Boring Brownfields and Bedrock will Beat Musk’s Best Intentions for the Boring Company
Boring through the Earth is slow, time consuming and expensive. Boring through brownfields can be a danger to human health and the environment.
Brownfields are like a box of chocolates. You really don’t know what’s inside until you bite in. Dirt works the same way. Nobody can be sure what’s underground until you start digging—and sometimes not until the digging is done.
You can bore sampling wells and estimate impacts using sophisticated research and modelling tools, but even these very educated and empirical estimations are still just guesses. So, sometimes when you start digging you can’t stop because you find something that you have to dig out or dig around. Often, the law requires that an underground problem be remediated.
When it comes to real estate development and infrastructure, digging can get expensive fast. Enough to kill a project. Big remediation costs can kill a project too. Projects get abandoned midstream sometimes because to dig something very expensive out—such as hazardous industrial waste leftover from an old factory—can require extensive study costing millions of dollars before work to safely remediate the property can even begin.
Plenty of contaminated properties are referred to as being “underwater” because of what’s underground. The cost to dig them out and clean them up for safe reuse is greater than any realistic redevelopment could earn back on the site. Some properties are hundreds of millions of dollars underwater. Others are so expensive, it’s technically and/or practically impossible to clean them up completely. The Superfund list has only gotten longer in recent years, mostly for want of resources.
The world is a brownfield
After centuries of industrial revolution, we’ve made a good mess of a great many places on the planet. And if by “brownfield” we simply mean places previously developed by humans, then there are ancient brownfields across the globe. Thus, one of the chocolates you might discover in your box of brownfields is a site with archaeological or historic significance. It might be a great discovery, but it’s one more reason your project’s dig can be delayed, diverted or declared dead by regulatory agencies.
If you’re on the East Coast of the U.S., you might find a munitions factory or storage bunker from the Revolutionary War on your lucky day. But more likely, your brownfield jackpot might come in the form of pollution or contamination a facility used by the Department of the Defense (or directed by the Dept.) before, during and after WWII. Or a grenade.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, it was said Japan had awakened a sleeping giant. From an industrial perspective, this was perhaps an understatement. But a lot of corners were cut in the greatest industrial ramp up in human history that followed the sneak attack. Plenty of environmental and engineering mistakes were made. It was a simpler time, and the order of the day was “rush.” And even though the technology of the day was extremely powerful, our understanding of its consequences was not so well developed.
One of the more explosive examples of this types of site can be found in Cranbury, New Jersey.
Brownfields can go boom or make baseball players billionaires
The Unexcelled Chemical Corporation operated a facility there from 1930 to 1954 and manufactured insect repellant and military munitions for the Dept. of Defense. In an accidental explosion on July 21, 1954, two workers were killed, many more were injured and live munitions were dispersed across large areas of the property. The site was closed on July 30, 1954 and today the site is still subject to the oversight of the New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. Remediation is still ongoing, although the property owner has concluded site-wide identification and remediation of unexploded munitions.
Not every contaminated parcel of real estate presents such a clear and present danger (but see Laos' Vietnam War legacy). Nor is every brownfield's conditions quite so clearly understood as the site in Cranbury. And the conditions of most brownfields are generally not as well understood—and remain quite a mystery until environmental testing is performed. But like chocolates in a box, not every property surprise is a bad one. Matt White, a journeyman pro baseball player, paid $50,000 to buy 50 acres of land with the intention of building a home. While trying to clear the property he discovered a large quantity of rather troublesome stone in the ground. To assess the problem, he called a land specialist. A geological survey would later estimate there are 24 million tons of rare Goshen stone on the property worth as much as $2 billion.
Rocks and hard places cause pain for Rockland County's sewer project
Geological surveys and subsurface reports aren’t always so rosy. Ramapo, New York learned the hard, slow and expensive way. In 2000, the Rockland County Legislature extended the boundaries of the Rockland County Sewer District No. 1 to include the Villages of Hillbum and Sloatsburg and a portion of the unincorporated Town of Ramapo, to provide public sewer service and eliminate failing septic systems. In addition to accommodating expected new growth, it was determined these measures were necessary to protect public health and the environment—particularly the Ramapo River Aquifer, a federally designated sole source aquifer and primary source of water for Rockland County.
The original estimated cost for the project was $72 million, which included $52 million for the collection system sewers and pumping stations, and $20 million for a new 1.5 MGD tertiary wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). The Legislature initially authorized $52.5 million in funding for the project. This included $500,000 for a siting study, conceptual design report and environmental studies for the WWTP to serve Western Ramapo. Upon completion of the studies, the original cost estimate for the treatment plant was increased from $20 million to $42.6 million.
Then it was determined that an interconnection should be installed between the AWT Plant and the existing sewer system. Whatever its merits, this decision would lead to the largest cost increases associated with the project. A 2010 report discussing the slow progress and rising costs summarized the reasons succinctly:
Construction is still underway. A crew is currently installing some of the final pipelines below Route 17. Another 1,800 feet of pipeline beneath the state highway is expected to be completed by year’s end. A few final, smaller sections will be finished in 2018.
The $72M Ramapo sewer project will ultimately cost more than $181M and require almost two decades to complete. It was originally estimated that nearly 2,200 units were eligible in western Ramapo to connect to the new system. The new sewer was built to accommodate 10,625 units. But, so far, only 209 have connected to the new sewer system in Hillburn. Another 470 in Sloatsburg.
The cost amounts to approximately $266,500 per connection for the $181 million project.
Boring Company's big dig(s)
Ramapo’s sewer extension story offers instructive guidance for Elon Musk’s new Boring Company venture. The Boring Company’s vision is to create a vast underground network with as many as 30 levels of tunnels for cars and high-speed trains, such as the Hyperloop. The first segment is already complete, although it’s limited to the boundaries the SpaceX parking lot in Los Angeles because it didn’t require permits to start digging. Mr. Musk told Bloomberg the plan is to expand the current hole into a ramp designed for a large tunnel boring machine that will dig horizontally at ~50 feet below ground—low enough to clear gas and sewer lines.
Musk hopes to build a much cheaper tunneling machine than the old school one he’s purchased to start. Beyond incremental improvements in machinery, the technology is the same as it was a generation ago. A better machine could theoretically make it possible to dig the thousands of miles Musk envisions.
But he’ll need more than a machine to dramatically improve the history of big digs.
Big infrastructure projects promise big improvements, but they usually cost much more than originally estimated. Boston’s infamous Big Dig, which moved a section of Interstate 93 underground, was delayed by roughly eight years and cost $12 billion more than originally planned. According to Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford’s Saïd Business School who studies large-scale infrastructure, the average bridge or tunnel project costs 32% more and takes 22% longer than originally estimated.
As we’ve seen, a fundamental problem are the inevitable unforeseen, unknown obstacles that get in the way. “No matter how many tests you do, how many samples you take, you can’t know exactly what you’re drilling into,” Flyvbjerg told Bloomberg.
Musk looks at the challenges and history of cost overruns and sees an opportunity to do better. In his home of L.A., where in traffic he originally had his underground insight, the city plans to extend the subway’s Purple Line by 2.6 miles will cost more than $2.4 billion and take almost 10 years. “It’s basically a billion dollars a mile,” Musk told Bloomberg. “That’s crazy.”
Perhaps the tunneling industry is ripe for disruption. And maybe the perfect tunneling pathways can be mapped to meet the needs of Musk’s underground masterplan, but the degree of difficulty seems an order higher than deep sea oil drilling. To tunnel through, around, under or over debris, bedrock and water table variables at angles comfortable enough for passengers to tolerate at high speeds will require multiple masterstrokes in microgeography indeed.
Digging through clay is easy enough, but contamination can easily sink to 50 feet below ground. And given the L.A. basin is one big brownfield sink—with underground plumes of contamination everywhere, many left behind during the huge California military and economic surge during WWII, followed by the industrially intense Space Race—the Boring Company will likely have no choice but to dig through plumes.
By comparison, floating on an oil platform to sink (essentially) a big Roto-Rooter to the seafloor under a mile of seawater to drill another few thousand feet down into hydrocarbon formations that are under pressure, and ready to pop, seems like a relatively straightforward exercise.
Buried in paperwork
From a due diligence perspective, the Boring Company’s mission is orders of magnitude more daunting than deep sea drilling. It’s going to take a lot of time. There’s an ocean of compliance effort necessary to meet every legal requirement and obtain the permits mandatory to cross beneath every railroad, public road and other thruways and right of ways. The law governing dirt just isn’t designed to move fast—and the difficulty compounds the greater the distance you go and more jurisdictions are involved. Each of group of stakeholders and property owners must have their say.
Acquiring the easements necessary for a sizeable tunnel could take 10 years and require 10’s of thousands of man hours. A negotiation to move rail lines and acquire the right of ways to extend the runway at the Gary Airport in Indiana went on for almost 50 years before a real project could get off the ground.
Walking around the boring machine with Musk earlier this year when the project first began, a Bloomberg reporter trailing Musk listened to him pepper the tunnel’s project manager, Shane Yanagisawa, with questions. Most questions were about speed. The fastest Yanagisawa believes the boring machine can possibly run is 75 millimeters per minute. So, per week, Musk’s current digging machine can typically bore through 300 feet of clay.
Hearing this, Musk nodded. “We’re trying to dramatically increase the tunneling speed,” he replied. “We want to know what it would take to get to a mile a week? Could it be possible?”
“Wow,” said Yanagisawa, taken aback presumably because the possibility would require more than an order of magnitude increase in performance. In fact, a one order of magnitude increase (10 X 300 feet per week = 3,000 feet) would fall short of 5,280 feet in a mile.
Digging deep is never boring
But anything’s possible. And Mr. Musk has ordered similar disruptions in electric vehicles, batteries and rocket technology. There’s a very good chance the old boring machines we rely on today can be improved. Perhaps dramatically so… in clay, at least.
Boring through our rocky, wet and brownfield planet, however, will encounter unknown/mismarked utilities, high and shifting groundwater elevations, abandoned man-made structures and debris, inconsistent and changing strata of bedrock, collapsing streambeds and banks, contaminated soils and, over time, subsurface shifting and subsidence.
Don't forget earthquakes. That’s certainly something to consider in California.
The Boring Company may be a good bet to disrupt tunneling technology. And there may be opportunities to develop individual lines and segments in goldilocks locations with golden paths. But given the amount of known unknowns when it comes to digging underneath the built-environment and through brownfields, you can bet it won’t be a boring dig. Anything but. What box of chocolates ever failed to surprise?