This Code’s for You, Franco*

Back in 2007, in the world of high rise construction, Franco was the kingpin of New York City concrete.  His price to supply concrete to big construction projects reliably beat his competitors and he seemed to be getting rich doing it.  You didn’t want to ask too many questions.

At the time, I was working for one of NYC’s leading construction management companies and circulating within the concrete industry to build support for better concrete washout water management.  The rinsing of concrete trucks and equipment at construction sites generates highly corrosive water that flows down the street and into the sewer.  During rain events, these sewers empty into the East and Hudson Rivers as combined sewer overflow (CSO) events.  Other cities and states had more stringent rules about discharging concrete washout water in areas where it could harm people and enter waterways, but in New York City, the Department of Environmental Protection just required the water to be filtered through filter fabric or hay bales, in an attempt to reduce the amount of concrete hardening in the sewer and clogging drains.  Filtering was only partially effective at that and did nothing to address the public danger and environmental impact of the water’s chemical makeup and alkalinity, which is comparable to Draino®.  Draino is a product that used to be used to unclog waste pipes until it was found to corrode right through the pipe.

All the concrete trade organizations and manufacturers my colleagues and I met with agreed the practice was polluting, and even the manufacturers seemed surprised the DEP was allowing it.  When asked why the practice persisted, the manufacturers explained, “so long as the city isn’t making the waste water our problem, it’s not in our financial best interest to claim it.”  The most cost effective and environmentally preferable means of handling the washout water generated by rinsing the chute of a mixer truck, which is the primary source at most construction sites, is to capture it off the bottom of the chute with a pail, and return it with the truck to the concrete manufacturer’s own plant for treatment.  All concrete batch plants have wastewater treatment systems, and as the Cement League commented, “It make sense - a construction manager buys the concrete, not the concrete truck and equipment.  Therefore, any waste generated in maintaining this equipment should be the supplier’s.”  Franco, however, added one more kernel of insight: “I have beautiful trucks.  I’m not going to hook or attach anything to them unless some code requires me to.”

Technically, New York City already had a law on the books prohibiting corrosive water from being discharged down the sewer.  But because the manufacturers resisted claiming the waste water as their problem, construction sites were limited to two options: letting the water evaporate onsite in bins or sending a wastewater pump truck around to the site daily to suck it out of a dumpster and take it to a special waste water treatment plant.  The first was only possible at World Trade Center-sized sites and the latter was a logistics hassle, expensive and generated additional vehicle miles (environmental impact), so no one did it.  To get Franco and his kin to play ball in managing the wastewater in the most cost-effective and environmentally preferable way for a project, a better code would be required.

Which is exactly what the City Council passed today. Effective July 1, 2012, NYC will have a new building code prohibiting concrete washout water from entering sewers and catch basins.  Most importantly, the code offers special dispensations to mixer trucks so that the water from rinsing their chute is returned to the originating concrete plant with the truck. Read Urban Green's detailed summaries of the laws here.

Let’s just hope Franco doesn’t chip the paint on any of his trucks when he installs the tank racks.

* Editor’s note: This name is a pseudonym.  We were concerned “Franco” might knock on our door looking for Charlotte.

Photo credit: Daniel X. O'Neil

About the authors

Charlotte Matthews