I’ve been very fortunate over the course of my relatively short career in construction to spend time focusing on many different aspects of construction. I recently spent about two and a half years working in site development and Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) compliance on a national scale and I wanted to share some of the insights that I gained from that experience.
Below is a quick beginner’s guide to the background of the SWPPP program and many of the important aspects of governmental requirements.
What is SWPPP and why is it important?
Construction activities can have a major and immediate environmental effects on the areas around jobsites if not protected, so the Federal Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created rules and regulations that contractors, developers, and site owners need to follow. One of those requirements is putting together a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) which highlights all of the requirements contractors on site have to comply with.
When stormwater flows through an active jobsite, it can pick up all kinds of pollutants from debris, chemicals, and construction materials that will eventually transport to the city’s storm sewers or worse, local waterways. This runoff can kill plants and wildlife, as well as block drainage lines requiring costly cleanup.
Besides the transport of pollutants, following SWPPP guidelines slows down the flow of water off of the jobsite, which helps reduce localized flooding and erosion.
Construction sites that disturb at least one acre of land are required to obtain a SWPPP permit before starting any construction activities. The process for obtaining that permit, however, is on a state-by-state basis.
The Federal EPA sets the standards for states to follow with their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) General Permit from Construction Activities. This is also known as the Construction General Permit (CGP). The most recent version of the CGP is from 2017, but recently updated in 2019. The Federal CGP expires 5 years from its initial release date and this current version will expire on February 16, 2022.
Some state agencies, like Idaho’s and New Mexico’s, have not developed their own stormwater permit for construction and default to the most current Federal CGP. Most other states do have their own construction permit requirements, however. In most cases, the states have much more stringent requirements than the US EPA requires.
Like the Federal CGP, state CGPs typically expire every 5 years and are typically found on the state’s environmental quality, division of water, or state level EPA websites.
Many cities, counties, and other governmental agencies will have even more stringent rules than both the Federal and State permits when it comes to stormwater discharge. Filing for a state level permit is a must before starting construction activities, but local jurisdictions can be hit or miss if they require an additional permit to be filed. Your project’s civil engineer of record should be the best source to determine the local requirements.
In order to seek coverage under the Federal CGP or most state level CGPs, site operators (typically those with either ownership of the site or in charge of day-to-day activities) must submit for a Notice of Intent (NOI). Many states have started to require NOIs to be filed electronically, while others still require a hard copy submission. In a few states, like Michigan and Tennessee, the NOI is referred to as a Notice of Coverage or NOC.
Like the permit itself, the requirements for NOI submission vary greatly state by state. Some give immediate approval upon submission, others require permits be submitted several weeks before the project begins.
Once you are officially covered under the permit for stormwater discharges, one of the most important steps is setting up inspections. The intent of the inspections is to ensure that all protections required by the permit are in place and in proper working conditions. Typically, these inspections are completed by the General Contractor or a 3rd party inspector hired by the General Contractor or Developer.
At a minimum, the federal permit requires inspection reports to contain the inspection date, inspector name, a summary of findings, any necessary maintenance or correction actions, rain amounts in between inspections, and it any part of the site is unsafe to inspect. Some states and local jurisdictions have their own inspection forms that must be filled out in order to comply with the permit.
Keeping good records of your inspections, including pictures and dates of repairs made is extremely important, because it’s one of the only ways to prove after the fact that your company has complied with the regulations.
The Federal CGP requires that the person responsible for inspecting the site is “qualified.” While there are no formal requirements to prove the inspector is “qualified,” the EPA requires that the permit holders ensure that the inspector is knowledgeable in erosion and sedimentation controls and that they possess the appropriate skills and training to perform the inspections.
Many state and local agencies, such as Georgia and Michigan, require inspectors to pass more formalized certification courses in order to be approved to conduct inspections.
Frequency of Inspections
The US EPA requires that inspections take place at least once every 7 calendar days –or- once every 14 calendar days and after a rain event resulting in 0.25 inches or greater. This requirement can increase in locations close to sensitive or protected waters. There are several other exceptions to the inspection frequency rule that can reduce the amount of times necessary for inspection, including areas that have been “stabilized,” sites that are in drought-stricken areas, or sites that are frozen. Stabilized sites are those that bare dirt has been covered by vegetative or non-vegetative cover to prevent erosion and sediment loss.
Most states require, at minimum, their sites be inspected at least one every 7 days and after a rain event of 0.25” or more. Tennessee is probably the most stringent, requiring inspections at least 2 times per week at least 73 hours apart from each other.
Governmental agencies, whether local, state, or federal, can inspect your site at any time. Representatives from local jurisdictions are by far the most likely to physically inspect a site and many will show up on-site on a weekly basis. A few states will send state-level inspectors out to sites periodically, but those are much less frequent, in my personal experience.
It’s important to have your documentation complete and available at all times in case of an inspection.
The Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP)
Besides inspection reports, all sites need to have their SWPPP immediately available for reference or if an inspector requests to see it. The SWPPP itself is a “living and breathing document,” meaning that it has to be updated as conditions on the site change.
At a minimum, the SWPPP must contain:
A list of all site operators
The name and position of the stormwater team and their responsibilities
The nature of construction activities that will happen on site
A site map, showing boundaries of the site, locations that construction activities will occur, locations of potential pollutants, locations of stormwater controls, and locations of potential pollutant-generating activities will occur, among others.
A list of all non-stormwater discharges that may occur
A description of stormwater controls
Procedures for inspection, maintenance, and corrective action
Staff training documentation
Compliance with other requirements, such as threatened or endangered species, historic properties, and the Safe Drinking Water Act
SWPPP Certification, which is a signed documents affirming that all companies will comply with the requirements of the SWPPP
Post-Authorization Additions to the SWPPP, such as the NOI, an applicable acknowledgement letter, and a copy of the applicable permit.
This is just a high level overview of the sections required for the SWPPP, so you should refer to the applicable CGP for more detailed requirements.
Stormwater Control Measures or Best Management Practices (BMPs)
As with any government controlled program, documentation is key to compliance, but actually carrying out the intent of the project on site should not be lost in the process. As we mentioned above, properly filtering and controlling the speed and volume of water runoff from jobsites is extremely important for environmental health to the wildlife, waterways, and humans around you. In order to control runoff, there are a variety of Stormwater Control Measures and BMPs that contractors should employ.
Since this is a beginner’s guide, I just want to highlight a few of the most common control measures found on jobsites:
Silt fence is probably the most common control found on construction sites. Its role is to act as the last line of defense around the perimeter of the jobsite, slowing down the flow of water and keeping debris within the boundaries. Silt fence is intended to be partially buried in order to keep water from flowing underneath the fabric. Large jobsites can have miles of silt fence, but it’s important to keep up with maintenance of it, especially when sections get damaged or there is a buildup of sediment in front of it.
Sediment Track-out Controls
Another point of concern on a jobsite is where trucks and other equipment exit from the jobsite. As we all know, mud tends to stick pretty well to tires and tracks and that mud can track with us for miles after we exit the site. In order to combat that, a common control is to add large rocks or a rumble strip to the exit to knock as much mud off of tires and tracks as possible. As the vehicles bounce over the rocks, the mud should be knocked off.
Just like silt fence, though, this area needs a good amount of maintenance to keep up its efficiency. The more vehicles that pass over the entrance, the more packed down the rocks will be and the voids will also fill with mud and other debris. A periodic rough up of the stone with an excavator bucket is a common cure to that problem, but sometimes more stone needs to be brought in. If that doesn’t do the trick, a tire wash station can be set up to mechanically clean off wheels before exiting the site.
Failing to properly control trackout is one of the easiest ways to get reported by neighbors and motorists. Nobody likes to drive over a bunch of mud or have stones kicked up into their cars.
Before the site is fully stabilized, storm sewer inlets need to be protected from muddy water and other pollutants. A common protection seen on site are inlet protection filter bags, which keep debris and sediment from getting into the inlet, but allow water to pass through.
Keeping these inlet bags clear of debris and mud is key though, as blocked inlets can create flooding issues on site
The chemicals found in concrete can have devastating effects on wildlife and waterways, so controlling concrete-laden runoff is very important. Construction sites need to be able to contain water that contains concrete and should have a designated concrete washout area. After a concrete truck empties their truck, they have to clean the chute out before the concrete hardens, typically by just spraying water on the chute. The same goes for any concrete buggies or wheelbarrows.
Concrete washout areas come in many forms and sizes and there can be specific requirements based upon local and state regulations. In many areas, a plastic lined ditch in the ground can serve as a proper concrete washout. In other areas, a sealed metal container, like a dumpster, is required. Once the concrete hardens, it can be removed from the washout area and discarded.
There are many more stormwater control measures found on jobsites and each project can have unique needs. There is no ‘one size fits all” approach to controlling stormwater, which is why the SWPPP is treated as a living and breathing document.
Closing out the Permit/Filing for the NOT
The NOI stays open and contractors must comply with the permit until it has been formally closed. In order to close it, contractors must file for a Notice of Termination (NOT), in most cases.
Being ready and able to file for the NOT can be a source of confusion, however. In order to be able to file for the NOT, the site must meet the following requirements (according to the federal permit):
All areas that were disturbed during construction must have final stabilization, which generally means that vegetation has grown to 70% of cover over 100% of the site (no large bare areas) or is completely covered by non-vegetative materials, such as mulch, rock, or pavement. Many contractors may think they’re complete once seed is placed, but the permit cannot be closed until the proper growth is achieved.
All construction materials, equipment, and debris must be removed from site
All temporary stormwater controls must be removed
All potential pollutants have been removed
Again, state and local requirements may be more strict in filing for an NOT. Some states and local jurisdictions require that one of their representatives visually inspect the site before approving the NOT and others issue the NOT immediately when filed. Just like the NOI, more and more states are providing an option to file for the NOT online and some are even requiring it.