation. “Guys just hurry up and slop it in incorrectly. States don’t want to pay for too much silt fence because it’s just a temporary deal.” He believes NPDES is likely to change that approach. In Santa Rosa, CA, Ron Powers’s Fedco, a general engineering firm, provides earthwork, grading, paving, and sewer, water, and storm drain construction. Powers has seen more stringent sediment control measures in effect as a result of Phase II, with sites being inspected more frequently. He says the regulations have created a “mini-industry” of sorts. “More developers are requiring that we do at least the initial installation of the erosion control; there are few subcontractors who specialize just in that. Those who do are usually very busy, so we generally have to hire a few more people in order to do that. We ask the developer to take over the maintenance,” Powers says.His company is on the lookout for devices that are easier to install, are more effective, and thus reduce violations of regulations. His company uses KriStar Flo-Gard and other products, such as rice-straw fiber rolls, which are confined in nets and used for slopes and perimeter sediment control in lieu of silt fence. The rice-straw fiber rolls are easily installed and maintained and filter the water better, Powers says. The company also uses Slope-Gard 3, a curled, aspen-wood excelsior fiber roll, around catch basins or curb inlets in lieu of sandbags and hay bales. Powers says it not only slows down the flow, but it also filters the sediment better than sandbags and hay bales do and is easier to handle. “You don’t prefill sandbags; you have to bring sand and bags to the job and fill [the bags] and then get rid of the excess.”Fedco also uses catch-basin inserts. “A lot of sediment is generated during construction, and that really helps keep the new boxes and pipelines clean,” Powers says. “You’re not getting a lot of floatation down into the storm drain system during construction. Although they are a postconstruction device, we encourage owners to put them in early and be proactive, rather than reactive, to the regulations.”Lisa Reas of L.J. Reas Consulting in Green Lake, WI, has been involved in shore stabilization efforts at a creek that runs through Middleton, WI, where a lot of erosion has occurred. “We’re seeing the state [Department of Natural Resources] become much more particular on various types of erosion control,” she says of the Phase II era. “All of the municipalities are being very particular with it.” Her company does shoreline restoration and erosion control projects, and her specialty is bioengineering. She often uses BioLog by ACF Environmental. Reas believes everyone now is catching up to what should have been going on all along. “People are becoming more aware of the state funding for erosion control projects and shoreline restoration projects, whereas people used to feel you had to come in and just throw rock on shorelines to provide stabilization.” Many counties have developed erosion control practices and have on staff someone whose job it is to review them, Reas says, adding, “Contractors are really being forced to tow the line on this.” Wisconsin is proactive in bringing contractors and county officials together “to talk about what products are out there, how they have been used, how they’re going to be used in the future, what we’ve done wrong, and what is the right way of doing it.“It’s going to be a couple more years before we really have this down as far as what needs to go where and what our best uses of resources are going to be.”Yet Miner observes more people developing erosion and sediment control plans. “When [NPDES] first came into effect, engineering consultants really weren’t too sure what to do. Now they do a very good job.”
For an example of what municipalities are doing in response to NPDES, consider Dane County, which has established standards exceeding those of NPDES Phase II, says Roa-Espinosa. He explains that the county’s water-quality standards are linked to such factors as the steepness of a slope and the amount of time a construction site will be open.The county requires contractors to fill out a plan showing a site diagram with a legend of influencing factors, such as the property line, gravel access, vegetation, existing and planned storm sewers and inlets (or culverts), and drainage and planned erosion control methods. The plan is detailed with respect to erosion control practices: The county requires that soil storage piles be contained by a downslope sediment fence or covered with a tarp and recommends that they be located more than 25 ft. away from any downslope road or drainageway.Temporary gravel access drives must have 2- to 3-in. aggregate stone laid at least 7 ft. wide and 6 in. thick. Drives must extend from the roadway 50 ft. or to the building, whichever is less.Sediment controls must minimize the amount of eroded soil leaving the site and be installed along the down-slope sides of the disturbed areas unless permanent seeding and mulching are planned to be completed within 30 days of the start of grading. Sediment controls must be installed around soil storage piles, inlets, and outlets and along adjacent drainageways that receive site runoff.Contractors must provide information on location of practices that will be used to control erosion on steep slopes with a grade greater than 12%.Contractors must provide information on the location of sediment barriers around storm sewer inlets.Areas of concentrated flow must be diverted properly around disturbed areas. The county recommends that overland runoff from adjacent areas greater than 10,000 ft.2 be diverted around disturbed areas in a manner that will not adversely impact adjacent landowners. Diversions must be stabilized with seeding and mulching within 24 hours of diversion completion.Drainageways must be stabilized with seeding, mulching, and other appropriate measures within 24 hours of drainageway completion. Sediment controls must be installed at the outlet ends of drainageways. The plan also is detailed with respect to management of erosion control:Rough, graded, disturbed areas planned to be left inactive for more than 30 days and temporary soil stockpiles planned to be left inactive for more than seven days are to be stabilized by temporary seeding between April 1 and October 15 or by other cover, such as a tarp or mulching.Permanent seeding must be completed by September 15, or sodding must be placed by November 15. Straw or grassy-hay mulching is recommended for all disturbed areas planned for seeding. The contractor must list the permanent seeding type and rate of application.Downspout or sump-pump outlet extensions to stabilized areas are to be used.Sediment-laden discharge should be ponded temporarily behind a sediment barrier until most of the sediment settles.Building material waste is to be disposed of properly as to avoid pollutants and debris being carried off-site by wind or water.Erosion control practices will be inspected daily and must be maintained in working condition.Accumulated sediment must be removed from behind sediment fences and barriers before it reaches a depth equal to half the barrier height. All sediment that moves off-site due to construction activities must be cleaned up by the end of the workday. Sediment that moves off-site due to a storm event must be cleaned up at least by the end of the next day, if not earlier. Temporary gravel access drives must be maintained throughout construction in working condition. All erosion control practices will be maintained until the disturbed areas they protect are permanently stabilized and established.The set limits ensure that those who do not do anything beyond the time of seeding and mulching lose their permit. “You have to go back and do it again, and we will collect our money. Or you risk being red-tagged, and you lose the permit. Either way, you lose the permit,” Roa-Espinosa says.Dane County does not accept silt fences as erosion control. “If you show up with silt fences in this office, you have to go back to the drawing board. You have to use berms, mulch, and seeds, or you can sod. We are also implementing putting in an inch of compost mixed with polymers as a sediment control and seeding establishment. Everything grows so beautifully because it’s organic matter.”Roa-Espinosa has developed formulas for sediment control based on a PAM mix. He uses a different mix for water clarification. Particles will settle faster because the pond must be retained for six hours.“By doing that,” Roa-Espinosa explains, “the particles attach to the other particles by the polymers, and by the mix of the coagulants, the flocculent, and then the aggregates, the sediment in suspension becomes bigger, and then it goes down faster. Then you have less sediment going through the outfall of the pond, detention basin, swale, or site.”Roa-Espinosa says a plan is useless unless there is frequent inspection. “If there is no good inspection, it doesn’t matter. You can have a beautiful plan on paper, but then you have to follow up. You must have a date when you are going to begin, when you are going to seed, and when you are going to finish. There’s maybe one extension we give for 30 or 40 days, but if you are not done, then you lose the permit.”Miner sees a more serious attitude toward erosion control since Phase II, with more effective methods being employed. His company now is spending twice as much time inspecting and maintaining sediment control measures. “We’re trying to concur with the requirements,” he says. “When [a silt fence] gets half-full or more, we clean it out and keep an eye on it to make sure it’s not leaking. Even if there aren’t leaks in the silt fence, we’re looking for problems that we can stop before they get started.”Proper installation and maintenance are critical for preventing problems. “The most important part of a successful plan is to maintain it,” Roa-Espinosa says. “If the builder or developer is careless, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the product is-you will have sediment coming out.”Miner agrees. “If you don’t do it right the first time, you lose ground immediately. If you don’t get your silt fence in the ground deep enough and staked up, the water will get under it. That’s the biggest problem. We put everything in the ground a foot-the state requires it. We probably still have some leakage problems, but you can minimize it.”Simonpietri’s clients sometimes call the company to say a sediment control method is not working. “We look at it, and it’s not that it’s not working; it’s that it’s not been maintained. Once sediment has clogged something up, it’s obviously not going to work.”Some of Landsaver’s clients handle maintenance on their own; many “just don’t want to have to think about it,” Simonpietri says. “They want to know that when the inspector shows up on the site, it’s done, and they’re not going to have anything to worry about.” Landsaver’s time invested in maintenance varies. “In Virginia, the code is that you have to inspect it every two weeks and then after a rain event. We’re finding that if we finish a job early, we can get out and look at one or two of our sites and knock out those inspections, make sure everything is working, and then react quickly when we do find a problem,” Simonpietri relates.
Jueneman uses straw bales but prefers silt fence for its ease of installation and maintenance. “It needs to be put in there deep enough and packed in there tight enough so water can’t get underneath it,” he says. “You need more stakes at the bottom where it’s critical-otherwise the water will push it over-and then fewer stakes as it goes out. Cutting corners doesn’t work. It’s got to be put in the right way, or it won’t do any good at all.”Jueneman says silt fences should be maintained on an as-needed basis. “You don’t have to get carried away with it, but you need to be there and check them after a big rain, get the silt dug back out of them, and get them stapled or staked back up. If you’ve got a spot that didn’t work, you need to do something different with it, like put in an extra fence or a sediment basin.” His clients usually maintain the fence themselves. Not much maintenance is needed during a dry season, but when there are heavy rains, inspection occurs usually once or twice a week.Powers has a different take on silt fence. “You’ve got to put a trench down,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure it’s catching the sediment. But it tends to fall over because it’s not as strong a product. The rice-straw fiber rolls hold up far better and look nicer. When you’ve got a lot of rainfall and you’ve got a silt fence up and it’s really done its job, it starts to look kind of ratty. Not that it doesn’t work, but these new devices are much easier to handle, and we get feedback from inspectors that we get cleaner runoff at the bottoms of the slopes where the water ultimately ends up running.”KriStar has a maintenance division that cleans out inserts, Powers explains. “They’re proactive in the postconstruction insert field by making sure that the owners know they also have to maintain these things. That’s an issue coming up with the mandates, that the future owners of the commercial properties have to maintain whatever is installed. The mandates are getting more strict in that they’re going to be inspecting these sites on a yearly basis and sometimes biyearly.”Fifield stresses that it is very important to know when to install certain measures. “When you first begin a project, hopefully the designer has put down a set of plans of what they are going to put in before they start moving material so everybody knows what’s going on before it gets done,” he says. “The weakest link is not the contractor. The weakest link is the inadequate plans that designers are providing contractors.”A postconstruction plan should identify what erosion and sediment control methods to remove after construction. “You don’t leave the silt fence in there forever; you’ve got to get rid of it. That has to be clearly identified,” Fifield says. “The designer should be out there continually checking the measures to see that they were installed correctly and if there was a failure why it occurred and whether the method needs to be changed. “More importantly, we do some type of maintenance that involves repairing and/or replacement of what failed, and we do that in a very timely manner,” Fifield says. “EPA says we [must] do it within seven days, but we try to do it as quick as possible, especially when you’re in an area that has a lot of chances of rain falling. The maintenance issue is very critical, and the correct installation is extremely critical.” Thomas Carpenter of Carpenter Erosion Control in Ankeny, IA, points out that daily maintenance issues center on repairing devices that have been knocked down or moved for some reason, and operational maintenance is about replacing or duplicating once the sediment device has done its job and is now full of sediment.

“For example, most specifications call for cleaning a silt fence when it is half-full,” he says. “But the question is how to remove it and what to do with it. It just creates another problem. My belief is to leave it stored behind the device and build a new one to collect new runoff.”

Planning and budgeting of materials required for an erosion and sediment control plan is usually done on a per-linear-foot basis, industry specialists say, and the final costs depend on products used. But those costs are nothing compared to the fines levied for not using the methods.Fines and penalties can be hefty for violations, such as not controlling sediment that leaves a site or improperly maintaining sediment control measures. Roa-Espinosa says the most severe penalty for a violation is a stop-work order. “That hurts. There’s a lot of machinery and workers they’re keeping on it. That hurts more than any fine. We only fine people in extreme cases. If you stop a guy from working two or three days of the week, he really pays the price.”Roa-Espinosa says the county has found stop-work orders to be very effective because there are companies that get fined and still continue their same practices while paying the fine. Powers concurs, pointing out that a stop-work order can be even worse than a fine because it has a synergistic effect that impacts everyone-from the worker to the developer. In Powers’s area, those who violate regulations get warnings, with subsequent fines ranging from a few thousand dollars up to $10,000 for a repeated fine. Fifield says the Clean Water Act stipulates that violations for negligence carry a fine of $2,500-$50,000 per day of violation or one to two years in prison, with $50,000 fines reserved for repeat offenders. “Knowing violations”-acts done purposefully-result in a range of fines from $5,000 to $100,000 per day of violation and/or three to six years in prison. “Knowing dangerous” is a violation that can result in a $250,000-$1 million fine and/or 15 years in prison for a particular incident. The fine for making a false statement on an inspection report is $10,000-$20,000 and/or two to four years in prison. EPA has an administrative penalty that carries a daily fine of $10,000-$25,000. A Class-Two administrative penalty ranges from $10,000 to $125,000 a day. Fifield says “deep pockets” are being hit with significant fines, including many departments of transportation in Tennessee, Idaho, and California. EPA has made inspections nationwide and levied more than $1 million in fines against 12 entities because they did not have plans on-site. Many people with the CPESC-Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control-designation, such as Carpenter and Fifield, or with similar certifications, find that it provides them with more clout. Simonpietri, who is not a CPESC and says Virginia does not do a lot with the CPESC program at this point, is in the process of becoming a certified inspector in Virginia. “It basically helps me talk in the same terminology they know, and the training background is similar. I’ve been in erosion control for more than 10 years, but that doesn’t always mean anything to somebody who’s on-site.”Fifield believes that because of their training and background, CPESCs often are more qualified than engineers. “It doesn’t mean that an engineer doesn’t know how to do it, but the regulatory people are making a huge mistake by saying only engineers sign plans. My opinion is that there ought to be a qualified person to sign plans, and if that turns out to be an engineer, fine. But if it turns out to be a CPESC, then that person ought to be able to sign the plans.” Fifield says there needs to be more communication and cooperation among designers and contractors on ensuring that the rules are followed. Contractors need to know that the cost of erosion and sediment control “is going to be cheap compared to the cost to clean up everybody’s mess on their properties and fight off all of the fines that are going to come down on you.”

Journalist Carol Brzozowski writes on erosion control and technology.