Don’t Dump Stuff in the River

By David L. Rieser

So, you are managing a major construction site in downtown Chicago. It’s been raining and you have thousands of gallons of silty water which you need to get off site. You can: (a) store it in tanks and then truck it to a waste water treatment facility; (b) discharge it to the local sewer under proper sewer authority; or (c) pump it into the river in full view of thousands of commuters walking over the bridges from the local train stations.

Most of us would agree that (c) would be the least optimal choice, but an editor for the Chicago Tribune took a very graphic picture of a construction worker doing exactly that, holding a pipe spewing thousands of gallons of grey silty water into the river and creating an extremely obvious and damning plume. He posted it to Twitter where it was seen by employees of the Illinois EPA and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, who promptly sued the construction companies and the site owner for violation of federal and state clean water laws.

While this will no doubt create headaches for the defendants, this is, as they say, a teachable moment. First, construction companies must have a plan for managing stormwater. There is a General Permit issued by EPA under the Clean Water Act for construction activity, which lays out a number of requirements and best practices. There have been a number of cases brought against companies for violating this permit, generally for obvious issues, which could have been avoided with better management and focus. The conditions of these permits are available, and there are any number of environmental professionals who would be glad to work with construction companies to make sure these issues are addressed.

Second, even if there is a plan, it is management’s responsibility to train and work with the employees to make sure it’s implemented. It’s easy to look at this picture and blame the guy with the hose, but he had supervisors who either directed him or didn’t give him enough direction, other supervisors on site who weren’t paying attention to what he was doing, and still other supervisors who didn’t sufficiently stress that not dumping stuff in the river was as important as any other job on site.

Third, whatever the above steps might cost, it will be cheaper than dealing with this lawsuit. Fines under the Illinois Environmental Protection Act can run up to $10,000 per day, per violation. The actual amount of Illinois fines can fluctuate greatly, but they have generally been going up, and I doubt that Illinois will be talked into giving a slap on the wrist for this one. Had the federal government brought this action, the defendants would be looking at a minimum of $37,500 per day, per violation. In some particularly ugly circumstances, intentionally dumping stuff in the river can lead to criminal penalties, including jail.

So the bottom line is: Don’t do this. Plan for managing stormwater, train your employees and subs to implement the requirements, and supervise the site to make sure it is being done right.

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