Editor's Log: Half-Full

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | February 2011, Vol. 66 No. 2

Underground Construction’s 14th Annual Municipal Sewer and Water Infrastructure Survey appears this month. While compiling and writing the report each year is always extremely interesting and revealing, I found this year’s survey to provide a particularly telling insight into the municipal market.

One somewhat surprising mini-trend was that several survey respondents felt that, when money was a preeminent concern, retreating to conventional, open-cut construction was necessary. It wasn’t that people weren’t sold on trenchless benefits (many were well-educated users of trenchless construction/rehabilitation methods). Rather, trenchless methods were viewed as more expensive and a greater construction risk. Clearly more comparative data and education are needed. Open-cut certainly has its well-establish place within the market – and remains absolutely necessary and important to all underground piping work -- but construction methodology decisions should be based on project specifics, not a general perception and assumptions.

For many smaller communities, the good news was that these communities are very interested in utilizing trenchless applications. The bad news was that trenchless remains out-of-reach for many small markets largely due to remote locations requiring high costs affiliated with travel and staging logistics.

Several cities are being hit with the double whammy of EPA pressure or even consent decrees to bring their systems into environmental compliance. Bad economy or not, there is no relief in sight. EPA enforcement, via the U.S. Justice Department, has actually ramped up its activities. Virtually every city called before the EPA enforcement division capitulates and agrees to develop and enact a plan to bring their systems back into compliance.

Cities all over the country are out of compliance. Bad economic times exasperate the situation but odds are the circumstances that led to non-compliance were in place long before the EPA gets involved. Cities capitulate because they are clearly in the wrong – facts, figures, environmental samples, etc. almost always overwhelmingly build an iron-clad case in favor of the EPA.

That’s a challenge that faces our industry as we continue our market recovery – how can we convince municipal governments that placing a priority on their underground infrastructure is essential to the long-term economic – and physical – health of their communities? That new park that was built at the cost of repairing a leaking sewer main will pale in the light of EPA prosecution for unhealthy sewer/water systems.