The biggest issue for the underground construction industry as year 2010 unfolds is not just whether Congress and the President Obama administration will unveil a second round of infrastructure spending, but whether that second helping of federal funds for sewers and drinking water systems will find its way into city and country financial bloodstreams a lot faster than the first injection did.
A second stimulus bill is already on the move. House Democrat leaders passed a bill on Dec. 17 (H.R. 2847) called the Jobs for Main Street Act of 2010. It contains $37.3 billion for transportation programs and $2 billion for water infrastructure. That is far short of the $20 billion infusion groups such as the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and the Water Infrastructure Network are pushing for. The bill passed by a narrow vote of 217-212, with all Republicans and 38 Democrats, worried about increased federal deficits, voting against the bill. Those “no” votes raise questions about whether the bill can pass the Senate which will take the bill up sometime this year. The House bill also contains $715 million and $100 million in new construction funding for the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation respectively.
While the president and at least the House Democratic leadership is eager to pass an ARRA-II, they face a not insignificant hurdle in terms of finding the money to pay for the total $150 billion cost of H.R. 2847, which includes an extension of unemployment benefits, aid to local governments and other expenditures in addition to the $40 billion in total infrastructure spending. The House bill pays for the new spending — the bill weighs in at $75 billion — by taking that sum out of the $200 billion in unspent funds previously appropriated for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, the bank bailout program Congress passed last fall.
EVA construction boom
The jobs bill is a highly visible reflection of Washington’s interest in spurring infrastructure spending. But there will be other, much less highly publicized federal spurs to underground construction in 2010. While not labeled as an infrastructure initiative, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) distribution integrity management program (DIMP) final rule issued in December certainly will require a considerable amount of underground construction by municipal gas utilities. The American Gas Association called it “the most significant rulemaking affecting natural gas distribution operators since the inception of the federal pipeline safety code.”
The key mandate in the final rule published by the PHMSA is that distribution companies install excess flow valves (EFVs) on new and replaced residential service lines, subject to feasibility criteria outlined in the rule. The DIMP covers nearly 10,000 natural gas operators (about 200 of them the predominant local companies) with a combined total of 1,138,000 miles of mains. EFVs will not have to be installed on branch service lines. Up until now local gas utilities simply had to notify customers that an EFV was available when repair work was done on their home gas line. If the customer wanted the EFV, he or she paid for it.
That now changes. The company must install EFVs when putting in a new line or repairing an old one and the company must foot the construction bill, too. This final DIMP rule provides important details on EFV installation which will dictate the extent of construction. Citing the expense of excavation work, PHMSA clarified that it expects companies to install EFVs only when repair work is done near the main. But it made clear that it also expects EFVs to go in if repair work is only around the main; in other words the entire line does not have to be repaired for an EFV to be installed.
The EFV requirement goes into effect on Feb. 10, 2010. The exceptions to the EFV installation mandate are: 1) where an operator has prior experience with contaminants in the gas stream which could pose problems for the EFV operation, 2) the service line does not operate at a pressure of 10 psig or greater throughout the year, 3) the EFV could interfere with the necessary operation or maintenance activities, such a blowing liquids from the system, or 4) if an EFV is not commercially available.
EFV installation will kick up some dust, literally, which brings up the topic of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) possible revision of its Clean Air standard for particular matter (PM) which affects construction where dirt and soil are dislodged. Beth Hassett-Sipple, an EPA spokeswoman, says the agency currently expects to publish a proposed rule revising the PM standard in November 2010 and a final rule the next summer. The current PM standard is twofold: there is a standard for fine particles (PM 2.5) and another for coarse particles (PM 10). In the later case, the EPA revoked its annual coarse standard in 2006 but kept its 24-hour PM10 standard. It also made changes in some of the elements in the fine PM2.5 standard in 2006, although both the 24-hour and annual standards were retained. Both these standards are now up for review, and the chatter in the business community is that the EPA may tighten up the PM10 standard, which could have an impact on construction companies, who are affected when a state has to draw up what is called a State Implementation Plan showing the EPA how it will meet any new standard. The SIP could contain measures affecting just some or all activities where PM10 (or PM2.5) particles are thrown up into the atmosphere whether from a smokestack or a “dig.” An interesting sidelight — or a troubling one — to any new EPA PM 2.5/10 standard is that the agency does not have to consider the costs to any sector when establishing a new standard.
The EPA was relatively active under the George W. Bush administration and keeps on percolating under the Barack Obama administration. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), on the other hand, essentially disappeared during the eight years of the Bush reign and has been slow to re-emerge. OSHA still does not have an administrator a year after Obama gained the White House. It remains a backwater. However, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (OSHA is part of the Labor Department) says OSHA will finally, after years of delay, propose a first-time standard for silica dislodged during construction in the summer of 2010. Currently, OSHA has a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica which underground construction companies have to adhere to. But because it is based on particle-counting technology, it is considered obsolete. OSHA will propose replacing that PEL with a broader silica standard which will include an updated PEL plus a bevy of other requirements which come along with any standard, such as employee training, medical monitoring, recordkeeping and the like. Compliance won’t be cheap.