Could you be at risk for a lawsuit for poor soil management activities?
A recent news story highlighted the impact to project schedule and cost due to improper disposal of contaminated soil. In this case, a retailer purchased a site in 2005 to build a new store. Unfortunately, the store opening has been delayed several years because contamination in site soils was more extensive than originally identified during due diligence. As a result, soil from grading activities that was previously not identified as contaminated was improperly disposed off-site and the owner of the off-site location subsequently found that the soil was contaminated and sought damages from the retailer. After the contamination was discovered, about 17,500 cubic yards of soil needed to be relocated. At the end of the day, grading of the site resulted in a $14M lawsuit.
New development starts, work on existing sites, grading, refits to parking lots, placement of new buildings or expansions, or site work to comply with stormwater requirements all require management of soil. Due to the nature of this work, soil is displaced to allow for site grading, construction of footings, or installation of utilities and conveyances. As the news story above highlights, the potential for environmental liability exists when handling these soils.
Soil excavation and disposal performed in conjunction with legally mandated environmental cleanup used to be the only obvious instance where regulated handling and off-site disposal of soil was needed. With the tightening of waste handling regulations in many states and changes in the standard of practice that have occurred over the last decade, removing soil from your site for any purpose now represents one of your biggest environmental liabilities.
There are some simple but important things you should do to manage this liability:
Have a soil management plan that clearly communicates the requirements for disturbing, reusing, and disposing of soil. This plan will provide for consistency of soil handling practices within your project teams. Soil management should be included in bids and specifications to contractors to assure that pricing and disposal methods are consistent with your liability management goals.
Consider soil management costs early in project planning. Costs for soil disposal that were unanticipated just because the work was not being performed strictly for site cleanup can cause significant overruns. Avoid this by carrying a line item for soil management costs on every project that breaks ground.
Be intentional about soil management. In many cases, you may have no choice but to take soil off-site, but in other circumstances, balancing cut and fill may allow for selective reuse of soils on the site. Connect the engineering design work and environmental planning early in the design process to determine the best way to minimize soil handling costs.
Understand your legal obligations and liabilities. Each state will have its own set of requirements for soil handling and disposal. When you are shipping soil across state lines, you will need to comply with requirements in both states. Each receiving facility will have its own requirements, established through permit or by regulation. When considering disposal options, remember that if you own the soil, you remain in the chain of liability. Make sure you work with your attorney and consultant to understand what will be required and prudent.
Whether you are planning a new development, or just operating an existing property, soil management represents an important liability that you must manage when breaking ground. With proper planning, budgeting and communication, you can control this liability and avoid unexpected costs.
Contributed by Dave MacDonald, LSP, PG