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The Dirty Secret That's Making Major Construction More Expensive

An estimated 220,000 dump trucks full of dirt traveled on DC-area roads from construction sites last year, according to the Heavy Construction Contractors Association. As urban areas become more dense with dozens of projects underway at once, it has become increasingly difficult to find places to dump all that dirt. We dug into the process and identified the three types of places all that dirt ends up going and the problems it can encounter along the way. 

1. Other Construction Sites

The Boro construction site

The cheapest and most efficient way to dispose of the dirt is to find other construction sites that need dirt for filling. This can only be done if the dirt is quality enough to be reused, and if subcontractors can find a taker.

It can be taken to highways or used for infrastructure projects. Much of the dirt from The Boro, a 10-acre Tysons site, where it took two subcontractors six months to remove 550,000 cubic yards of dirt, has gone to highway projects in Northern Virginia, on Route 569 and Route 7, and some to Silver Line station sites. 

This is by far the most cost-efficient way for the dirt to be removed. Subcontractors can be paid modest amounts by the sites for bringing the dirt, or they can choose to dump it for free and avoid costlier options. Because the rate subcontractors get paid is set months before the dirt gets hauled away, they assume the risk of not finding any takers and being forced to pay to dump it. 

"It's really a tricky situation," Strittmatter Cos. vice president John Strittmatter said. "A lot of the risk we take on our end is trying not to take it to a landfill. That’s our last resort. We have dirt salesmen on the road trying to find places. It’s a commodity; some days you win, some days you lose. People make it sound easy but we spend a lot of money and time trying to make sure this dirt can go to the right places."

This dynamic leads to a market developing between the construction sites unloading dirt and the ones that need it, one that fluctuates often and can be challenging to predict. Strittmatter, one of the DC area's biggest excavation subcontractors, has dirt coordinators who spend their days dealing with other developers and contractors trying to find someone to take the sediment.

There are also independent brokers devoted to closing deals to get dirt from one place to another. Successfully finding a location to transfer dirt is easier for projects in the suburbs, where there is higher-quality soil. Strittmatter said about half of all the dirt his firm removes ends up at other sites, but that percentage gets smaller for projects in Downtown DC.

In the best-case scenario, subcontractors can take it to one of their own sites and avoid making a transaction at all. Strittmatter said much of the dirt it has taken out of the District has gone to the Lakeview project it is working on in Brandywine, Md. But often the amount of dirt needing to be dumped far outpaces the demand for new dirt, forcing contractors to pursue costlier options. 

2. Landfills Or Quarries

655 New York Ave construction site

When they cannot find a site to take their good dirt, or they have rocky and unusable dirt, subcontractors are forced to pay to dump it at a landfill or quarry. This can cost up to $200 per truckload. With subcontractors unloading as many as 400 truckloads per day, it can add up quickly. Overall, about 20% of the dirt taken out of the ground ends up at dump sites, Strittmatter said. 

These sites tend to be far away from the District, outside the Beltway in places like Loudoun County or Lorton, Va. This makes it even more expensive and time-consuming to take dirt from construction sites in the District, where some of the region's biggest construction sites are.

Working from a suburban site like Tysons, each truck might be able to make four trips a day, but dealing with traffic coming in and out of DC usually cuts that in half. For the excavation of the CityCenterDC site, Strittmatter had up to 100 trucks running at once. Coordinating this many trucks, especially when dealing with outside factors like accidents, road closures and the country's worst traffic can be an extremely challenging task. 

"The logistics is very difficult," Strittmatter said. "We literally have a conference call every morning with all of our area supervisors and dirt guys. Then it changes, and inevitably by one o'clock it changes again. It’s a logistics nightmare."  

3. Contamination Facilities

Meridian Group Jason Phillips

The worst-case scenario is when the soil is contaminated. This is a much larger problem in DC proper, where the density and lack of unused space make it difficult to find quality, untouched dirt. Strittmatter said about 50% of the dirt his company digs up in the city is contaminated, more than double the amount found in the suburbs. Luckily for them, they can usually test the soil before signing onto a project, so the cost is usually built into the agreed-upon rate. 

Meridian Group's Jason Phillips is leading The Boro team now and led the CityCenterDC construction when he was with Hines a decade ago. After the old convention center was demolished by the District in 2003 and Hines took over, it discovered two feet of contaminated soil under the ground.

The soil was taken away to a facility and did not cause too much of a headache, Phillips said, but the site also contained rubble from 80-year-old townhouses and lower-quality soil. The water table in the city is higher than in the suburbs, so the trucks started to hit groundwater about 10 feet down. All of these factors combined with the projects downtown location made it much more challenging than the Tysons project he is working on now.

"We had to do a lot to de-water the site, that was very expensive," Phillips said. "That made the process a little slower and harder. The hardest part was when you’re hauling out of city there’s more traffic and congestion, it's harder to get trucks in and out of downtown."

An even larger problem than contaminated soil occurs when large rocks exist under the surface. At the Central Place construction site in Rosslyn, Strittmatter hit rock and had to blast it to break it into smaller pieces, and truck it to a facility. This can be a very expensive process, but rock can also be detected at the start of a job so the cost can be factored into the agreement. 

With all of these different factors involved in removing dirt from sites, it is no wonder contractors have been devoting greater resources to trying to make the process more efficient. As major projects break ground every year, it keeps becoming harder to find new places to dump the dirt, compounding the logistical challenges contractors face.

"This is becoming the biggest concern in our business, where will the dirt go?” Strittmatter said. "With the growth of the area, more people building houses, the sprawl of the city, if you think about DC, where is there a place where someone's going to want to have a landfill?"

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