Walsh Construction – Black River Tunnel project

Headquartered in Chicago, Walsh Construction has many years of experience in the construction of tunnels, as well as wastewater and water treatment plants. That experience is being put to good use on the Black River Tunnel project in Lorain, Ohio. 

The project is meeting a major environmental need for the state. With heavy rain often causing sewage to spill over into the Black River and then travel to Lake Erie, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency tasked Lorain with finding a way to stop untreated sewage from polluting the local waters. The Black River Tunnel project first broke ground in August 2012, and it is scheduled for completion in August. 

When it is completed, the system will consist of a 19-foot-diameter tunnel with two deep shafts, one 180 feet deep with a 36-foot diameter, and the second shaft will be 116 feet deep and its internal diameter will be 30 feet. Financing for the $52 million project is coming from local ratepayers as well as a loan from the Ohio Water Development Authority.

Partnering Up

Walsh was the lowest bidder that also had the required qualifications for the work. The project was an ideal undertaking for Walsh Construction, which is the largest construction firm in Chicago, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, and one of the nation’s top-15 contractors, according to Engineering News-Record. The company was founded in the late 1800s and is now led by a fourth generation of its founding family. It employs 5,000 engineers and skilled tradesmen.

Walsh partnered with Super Excavators on the Black River Tunnel project. Headquartered in Menomonee Falls, Wis., Super Excavators is a heavy civil company with expertise in tunneling, microtunneling, foundation work, slip lining and open-cut construction. 

One aspect of the project that has driven the makeup of its workforce is the existence of Lorain’s Project Labor Agreement (PLA), which requires companies to hire 75 percent of their workforce from local residents. Although it created some upfront challenges due to the specific expertise needed for tunnel and shaft construction, Walsh worked with local stakeholders and unions to train the workforce. The unions played a large role in ensuring that workers were appropriately trained, and Walsh also engaged in onsite training to familiarize workers with company and partner procedures for working on tunnels and rescue teams.

Super Excavators and Walsh also trained workers for rock bolting. During the shaft-digging process, the project first goes through 40 feet of soil. Steel liner plates and beams are then used to hold back the soil. From there, digging down gets the project into solid rock, primarily shale. It is removed by mechanical breakers and drill-and-shoot methods when required. 

To maintain the shaft walls, the project drills about 10 feet into the rock and installs rock bolts. This is done at approximately three-foot intervals all the way through the shaft, creating a beam within the rock and ensuring its stability. Once installation of the rock bolts is done, the surface of the shaft is coated with wire mesh and shot-crete to maintain the shale’s integrity.

Strong Oversight

Stringent safety procedures have been put in place because of the underground nature of the work. The project is taking place almost 200 feet underground, and workers can sometimes encounter gases such as methane or sulfites. This requires constant monitoring of all personnel.

Daily meetings of the construction team allow for discussion of the work planned for the day, as well as how to deal with potential risks that may arise. Should anything occur during the day, the team can adjust its tactics. Ongoing training and a focus on quality have helped make sure that everything is being done properly the first time around, which helps to avoid going back and doing things over.

When it is done, the 5,550-foot-long, 19-foot-diameter tunnel will run beneath downtown Lorain, nearly parallel to the Black River. As part of the new system, two facilities will help with the flow and retrieval of the sewage. 

The influent side of the tunnel includes a 6,000-square-foot screening facility with special equipment to control the flow of the water into the tunnel. In addition, the screening facility will be the primary treatment facility for the sewage so it won’t accumulate debris. This will help to lower the maintenance requirements for the tunnel in the future. As for the effluent side, it includes a 1,000-square-foot pump station control building that will have deep submersible pumps. 

Ultimately, this new tunnel will prevent sewage from ending up in the Black River and Lake Erie. As mentioned, any high-flow water event has overwhelmed the system and dumped the sewage into the river and the lake. The new system will make sure that any overflow will direct sewage into the tunnel. It has the capacity to hold 11.9 million gallons in order to store sewage until lower flow in the system and the sewage allows it to be pumped back into the system for proper treatment. This will solve a major problem for the city of Lorain while also adding to an already impressive legacy that Walsh has created. 

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