Transportation & the Environment: Hazardous Materials

Hazardous materials may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering the site preparation process for construction projects. Many can harbor hazards to human health that must be understood and addressed before the site construction can commence. This is especially true in the transportation world, where many of the existing structures and roadway components may have had a previous development history that included the use of hazardous materials, such as lead-based paint, asbestos, or volatile organic compounds.

For that reason, our in-house team of environmentally focused scientists and engineers is not just protecting the environment; they’re also working to protect us from the environment! This dichotomy is one that keeps us on our toes.

Asbestos: Naturally Deadly

Ben Hooks, P.G., Project Geologist, is never surprised when a rehabilitation or construction project uncovers potential asbestos containing materials. While asbestos has been phased out of many building components, older buildings and structures, especially those built prior to the 1990’s are likely to contain asbestos in a variety of materials, including plaster, caulking, roofing materials, and vinyl floor tiles, for instance.


“BFW/Marcum works on a variety of hazardous materials projects that ultimately focus on worker protection, specifically identifying asbestos containing materials in construction and renovation projects.” Not only is it important to keep workers safe from asbestos hazards, but Federal Law requires any public structure to be surveyed for asbestos containing materials prior to any construction or demolition work. It isn’t just buildings, but many bridge components may contain asbestos, such as transite cement drain pipes or coatings which could contain asbestos.

The reason asbestos is so ubiquitous within the construction industry is because of its unique properties. Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate material that is exceedingly heat- and wear-resistant, which makes it a great material to use in weather-proofing coasting, an electrical insulator, or as heat resistant insulation. It does its’ job quite well.  But why is it so harmful?

When disturbed (i.e. by drilling or cutting activites) it can produce dust and airborne fibers. These fibers, when inhaled, will remain in a human’s respiratory system and the body is unable to break it down. So, there it sits, irritating your lungs until you develop a respiratory disease such as asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.

Past, Present, & Future: Why You Need to Understand Your Build Site

Asbestos is just one of the hazardous materials that can be found at a transportation job site. Susannah Campbell, Environmental Manager, is well-versed in avoiding costly remediation at an improperly investigated job site. ”We’re not just concerned with the present state of the site, but it’s important to consider past site activities and those planned for the future in order to understand the safety of the planned activites.”

“BFW/Marcum participates in initial site inspections which outline specific hazardous materials that could be encountered during development and construction. These could include asbestos, lead, soil contamination, etc. We have also performed initial site inspections which outlines all past impacts and potential ongoing future impacts to a piece of property.”

She understands that even a pristine piece of property that is seemingly undeveloped can contain a surprising amount of toxicity. It’s never safe to assume that your site is hazard-free. Both lead and other soil contaminants can make a site outright undevelopable or so costly that another alternative site could be more attractive. However, it should be noted that with careful planning, most sites can be developed, hazards can be avoided or mitigated, and costly remediation is evaded.

When we inspect a piece of land, we are, in a way, environmental appraisers. Is it worth the trouble? What should be avoided? Or in the case of asbestos containing material found on a bridge scheduled for renovation, how can this be cleaned up as efficiently as possible? To put it another way, we’re the home inspectors that tell prospective homebuyers that their roof is ready to cave in. From there, it’s up to the buyer to ascertain if that expense is worth it; maybe the house is incredibly valuable. Or, as is often the case, the buyer moves on to find a house that best fits their budget. Even then, there isn’t just one way to do things. It’s our job to find the best way, which is the way that best serves our client.

“If a site is deemed hazardous or determined that past activities could have caused site contamination, costly remediation fees could prevent the development from even occurring. All developers want to ensure they select the best piece of property that has the least amount of risk.” As Susannah explains, hazardous materials testing (among other things), is the first in a series of cost/benefit calculations.

It’s important to do all of this early. We’re lucky to have an in-house team to do this; they can work with their fellow engineers in parallel. No time is wasted, and decisions are informed, calculated, and in the best interest of our clients.

Departments of Transportation Have High Standards (Thankfully)

We are proponents of high standards, and it shows in the work we do. Part of the reason we work so well with our region’s Departments of Transportation (DOTs) is that our ideals align with theirs’. These departments want a full-service engineering firm that can do it all. Mr. Hooks finds that his expertise in both environmental engineering and geotechnical engineering come into play when collaborating with these state departments.

“Generally, many smaller firms will either choose between focusing on an environmental or geotechnical project. It is difficult to have a small staff and meet the staffing needs of both types of projects. At BFW/Marcum, we do both and I split my time between both environmental and geotechnical projects.”

Notably, a professional geologist is typically required for environmental work with state departments. “I have managed environmental projects in many regional states, so I bring that familiarity to the table.” This duality makes Mr. Hooks unique.

That’s what we like at BFW/Marcum. Bringing in talent that has both a broad focus that spans multiple industries and an esoteric focus in one or more industries means we have people that can step forward with the knowledge and intuition needed to navigate these complex projects. With transportation, you can’t find a type of project with more red tape! We’re glad for that; the high standards upheld by state departments keep our infrastructure safe and reliable.

Hazardous Materials: Road Block or Speed Bump?

There is one key difference between a roadblock and a speed bump: planning. Our hazardous materials strategy focuses on just that. When we inspect a site, our goal is to eliminate surprises. Be it asbestos hidden inside a bridge, the potential for lead to spill into a waterway, or any other manmade or environmental hazard, we find there are always multiple options if you see it coming rather than let it surprise you.

With the help of in-house staff like Ben Hooks and Susannah Campbell, we make the hard decisions about job site viability that much easier. In the transportation industry, that’s what gets you a great reputation. After all, credibility and honesty go hand-in-hand.