Not sustainable--the construction industry in Madison

Recently, the American Lung Association named Madison as one of the most polluted cities in the nation from particle pollution--dust and smoke.

There's construction all over downtown Madison.  Dust is being tracked onto streets every day, and is being blown out of construction sites on windy days.

Covering sources of dust

Findorff site before covering, & after. Click to enlarge.

I thank Findorff for covering their piles of bare soil, about a week after my first complaint.  To my knowledge, this is a first in Madison*, and very welcome.

Despite the plastic cover, most of the site is still exposed to wind and tires.

However, most of the Findorff site (next to the Kohl Center) is still bare, the gravel pad is still inadequate, and much dust is still being tracked out.  The clouds of dust I saw blowing from this site originated from the gravel pad area on the west side of the site, not from the soil now covered with plastic.


Madison could do much more to control dust on the streets.  Usually streets aren't swept periodically during the day, or even at the end of the work day (as required by City contracts).

Even when bobcat sweepers are used at the end of the day, they are quite ineffective.

What's needed is for city street sweepers to clean busy streets near construction sites several times a day, during construction.  These machines are designed for the task and more effective than bobcats.

Washing tires

Another essential to control the dust is to make tire washing a requirement at construction entrances.  Tire washing is already an approved BMP, but never used in Madison (to my knowledge).

Contractors argue there isn't room on most construction sites.  They say there would be a problem with the water and mud produced.  It's true that some construction sites are very tight.

But at the Findorff site next to the Kohl Center, we have a construction site producing huge quantities of dust in the air--and mud on the streets...  but this entrance is IDEAL for tire washing.

There's plenty of room on pavement, outside the entrance and away from traffic, to wash tires.

Stormwater drains or grassy areas nearby could accept filtered effluent.

Most of the muddy water from washing tires could be recycled, to be used again.

This "dumpster filter" was set up by Miron Construction at a very crowded site to filer muddy water.
A similar filter could be used by Findorff to recycle tire-washing water. 
When the dumpster fills with mud, it could be dewatered using the bag filter (foreground), then carted off for disposal.

Findorff  has a perfect location to wash tires.  There really isn't any excuse not be a responsible member of the community at this site.

Construction--still out of control, after 40 years of effort

The construction industry is the last large industry without sufficient control of pollution.

There are good regulations, and progress has been made--but not enough to control the problems of pollution from construction.

Nineteen percent of the phosphorus pollution in Madison's lakes still comes from construction erosion, and you can easily see how construction downtown contributes to our severe air pollution.

The reasons for failure are complex--but in a nutshell:
  • It IS difficult to control construction pollution, due to cramped and disorganized sites, changing weather, and a multitude of subcontractors.
  • Byzantine regulations and fuzzy responsibilities.
  • Lack of political will.  The City or State agencies are policing themselves.
  • Unlike permanent factories, construction sites are dispersed and temporary.
Beyond construction sites
Cattell's illegal dumping**
Construction sites are just one part of a larger industry.  To understand the full impact of construction, you have to also consider production of concrete (and other pavements), mud on roads, dumps, quarries, and the recycling or disposal of concrete and other construction rubble.

Careless disposal of concrete slurry and wash water is polluting our lakes via storm sewers (right), polluting the soil around trees (stunting their growth), and adding toxic dust to the air.  The chromium in concrete may be getting into our groundwater and drinking water.

I have followed trucks leaking mud for over six miles.  The mud tracked from tires onto streets is so widely dispersed as to be almost invisible, yet it sifts onto large areas, and eventually becomes toxic dust or water pollution.  The mud tracked from construction sites, collectively, adds up to huge quantities.

Additional construction operations are also tracking mud and blowing dust:


Concrete production and recycling operations

The bottom line--health

There are tens of thousands of people in Dane County whose health is threatened by our dusty air.  These are the sensitive population--people with heart disease, diabetes, emphysema, chronic obstructive lung disease, asthma, the elderly, and children.  These sensitive people are concentrated in the downtown in schools, hospitals, and housing for the elderly.  Officials--and responsible contractors--cannot continue to ignore these vulnerable members of our community.

The City (or State) wants to keep costs down for construction projects.  For this reason, they are lax in planning and enforcing to reduce erosion and dust from construction.

Contractors feel competitive pressures to bid low on dust and erosion control measures.

So ultimately, it's the responsibility of government to raise the bar and enforce higher standards.

Everyone complains about escalating healthcare costs.  Yet construction in Madison is adding to medical costs.  When a child is rushed to the emergency room with a severe asthma attack, there's no smoking gun saying a contractor was responsible.  But scientifically and statistically, the connection is there--the link has been proven with 50 years of public health data.

How are we going to balance the costs of construction... with the cost in lives and health care dollars?  It's time to start the debate.

And what about the image of Madison as one of the most polluted (and unhealthy) cities in the nation?  An image like that won't attract the growth that fuels construction.

Our lakes are too dirty to swim, our groundwater is becoming too contaminated to drink (at some wells), and now our air is on the "most polluted" list.  Once upon a time, Madison was rated the "most livable" city.

This is not what SUSTAINABILITY looks like.

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*  I have seen using fabric to protect steep slopes from water erosion at three sites in Madison, in order of occurrence: Target store at Hilldale, Terra Construction at Library Mall, and Findorff on Dayton St.  The Findorff site next to the Kohl Center is the first I am aware of to protect soil from wind erosion.  Some progress.

** Raymond P. Cattell, Inc., probably dumped this concrete slurry into the storm sewer on Johnson St. just west of State St.  The work was on a block of concrete pavement in the street.  There was no Cattell stamp on the concrete work, but since Cattell dumped slurry to the gutter further to the west, and is working to the east near the square, this is likely a Cattell deed.  Not only was slurry allowed to run in the gutter to a storm sewer inlet, but waste (possibly leftover concrete) was dumped directly into the upstream inlet.  Photo 6/13/11.

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