October 22, 2014

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Lorain’s $65 million tunnel to be completed in 2015

LORAIN — Bracing his right leg against the barrier encircling the 180-foot shaft, Danny Whitlock pulled up a cable holding a water pump Thursday as work continued on construction of an underground tunnel off Broadway and West 14th Street.

The $65 million project, scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2015, will move 11 million to 13 million gallons of sewer water that previously flooded basements or flowed untreated into Lake Erie, polluting the lake. The 5,562-foot-long, concrete-lined tunnel will be 19 feet in diameter.

It will hold water that the sewer treatment plant had to dump into Lake Erie untreated when the plant reached capacity. The tunnel — running north to First Street — will allow Lorain to comply with the federal Clean Water Act and make life easier for homeowners.

But for the next two years, the digging continues. The work is elaborate and potentially dangerous. Cave-ins, explosions, fires, flooding and gas leaks are all potential hazards on tunnel projects. Between 2000 and 2009, 350 workers died nationally doing excavation or trenching, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, safety is paramount on the project, according to Scot Pearson, a senior project engineer for Arcadis, the international engineering company overseeing the project. “The life you save may be your own,” reads a sign on a trailer at the construction site.

So far, there has been only one minor injury on the project, which began in September. A worker in the shaft hurt his shoulder when an icicle fell on it Feb. 18, Pearson said.

“You’ve got to stay on your toes,” said Whitlock, a Lorain resident and member of Laborers International Union of North America Local 758. Whitlock, 27, of Lorain, communicated by radio with coworkers in excavators at the bottom of the shaft, which has a 42-foot diameter.

Having worked in the shaft when it was just 8 feet deep, Whitlock — working on his first tunnel project — said he doesn’t worry about it caving in when he’s inside it. Shafts or wells 5 feet or deeper must be supported by steel casing, concrete pipe, timber, solid rock or other suitable material to meet federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

Besides fortification, breathing safeguards are also in place. Workers — who work 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or 1:30 to 9 p.m. — carry breathing apparatus and air tanks in the shaft in the event of a methane gas leak.

“Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” Pearson said.

Whitlock worked near a 120-ton crane that lowers excavators and other machinery in and out of the shaft. Behind the crane was an approximately 30-foot-high, 30-foot-wide pile of dirt and shale, about a half day’s worth of excavation. Workers dig down about 5 feet every other day and debris is trucked to a landfill. After digging, they spent the next day reinforcing the newly dug area with steel liner plates and ring beams.

Tunnel boring, which is scheduled to begin in late May or early June, will result in the removal of about 1,000 cubic feet of dirt and debris per day. In the next couple of weeks, a 185-foot starter tunnel will be dug before the tunnel borer is used. The work will be done in a joint venture between the Detroit-based Walsh Construction Co., and Super Excavators, a Wisconsin-based tunneling company.

Work on a second shaft connecting the tunnel will begin next week, Pearson said. The 145-foot shaft, which will be completed by mid-summer, will be on First Street near the former Lorain Pellet Terminal Co., Pearson said.

Pearson said the project is slightly behind schedule due to equipment failures, but the contractors expect to make up time during tunneling.

“Every day you go a little bit deeper,” he said.

Deep cost

Lorain’s underground tunnel, designed to make Lake Erie cleaner and reduce flooding, comes at a substantial cost.

  • The $65 million cost includes $55 million for construction, $6 million for design and $4 million in contingency money.
  • The project is being paid for by Lorain’s Utilities Department customers through increases in their sanitary sewer bills. Financing is through borrowing from the Ohio Environmental Projection Agency’s Water Pollution Control Loan Fund overseen by the Ohio Water Development Authority.
  • The 20-year borrowing plan is being financed through the city’s sanitary sewer fund with $8.2 million in costs so far.
  • Up to 30 workers will be employed for the project with at least 75 percent from Lorain or Lorain County as part of a Project Labor Agreement designed to increase local hiring. City officials earlier this month overturned the agreement for future projects saying it was unfeasible for small projects.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.