While the Netherlands now has strict laws in place to protect the environment, this hasn’t always been the case. The discovery of severe soil contamination in the 1980s in Lekkerkerk, Netherlands, has left a legacy of soil remediation.
In the Netherlands, utility and construction companies dig into the ground over 500,000 times a year for the maintenance and installation of pipes, lines and cables. Dutch soil protection legislation requires that, before any excavation activities are carried out, the quality of the soil must be investigated, which is a lengthy, and thus expensive process.
Together with major Dutch cable companies, MWH created the Soil Risk Map, a solution that provides instant insight in the soil quality and safety levels for the entire country.
A brief history
Two Dutch laws apply to working in, or with, possibly contaminated soils: the Working Conditions Act (Arbowet) and the Soil Protection Act, or ‘Wet Bodembescherming’. The Arbowet dates back to the 19th century and stems from a need to prevent child labour. A first law to protect children was formulated in 1874, but was without much success. The Labour Act (1919) specifically prohibited children from working and it was also the first law to mention mandatory rest and maximum working hours. Only in 1934 did the first legislation come into effect that really focused on workplace safety.
This new law, the Safety Act (Veiligheidswet), applied to workplaces in factories and agricultural settings and to people working with electricity and dangerous substances. Since then, the law has evolved into the Working Conditions Act, to protect workers in all areas. To the Dutch Working Inspectorate, which is the Competent Authority, contaminated soil is classified as a high risk. Prolonged work in contaminated soil can pose – in some cases life threatening (eg. asbestos, solvents) – health risks. To prevent these, investigation of the soil quality is required prior to excavation work.
The Soil Protection Act came into force in 1987. The law was formulated following several ground pollution scandals in the 1970s and 80s, the most well-known of which was a residential area in Lekkerkerk with 300 new houses that were built on a foundation of debris, soil and chemical barrels. The problem in this area came to light after the occurrence of ground subsidence and a water pipe break as a direct result of the chemical waste in the ground. Since 1987, the Dutch government has been actively looking for other potentially contaminated sites and has invested heavily in researching this topic.
This has provided great insight into the locations of contaminated sites, and many thousands of soil surveys have been conducted and remediation projects undertaken. At present, about 250,000 contaminated sites have been registered. The actual removal of all contaminants was deemed unachievable, so it was decided to handle only those locations that posed an immediate threat to people, water and ecology. In addition to the registration of the contaminated sites, all soil surveys were archived locally by the municipalities. Starting in the 1990s the information has been saved digitally.
Working with soil
For cable companies and grid operators who frequently work in the ground for the maintenance of their cables and networks, the legislation requirements in the Netherlands cause a lot of hindrance. The thorough preparation that is required causes disruptions in the process, as the usual way to obtain the required information – physical soil research – is costly and can take up to a few weeks. For cable companies, this is a tough aspect to sell.
The challenge presents itself when it comes time to explain to a consumer that the installation of a cable or internet connection or the repair of a failing connection must wait weeks for a soil status report. Furthermore, companies are challenged to earn a return when they are required to outlay hundreds of euros for physical research for projects that bring in far less on a monthly basis.
In 2013, these dilemmas led MWH to bring together major Dutch national cable companies KPN, UPC, Ziggo and VolkerWessels Telecom to launch a joint development. In day-to-day business, these companies are competitors to some extent, but the mutual benefits of working together were clear. The parties expressly agreed to work together to create ongoing improvement, acceleration and cost savings through process innovations.
The first step in the cooperation was the introduction of an online platform for applications for soil information and the reporting of results. By providing only a small amount of data through a simple digital form, the companies could request soil research to be performed and receive the results electronically. This new approach to soil investigations was created to present reports effectively, but more importantly to prevent them from being lost within the organisation.
Prior to the new platform, lost reports happened frequently at all of the involved companies. In addition, the paper trail that came from sending documents back and forth was reduced. Using public sources online as much as possible, soil quality and safety class could be determined quickly and inexpensively, and if these resources did not provide sufficient insight, historical and physical soil research could also be carried out.
The second step was for the parties to mutually share research results. The cable companies agreed that they each could use all of the available results that the companies together had gathered. In the past, it often happened that between the companies several investigations were requested within a single street. This measure of sharing helped lower costs and accelerate the process, without compromising on quality and reliability.
This made it possible to analyse the data from the investigations and determine patterns in effort, costs and results. It was by far worth the effort to investigate and determine the soil quality of an entire area, rather than single locations. To obtain a complete picture of a location, it’s often necessary to switch between different policies, data availability, responsiveness, and pay taxes to the various authorities. In addition, the appropriate data often has to be request from governments.
In any case, no matter how quickly the work was carried out, even for the most urgent of activities, it was never possible to be fast enough. Cable companies have time limits in which they are required to fix lost connections or broken cables. In those cases, the companies had no choice but to start digging without prior knowledge of the soil.
A pilot project in 2014 revealed that a next step was possible, but also necessary: the proactive collection of data. Thus the idea was born to create a unique, nationwide map that merges all available information. Gather once, properly sort and interpret once, and make it unequivocally and immediately available to all users. The Soil Risk Map was developed in 2015 and after extensive testing is now being integrated into the work processes of the cooperating parties.
From data to information
All of the government organisations storing soil data digitally were asked to provide their available data. The vast majority of them immediately saw the usefulness and necessity and provided data on (severe) contamination, previously executed studies, soil-threatening activity and soil quality maps. Alongside the governmental data provided, data was added that had been gathered from tens of thousands of surveys performed over the last 35-years in the Netherlands. Bringing the information together resulted in a database that contains over two million records of soil data, which has formed the Soil Risk Map. The map shows the security classes in the form of a traffic light: red for serious pollution, green for clean areas and orange for sites of so-called base quality.
Information for all involved
In construction and maintenance projects, different types of information are needed throughout the organisation. Through different versions of the system, the Soil Risk Map gives the relevant information to the people who are using the system in respective formats. For maintenance technicians in the field, the Soil Risk Map gives an immediate initial assessment of the risks of soil contamination. Unknowingly digging in dirt is no longer necessary, even if preparation time is limited or even absent. The application for mobile devices gives, besides the assessment of the safety class, unequivocal and clear work instructions for dealing with detected contaminants.
Project planners can load work drawings into the online system and digitally analyse the different categories of soil information. By providing more details and specified information, the system can be used to assess potential costs and delays of a design. In practice, this often leads to adjustments in the route or a decision to carry out the work without digging (no-dig). If digging into contaminated soil cannot be prevented, the map shows all available soil data, such as the nature and concentration of contaminants and the depth and date they were found. With this data, the involved parties can optimally prepare the necessary procedural and physical measures.
Using the map’s website, safety experts can find all relevant underlying data, and determine the reliability and timeliness of the data.
More than a map
All map consultations are recorded (logged) so that users can always prove afterwards that they were aware of soil quality. A paper file is not required, as the system gives a digital overview of the person using the map, the date, time and location of the consultation and the result and determined safety class. Project planners who find a suspicious location that should be investigated further can directly set that process in motion through the system. Consultants then conduct the study and add the results to the database. The requester is automatically alerted via email of the update to the map, and the data is instantly available to all users.
However important the map has become, the instrument is not a stand-alone solution. Even if people in the field use the Soil Risk Map, they must still be alert and recognise signs of unexpected contaminants. Then it’s important that they can rely on the back-up in the office. It is important to remember that it requires more than a map to prepare and determine soil issues. Work processes have to be adapted, roles and responsibilities defined and staff trained.
The Soil Risk Map then, is not a solution to all problems. It is a risk assessment tool during excavation work, used to do everything reasonably possible to determine soil quality so that employees do not unwittingly become infected and that contamination is not spread – no more, no less. It is good to note that for years and years, a large part of all excavation work was carried out with no more than a few hours preparation time, devoid of information on soil quality and carried with it all the risks inherent in having this information missing. Until recently this was inevitable, but now it is not and no longer has to be.
Published: 16th Feb 2016 in AWE International