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    A Guide to the Environmental Impact of Construction Projects

    Various studies have shown that the environmental impact of construction is significant, contributing to nearly half of climate change. It also produces a significant amount of air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution and landfill wastes.

    Not only is this harmful to the planet, people and wildlife – it could cost your company a lot of money in fines and damage its reputation. In 2021, housebuilding company Taylor Wimpey was fined just under £500,000 for polluting a river system in Pontypool, Wales.

    Construction and the environment are uncomfortable bedfellows. This article explains the environmental impact of construction and its activities, and what you can do about it.

    Water Pollution

    The two main threats to our natural water ways from construction activities are sediment and the spillage of toxic substances.

    Sediment Control

    It can surprise many that sediment is a contaminant but it has a detrimental effect on the environment in several ways. Increased sediment in a stream or river reduces the oxygen content and can smother gravel stream beds. These are important for nesting and a hibernation habitat for fish and invertebrates. Excessive sediment can reduce the size of the water channels or block them completely. All these factors reduce biodiversity.

    Now consider how sediment reaches the surface water system. If a construction site is close to a natural waterway then sediment can be carried directly into the channel in site run-off. But it can also be carried via the surface water drainage system – roadside drains. These lead straight to the nearest waterway or the sea.

    Consider a new housebuilding development: one of the first structural features to be completed will be the road and drainage system. This is in place whilst the rest of the site is a sea of bare earth. Rainfall and dewatering activities will lead to a lot of muddy run-off entering the site drains. Without adequate filtration, the sediment-laden water will be carried into our streams, canals and rivers.

    Of course, this can also lead to blocked drains and localised flooding. This can directly kill wildlife and lead to erosion of land surfaces not to mention damage to property.

    There are plenty of established ways to capture sediment in site run-off or from dewatering activities. Drain filters are fitted to roadside drains and filter sediment from run-off.

    Dewatering filters or settlement tanks are used to filter silt-laden or contaminated water pumped out of excavations or pools.

    Spill Control

    On a daily basis, motorised equipment is being used on construction sites. From handheld concrete saws to generators, lighting towers and large vehicles the risk of oil leaks and refueling spills is high. In addition, fuel, lubricants, solvents, paints and other substances hazardous to health can be stored on site in large volumes.

    Accidental spills or leaks of these substances can occur during storage, handling, or transportation, resulting in soil contamination. Harmful chemicals can be washed away in run-off or seep into the ground, polluting the soil and potentially affecting groundwater quality.

    Measures for preventing leaks and spills include the following:

    • Store and handle chemicals properly, ensuring appropriate containment measures and spill response protocols are in place.
    • Train construction workers on proper handling procedures and spill prevention techniques.
    • For capturing oil drips and refuelling spills from motorised equipment, there is a wide range of spill mats and spill trays available.
    • Regular maintenance and servicing of equipment and vehicles. Leaky engines and worn or loose hydraulic hoses are common problems.
    • Regularly inspect and maintain storage and transportation systems to prevent leaks and spills.

    An important consideration when preventing spills is rainfall. Secondary bunds for storing drums and IBCs, as well as spill trays, will fill with rainwater. This mixes with any contaminants inside the container creating a volume of contaminated water. This must be disposed of responsibly but more often than not is left to overflow – undoing all the work you’ve put into spill control.

    It is important to employ solutions that are effective in wet weather as well as dry. When storing toxic substances, bunded containers should be positioned under cover or have an effective drainage system which can filter out contaminants. For capturing spills from machinery, EnviroPad from Green Rhino is the only spill mat which is effective outdoors.

    Many pollution prevention products are flawed if used inappropriately.

    Read Green Rhino’s ‘Best Practice Guide to Dewatering’ to find out more.

    Noise Pollution

    If you’ve lived or worked near a construction site, you’ll know how noisy they can be. Heavy machinery, piledriving, drilling and sawing are just some of the activities that can be highly disruptive to humans and wildlife. Excessive noise can lead to stress, disruption of sleep patterns, and disturbance of wildlife behaviour.

    In 2019, West-Tec Construction Ltd was fined over £27,000 for 12 noise breaches and obstruction offences on the highway.

    To reduce the noise disturbance on your site, consider the following remedies:

    • Use noise barriers, sound-absorbing materials, or temporary sound barriers to reduce noise propagation.
    • Schedule construction activities during less sensitive hours to minimize disturbances to wildlife and nearby residents.
    • Monitor and limit the use of heavy machinery and equipment that generate excessive vibrations.
    • Communicate and engage with nearby residents to address any concerns related to noise disturbance.

    Air Pollution

    Air pollution is a public health crisis. It causes 36,000 premature deaths every year in the UK, 4,000 of those in London. A 2022 report from Impact on Urban Health (IoUH) and the Centre for Low Emission Construction (CLEC) found that the construction industry is responsible for 18% of large particle pollution in the UK – rising to 30% in London.

    Airborne pollutants include dust, particulates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). These all can have adverse effects on air quality and human health.

    Vehicles & Equipment

    • Employ equipment with advanced emission control technologies, such as diesel particulate filters and catalytic converters.

    Alternative Construction Methods and Materials

    • Explore sustainable construction methods that have lower environmental impacts, such as modular construction or off-site fabrication.
    • Use eco friendly construction materials, such as low-VOC paints, adhesives, and sustainable building materials.

    Dust Control

    • Implement dust control measures, including covering stockpiles of construction materials and using windbreaks or barriers to prevent dust dispersion.
    • Apply water or dust suppressants to minimize airborne dust during construction activities.
    • Use dust collection systems or dust curtains to capture and control dust emissions.

    Construction Site Management

    • Implement proper waste management practices to minimize open burning or uncontrolled combustion, which can contribute to air pollution.
    • Establish clear construction site management protocols to ensure the proper storage, handling, and disposal of construction materials, chemicals, and fuels.
    • Train construction workers on best practices for reducing emissions and controlling dust.

    Environmental Regulations and Compliance

    • Conduct regular air quality monitoring and assessments to identify and address potential sources of pollution.
    • Engage with local environmental agencies or authorities for guidance and to ensure compliance with air quality standards.

    Collaboration and Communication

    • Foster collaboration with contractors, stakeholders, and the local community and raise awareness of air pollution concerns, promoting environmentally responsible construction practices.
    • Communicate and engage with nearby residents to address any concerns related to air pollution and construction activities.

    Land Pollution

    The environmental impact of construction extends to land pollution through soil erosion, improper waste disposal, chemical spills, and improper handling of construction debris. These activities can degrade soil quality, contaminate land with hazardous substances, and destroy natural habitats.

    Soil Erosion

    Construction sites often involve extensive excavation and land clearing, which can lead to soil erosion. The removal of vegetation and topsoil exposes the bare ground to wind and water erosion. This may result in the loss of fertile soil and increased sedimentation in nearby water bodies.

    • Implement erosion control measures such as retaining walls, sediment barriers, and silt fences to prevent soil erosion.
    • Use erosion control blankets or vegetation covers to stabilize exposed soil and promote vegetation growth.
    • Practice proper land grading techniques to maintain natural drainage patterns and prevent excessive runoff.

    Soil Compaction

    Construction equipment and heavy machinery exert significant pressure on the ground, leading to soil compaction. Compacted soil has reduced pore space, impeding water infiltration and affecting soil fertility. It can also alter the natural drainage patterns, exacerbating runoff and erosion issues.

    • Minimise the use of heavy machinery on sensitive soils or use techniques such as soil aeration to alleviate compaction.
    • Implement appropriate soil management practices, such as adding organic matter to improve soil structure and drainage.
    • Apply appropriate soil erosion and sediment control measures to prevent compaction during construction activities.

    Improper Waste Disposal

    Construction projects generate significant amounts of waste materials such as concrete, wood, metals, plastics, and hazardous substances like asbestos and paint. If these materials are not properly managed and disposed of, they can contaminate the air, land and water. This poses health risks to workers, the public and wildlife.

    • Develop a waste management plan to identify and segregate different types of construction waste.
    • Recycle or reuse materials whenever possible to reduce waste sent to landfills.
    • Ensure that hazardous materials are handled, stored, and disposed of according to regulations and industry best practices.

    Destruction of Natural Habitats

    The environmental impact of construction can be most evident in the clearing of forests, wetlands and other natural habitats to make way for infrastructure. This destruction of ecosystems can disrupt biodiversity, displace wildlife, and cause long-term damage to the natural environment.

    Research has also shown that fragmentation of  natural habitats reduces the ability of endangered species to survive. Species require joined up networks of suitable habitats to grow and build large and diverse populations. This enables them to withstand various threats, such as disease and predation.

    • Conduct thorough environmental assessments before initiating construction projects to identify sensitive habitats.
    • Implement measures to minimize habitat destruction, such as rerouting or redesigning construction plans.
    • Implement habitat restoration programs to mitigate the impacts on local ecosystems.

    Why Should We Care About the Environment?

    There are three factors associated with the construction industry and the environment: climate change, pollution and waste. All three reduce the conditions for successful life on our planet.

    We are approaching temperature levels which scientific consensus believes will make habitability of the planet increasingly challenging. There has been a reduction in both biodiversity and wildlife populations – as well as vital groups such as pollinators. Waste is a major source of pollution. It is imperative that all industries, organisations and communities play their part to reduce their impact in the following areas:

    • Preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity.
    • Mitigation of climate change through reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
    • Protection of human health and well-being from environmental pollution.
    • Sustainable use of natural resources to ensure their availability in the long run.
    • Compliance with environmental regulations and fostering sustainable development.
    • Minimisation of waste.
    • Promotion of a clean and aesthetically pleasing environment for quality of life.

    Environmental Legislation and Best Practice

    In the United Kingdom, legislation exists to provide a framework for operating responsibly and minimise the environmental impact of construction. This holds companies that fail to do so to account.

    In the UK, DEFRA and the Environment Agency (EA) has issued regulatory guidance on Pollution prevention for businesses in England. The EA no longer provides good practice guidance.

    For this, you should consult the Guidance for Pollution Prevention series (GPPs) on the NetRegs website. These provide environmental good practice guidance for the whole UK, and environmental regulatory guidance directly to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They are based on relevant legislation and reflect current good practice.

    It’s important to note that these legislations are subject to periodic updates and amendments. To stay up-to-date with the latest information and legal requirements, consult the specific legislation and liaise with relevant regulatory bodies or legal experts.

    The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) offer advice on reducing noise pollution.

    For more information on legislation, see Green Rhino’s Know the Law: Spill Prevention & Dewatering.

    To ensure that you control or prevent pollution you should, as a minimum, be taking the following measures on every construction site:

    • You should have an Environmental Management System (EMS) that anticipates pollution risks, implements measures to prevent pollution, and details how to respond to pollution incidents. You must have an EMS if you have an environmental permit.
    • All site staff must be given appropriate training so that they understand the law, the risks, and your company’s policies and procedures relating to pollution prevention.
    • You must record all pollution incidents and report them to the relevant authority

    How serious are you about preventing pollution?

    Most leading construction companies have an army of environment professionals implementing safeguards on their construction sites. But there is still a lot of box-ticking going on. Many companies use pollution prevention approaches that look environmentally friendly, when the environment managers know that they don’t work in practice. Environment teams implement best practice on one project but aren’t organised or effective enough to implement it across all projects.

    Environment professionals, look in the mirror and ask yourself: do you actually care about prevention pollution or are you just going through the motions? Are you forcing change across your organisation?

    The environment needs you to care and be passionate about it.