A Stream of Consciousness Rant on D&D Projects

No, not that kind of D&D.

I’m feeling all salty today about underground services, subs to the nth degree subcontractors, shitty documentation and the tragicomedy poor communication between them all on Decontamination & Demolition projects. Most D&D projects follow a “graded approach” where they run three major phases:

A very different phased process

Phase 1: Steal underpants. NO NO NO, what I meant to say was decontaminate all interior surfaces/components and remove fixtures.

Phase 2: asbestos & lead paint abatement as applicable, demolish the building, process the rubble for reclaimable material. At this point you have “taken the building to grade”. It is has been leveled to the ground surface. But you’re not done.

Phase 3: dig below grade to remove underground storage tanks (USTs), piping, and any contaminated soil.

I would like state that in 21 years of doing safety & environmental work I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen Phase 3 concluded. Even with a ridiculously contaminated building, it is much easier and cheaper to decon and take it down than to start digging holes in the ground. Because the first step in Phase 3 is asking the question “Sooooo, what’s down there and where is it?” And that’s where the tragicomedy kicks in as the questions you’re really asking are:

  • Where are the original plans for this building?
  • Where are the As-Builts?
  • Do we have a building maintenance log of changes and events?

[INSERT SCENE OF PHIL SCREAMING AT THE SKY BECAUSE THE RETIRED BUILDING MANAGER JUST LEFT EVERYTHING IN FILING CABINETS IN THE OUTBUILDING THE EXCAVATOR JUST RAN OVER]

Yes, that happened once. No, I haven’t quite gotten over it yet. For my hypothetical this, of course, assumes you had a building manager AND they maintained that information.

Assuming you don’t have it or what you have is utterly untrustworthy, you’re gonna have to resurvey (SEE ALSO: pre-1960s underground services & anything the US military has ever built, EVER). Do you have in-house survey teams with ground-penetrating radar, soil moisture density gauges, and analytical labs, etc.? No? I’m shocked.

Looks like you need a contractor! Possibly several!

Depending on the building’s size and how exciting the history of use was, you may need to be surveying deep. Which means you’re going to need those survey teams onsite *OFTEN*. Please learn for the mistakes of others and write your contracts “for the duration of the project”. Because you do not want to dig the first 2m down, realize you need a resurvey for this depth, dicovery that Procurement only contracted for the one survey, and when you try to get them to come back:

1) The price is much higher.

and/or

2) They aren’t available.

But it’s cool you can just get another contractor, right? Sure! Did all information from the previous contractor’s survey get communicated to them? Do they use the same equipment and procedures so you can compare apples to apples? I’m sure it will be fine and there will be no confusion or issues.

Now, assuming you successfully dig holes without immediately doing something silly like cutting a 15kV cable with your backhoe on the first scoop, let’s assume you find things that you weren’t expecting. What’s the next step? Well, now you have to go back to the drawing board and revise your 3D D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) D&D (Decon & Demolition) site map to add the new discovery, revise all the time tables to deal with working around the new thing, and most importantly, find more money in the budget to cope.

Asking for more money to deal with $PROBLEM you had no idea was there does not compute to your management. Also, if you tried to guess beforehand what things you might see without any proof of them to try to get some contingency funds, you will be accused of padding the budget by them and be denied. Without that contingency, this means you are DEVIATING FROM PLAN & BUDGET. This is tantamount to a personal betrayal in the mind of bad managers. If you are a sub, you are now eating into potential completion bonuses. Thus, there is an incentive to not find things.

And that’s just conventional work tweaking for things like “I found utility service that we didn’t know was here, I don’t know where it comes from or what it feeds yet, but I do know it’s live.” How about if you discover soil or groundwater contamination? The first thing you’ll be asked is “Is it from our former activities on this site?”

  • If yes, then fuck. The scope of your work didn’t really change but it got harder and more expensive. And you probably have some reporting to do to regulators.
  • If no, then IT IS ON to find who to sue and make pay for it.
    • If you’re lucky, it’s your neighbor that has a leaky pipe or UST that’s crapping up your beautiful pristine soil.
    • If you’re supremely lucky, your neighbor is still in business and has the financial resources to pay to clean up their mess and the legal fees.
    • If you are the most luckiest, it will be identifiably the government’s, probably the military’s, fault. Just remember, while the gubmint pockets may be deep, they open reeeeeeally slooooowly.

But more often than not, that contamination is leftover from a company that folded before your grandparents were born just waiting to be discovered like the worst time capsule. Contamination for whom there is no responsible party to pay for it is why the Superfund Act happened.

Back to those legal fees. Below grade decon work generally stops, or goes into a “stabilize” mode, until the lawsuits are resolved. If you don’t already have a drink to cry into meditating on that thought, you should probably go get one. Because man oh man the amount of time & money people are willing to expend fighting over not having responsibility for surprise contamination is astounding. The legal arguments also pretty much boil down to The Bart Simpson Defense:

  1. I didn’t do it.
  2. It was like that when I got here.
  3. You can’t prove anything.

Except if you are the owner of the property, you are a very interested party even if you aren’t a responsible one. The whole reason you would’ve even started Phase 3 in the first place is because you wanted to use this land again for unrestricted use. This why so very few projects even start Phase 3, much less complete it. Instead, at the end of Stage 2, they put up a fence, declare a new brownfield or possibly pave it to get a new parking lot, and declare MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!


Once upon a time, there was a big celebration for the “conclusion” of the decon & demolition operations on an old chemistry building. It was a big event as the better part of a decade had been spent taking that palace of nightmares down.

With a cheery voice and drink in my hand, I went up to the management team and asked “How did the removal of all the pipes and USTs go?”

I did not make any friends that day.