If you don’t think heavy civil construction projects can be green, think again

By its nature, heavy construction certainly impacts the environment. After all, our industry involves creating big things, including highways, bridges, transit lines and water treatment plants. Without such projects, our way of life would be drastically different. But delivering them has traditionally involved moving a lot of earth and bringing much materials and equipment to the jobsite, generating waste and often pollution in the process. Does civil construction have to be like this?

That’s the question with which I challenged our joint venture team at Virginia’s Elizabeth River Tunnels (ERT) project. This public-private partnership project’s centerpiece is a new tunnel tube under the Elizabeth River, a key tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest U.S. estuary. Beyond designing a greener project, if there was ever a project to build in a greener way, this was it. Our construction team has risen to the challenge.

Among their outcomes and activities are:

– Realizing a recycling/reuse rate of 99 percent: We proactively identify materials we can reuse on site, or we find off-site needs for it.

– Implementing onsite treatment of lead-contaminated soil: Through this environmental-safe method that allows the soil to be handled as treated waste – instead of hazardous waste – the project saved more than $100,000 in disposal costs.

– Adopting environmentally-friendly oil for all marine equipment: This reduces the risk to the river’s marine life.

– Using waste concrete to make oyster habitats: We worked with the Elizabeth River Project – a local non-profit – and the Lafayette Wetlands Partnership to develop an innovative way to make use of waste concrete while enhancing the local ecosystem.

– Generating Environmental Excellence Reports: Through these concise reports that provide a cost analysis and description of benefits from the project’s environmental activities, we hope to educate other construction companies on how to produce quality projects while still improving the environment and saving money.

Oysters

Our Elizabeth River Tunnels team is using waste concrete to make oyster boxes for the Elizabeth River.

Building a green culture

But, perhaps more importantly than what our joint venture did to reduce the project’s environmental impact is how we did it. Here are some key lessons we learned about building a culture of environmental excellence:

– Start small: Maybe that’s establishing a construction waste recycling program or searching for opportunities to maximize the use of recycled or re-used materials. Also, local environmental groups might help identify other environmental opportunities, as well as provide great opportunities for community outreach. 

Engage your staff and crews early: Everyone has a desire to do better, but sometimes they don’t know what opportunities are available.  As the environmental manager, it’s my responsibility to talk to everyone on the project – from the top executive to craft workers – not only about environmental compliance but also about ways we could excel environmentally.  I’ve found that most people either have kids and/or enjoy outdoor activities, and once they understand their choices could affect their families or recreational activities, most people are eager to help and change their habits. Many of the most impactful ideas at ERT came from suggestions from craft crews and staff members.

Secure top-level support: Having great management support has been key to driving the project’s environmental performance. ERT’s management has always been encouraging and supportive in all aspects of environmental initiatives. As a company, our ISO 14001 certification means our project leaders are looking at environmental aspects of our projects before a shovel ever hits the ground so that we make sure to leave the local environment at least as good as the way we found it.

– Recognize that one green often leads to another: Most of ERT’s environmental programs have a cost savings benefit to them, including the on-site treatment of lead-contaminated soil. ERT’s environmental efforts to date have saved more than $250,000 – and we’re not done yet!

Even more, Skanska’s certification to the ISO 14001 international environmental management standard means we’re looking at environmental aspects of our projects before a shovel hits the ground, so we’re sure to leave the local environment at least as good as the way we found it.

ERT chute washing

These self-contained concrete chute wash-out systems that our Elizabeth River Tunnels team is using recycle leftover concrete, and filter and reuse the water.

Efforts being recognized

We’re certainly proud of the recognition that these efforts have received: most recently, SKW Constructors (Skanska/Kiewit/Weeks) received a silver medal in the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards. This award included a proclamation from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and a congratulatory letter from Senator Mark Warner. That our construction team won this award shows the significance of the ideas and actions from the men and women of our team. And last year, ERT received the top designation in the Virginia Environmental Excellence Program – the first construction project to do so.

And yet, what will make me even more proud is earning these honors isn’t the exception for heavy construction projects, but the norm.

Carissa Agnese

Carissa Agnese

Skanska USA Environmental Manager

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“You can build anything green”

At the Elizabeth River Tunnels project in Virginia, our SKW Constructors joint venture is inspired to build green by the beautiful river that’s the basis of our project, and how that waterway impacts our lives. Some of my colleagues fish in these waters, others enjoy different water-based activities, and we all enjoy the river views. So it’s important to us on a personal level to find environmentally friendly ways to build our project. And we’re honored that outside groups are starting to recognize our efforts.

You can build anything green, but our industry hasn’t prioritized sustainability on civil projects the way it has with buildings. For more than a decade, the U.S. Green Building Council has been advocating LEED to improve buildings’ environmental performance. Yet it’s only recently that the Envision sustainable infrastructure rating system was introduced to provide a similar type of focus for civil projects. Still, with civil construction, if you dig a little bit, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to make a difference environmentally.

Midtown Tunnel, second tunnel construction. Portsmouth side.

Our joint venture’s Elizabeth River Tunnels project in Virginia has prioritized building green.

On this project, among the greener ways of working being utilized by the Skanska, Kiewit and Weeks Marine team is a self-contained, concrete chute wash-out system.  Following a concrete pour, these units allow concrete trucks to wash their chutes in a system that contains all the concrete waste and wash water. The units then filter the wash water, allowing it to be recycled and reused in the chute washing process. This system can save approximately $72,700 for every 100 pours. As another example of how going green often saves money, we’ve found that the environmentally friendly aerosol can puncturing system we’ve employed not only reduces the amount of hazardous waste shipped offsite, but also saves more than $30,000 for every 4,200 cans punctured. And rather than paying high fees to haul lead-contaminated soil offsite to dispose of it as hazardous waste, we’re safely remediating that soil onsite.

Just for fun, our team does team-building activities like planting wildlife gardens, celebrating Earth Day and participating annually in the Clean the Bay Day.

Last month, the SKW team was thrilled to learn that our above-and-beyond environmental approach enabled Elizabeth River Tunnels to become the first construction project approved for the Virginia Environmental Excellence Program. Even more significantly, we were approved at the highest level – Extraordinary Environmental Enterprise (E-4). The 14-year-old program drives environmental excellence through a partnership approach between the Commonwealth and private organizations. It’s based on ISO 14001 environmental management standards, to which Skanska is certified; ISO 14001 provides us with a roadmap to take all projects to a higher level of environmental conservation

Our team hopes that our legacy from this project only starts with improved transportation. We’re also building the local workforce, supporting local businesses, and we hope to leave the environment in better condition than it was when we got here.  And finally, we want our work at the Elizabeth River Tunnels project to set the standard as the first of many construction projects recognized by this environmental program.

Carissa Agnese

Carissa Agnese

Skanska USA Environmental Manager

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