Unmanned Aerial System: Taking Surveying to a Higher Level

Technological advances continually bring new products onto the market that offer improved and more efficient methods of completing everyday engineering and surveying tasks.  A recent example of new technology involving engineering and surveying services is that of drone usage.  Over the past few years drone technology has spread downward from strictly military use to the public sector.  While some of the rapid increase in drone ownership is purely for recreational enjoyment, the engineering community has also experienced an increase in drone use for the gathering of topographical survey data.  Often the question of whether to adopt a new technology is more of a “when” decision than an “if” decision.  For those of us old enough to remember when hand-held calculators replaced the sliderule, computers largely replaced hand-held calculators, and CADD software/plotting made drafting tables obsolete, these “cutting edge” changes each offered a promised increase in efficiency but required a business decision of when to adopt the technology.

ECSI faced such a decision approximately one year ago with consideration of buying a survey capable drone while the technology was still relatively new, or to wait for further improvements in the technology coupled with probable falling prices.  Uncertainty of how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was going to regulate the private and commercial use of drones only added further complexity to the decision making process.  Ultimately, ECSI decided to proceed with the purchase of a fixed-wing eBee™ drone and associated software to enhance our surveying capabilities.

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Having been recently granted approval from the FAA to operate this Unmanned Aerial System (UAS or “Drone”) in a commercial capacity, ECSI has put it to good use providing aerial photogrammetric services for clients in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio.  Since our purchase of this technology, we have had ample opportunity to assess the accuracy and precision of measurements made with the Drone compared to more conventional surveying methods of total stations and GPS.  ECSI, and its clients, have been very pleased with the surveying performance of this system, as well as with the quality, high-definition composite photographs that are produced.  It has proven to be an effective way to perform annual updates of progress maps necessary to comply with regulatory requirements of mineral producers, to calculate stockpile volumes, assist in the calculation of overburden volumes to be excavated or which have already been excavated, and to produce as-built drawings of larger earthen structures for certification, such as coal processing waste disposal embankments, spoil disposal structures and roads.

Use of this aerial platform for certain surveying and mapping projects affords our clients not only improved economics, but it takes our personnel out of harm’s way when working around active operations and highwalls or steep rugged terrain.  Whereas a conventional, or even GPS, survey of a tract of land may require one or more days of work for a two or three person crew, the same tract of land may be covered by UAS in a single twenty or thirty minute flight.  Furthermore, the aerial survey would not “miss” hard to reach areas, and many more observation points would be recorded.  There are limits, however, to the effectiveness of aerial surveys, including inclement weather, dense vegetation or proximity to “no-fly zones” (airports, residential communities, etc), and each project must be investigated to determine the best course of action.

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With the growing availability and affordability of this technology, the surveying field has been flooded with companies trying to compete with this service. Clients should be wary of new firms popping up offering similar services at a cut-rate deal. Don’t be misled, having the funds to purchase this equipment and obtaining a waiver to legally fly it does not necessarily qualify a company to produce survey documents or engineering measurements without the appropriate licensure. Many companies performing surveying and engineering services without the appropriate licenses are being reported to their respective boards and legal action will likely follow.

Don’t get caught needing to have a survey redone because government agencies reject an uncertified document. Stick with the names you know and have been around for the long haul.

The Stream Protection Rule: A Final Blow to America’s Coal Industry

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The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) is expected to publish the final Stream Protection Rule in the coming months.  Despite the controversy, congressional hearings and substantial number of comments the draft rule received, industry and states expect that the rule will be finalized with little change from the published draft rule.  So what exactly does this mean for America’s coal mining industry?  In a nutshell, it will create additional obstacles to obtain permits and place additional costs on both industry and regulatory authorities.  The end result will be little environmental benefit at significant cost to those who depend on mining to make an honest living.  The most significant job and production impacts will be felt in Appalachia, a region already stricken by unemployment and poverty.

Coal mining is one of the most highly regulated industries today, right below firearm manufacturing and nuclear power facilities.  To a layperson unfamiliar with the current regulatory scheme, this Stream Protection Rule may seem to be a much needed change to the current laws.  After all, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) has been on the books since the late 1970s.  Is SMCRA so antiquated that a re-write of the regulations is necessary?  The short answer is no.  SMCRA has been interpreted, litigated and reinterpreted for nearly four decades by the courts and the regulatory authorities.  The Stream Protection Rule is such a significant change from the current regulatory environment that it will require another 40 years of interpretation, litigation and reinterpretation at great cost.  Since the passage of SMCRA, the mining industry has made great strides in implementing environmental protection measures and there are many mechanisms already in existence to enforce the laws.

The key provisions of the Stream Protection Rule include: defining “material damage to the hydrologic balance outside the permit area”; significant additional baseline data gathering for the mine site and adjacent areas; additional surface and groundwater monitoring requirements; specific requirements for the protection or restoration of perennial and intermittent streams; and additional bonding and financial assurance requirements.

While the provisions identified above may appear to have noble intent, the end result will decimate what is left of the coal industry for three basic reasons: additional costs will be placed on an industry already operating on extremely slim margins; uncertainty will abound for mining companies on the ability to obtain a permit and stay in compliance with the permit; and the surety industry will not issue reclamation bonds when there is a likelihood that those bonds will never be released even if reclamation is performed to specification.

One final point is that OSMRE has gone about this rulemaking in a “one size fits all” approach.  While nobody in the federal government will likely admit this, the SPR was designed to significantly reduce or eliminate Mountaintop Removal Mining in Appalachia.  But rather than looking to the states (who have “primacy” or primary responsibility for implementation and enforcement of SMCRA) that host Mountaintop Removal operations for regulatory solutions, OSMRE is attempting to impose these regulations nationwide.  A basic premise of the SMCRA program is states’ rights, the recognition of which is a clear directive of Congress in Title I, Section 101 of the Act:

“because of the diversity in terrain, climate, biologic, chemical, and other physical conditions in the areas subject to mining operations, the primary governmental responsibility for developing, authorizing, issuing and enforcing regulations for surface mining and reclamation operations subject to this Act should rest with the states.”

Interestingly, if one takes the time to look over annual state oversight reports by OSMRE, it is difficult to find where OSMRE finds there are state regulatory program deficiencies.  Most states have implemented effective SMCRA programs tailored to meet the needs of the physical and regulatory landscape that is unique to each state.  OSMRE has demonstrated no need for a modification to the federal standards, and this attempt to impose such sweeping new standards without such a demonstration undermines the statutory scheme crafted by Congress four decades ago.

For more information on the Stream Protection Rule visit http://streamprotectionrule.com.

Mineral Valuation: So you inherited a mineral estate… Now what?

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If you inherited an undivided interest of 500 acres of land with an associated title to known coal deposits and or suspected oil and gas deposits, how would you determine the value of the land?  This is an all too common question for those who inherit land with a title to known or suspected mineral deposits.  The problem is further complicated by other factors: the intentions of the other heirs, the estate valuations, the required listing of value for the timely tax return filings.  Where do you begin?

Most real estate agents will quickly and rightfully point out that they have no experience and are not qualified to estimate the value of the coal, oil, or gas that may or may not be present beneath the surface.  They may also point out that the mineral value is separate and very different from the surface value and the value of any dwellings or structures.  They may point you to a state operated geological survey or an engineering firm to solve your problem.  Who do you call?

A geological survey, at little or no cost, can guide you to some maps and maybe some technical reports that detail the extent, thickness, and depth of mineral resources in your county, township, or “quadrangle” area.  However, neither the maps nor publications list any estimate of the value of the mineral deposits.  Many engineering firms staffed by civil and even mining engineers lack the experience and qualifications to perform a mineral valuation or appraisal.  If they did have the experience and qualifications, they may shy away from devoting staff, budgets, and time to worry about your 500 acres.  What do you do?

You will likely need to consult a professional geologist or a small firm who has specific experience in coal resource estimation and coal appraisal.  Coal appraisers are generally listed in an online directory of the Board of Registration for Professional Geologists or the Board of Professional Engineers in the state of your mineral interest holdings.  The professional will know how to quickly access relevant coal resource data and information, market pricing, and determine a mineral value, typically without having to visit the property or make a lengthy inquest.

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Why Land Surveying is Essential

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We’ve all seen them – someone standing on the side of the road as you drive by with a tripod and a transit – but what are they actually doing? These folks are part of a network of surveyors and engineers who provide site surveys to establish boundaries, determine distance and location and create maps.  The data from these surveys is used across a variety of industries, from mining to roadways and residential design to construction.

To spread the word about the surveying profession and help you determine whether you require the assistance of a surveyor, we asked some of ECSI’s own surveying team to share the details with you.

What is the core function of a surveyor?

To accurately determine three-dimensional points in space as well as the distances and angles between them.

Why would businesses contract surveyors to assist with their projects?

To prepare topographic maps, property and permit boundaries, building locations and dimensions.

What is the biggest challenge a surveyor faces in the field?

Staying on the cutting edge of ever-evolving technology.  It is imperative that we generate the most accurate surveys in the shortest amount of time for the best price.  To do so requires constant adaptation.

What do you want others to know about the surveying profession?

A good survey is the building block of any project.  All engineering calculations performed will only be as accurate as the source data acquired.  Surveying information becomes outdated as land is developed and properties change; thus, the age of the survey is as relevant to accuracy as the equipment and performance of the surveyor. Therefore, it is imperative to have a recent, well-performed survey as the backbone of project development.

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There you have it! Comment below to let us know what questions you have and how we can help.

The Key to Freeing Local Communities from Regulatory Oversight

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We’ve all heard the stories. Farmers fined tens of thousands of dollars for digging a pond for their cattle without a permit, citizens being issued compliance orders for building their home in jurisdictional wetlands. You don’t have to look far to find tensions between local communities and state or federal regulatory agencies. Most of the time, these communities or individuals find themselves stunned and helpless upon receipt of a compliance order. In many cases, they will spend tens of thousands of dollars in litigation trying to fight imposed regulations.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to battling out compliance issues in court. Written within the regulations are limits to this jurisdictional oversight. Instead of months of litigation debating the interpretation of the law, consider making an argument based on concrete scientific evidence.

ECSI has become a key player on this front. We were recently involved in a project where a homeowners association received a letter of deficiency after an inspection of the dam embanking their neighborhood pond. The remediation the inspector cited was not feasible, and the removal of the dam would be a costly forfeiture. The homeowners association sought our services in hopes of finding an economical alternative.

Being a relatively small reservoir and embankment, the dam only met one of the requirements of a moderate hazard classification requiring regulatory oversight. Both the height and the hydraulic capacity were below the minimum limit. The only basis for jurisdiction was the potential downstream consequences. Since the potential downstream effects were not established, the dam remained under regulatory authority. Only an engineering analysis certified by a professional engineer would release the homeowners association from complying.

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Our analysis began with taking surveyed information of the dam, reservoir and downstream profile and inputting that into HEC-RAS. Developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, this River Analysis System has breach analysis functions that generate velocities, flows and water surface elevation. Downstream, there were crossings with culverts of many different shapes and sizes. HEC-RAS had options for each feature. Using Froehlich empirical equations, we were able to simulate the breach dimensions and timing.

Based on our analysis, we provided the inspector with proof that the damages of a catastrophic failure of the dam would be minimal. Shortly after the report was submitted, the inspector issued a letter to the homeowners association that the dam would be removed from regulatory oversight. Crisis averted.

This community can now enjoy their backyard pond and stream in peace with their financial burden relieved. Instead of finding yourself fighting a compliance order and staring down months of costly litigation, have a consulting firm take a look at the underlying scientific evidence.  It could save you thousands.

Seth Mittle

Mining Around The World: An Industry in Turmoil

It has been a whirlwind year. Having served as President of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration in 2015, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to many of our local SME section meetings over the past year as well as several international meetings. SME helped form the Global Minerals Professional Alliance (GMPA) which includes AUSIMM (Australia), SAIMM (South Africa), CIM (Canada), IMPP (Peru), and hopefully soon IOM3 in Great Britain. GMPA held meetings in Hong Kong, Canada and the US during my term that I had the distinct opportunity to attend.  I look forward to continuing to attend SME and GMPA meetings in a member capacity as I travel around the world for my “day job” as President and CEO of ECSI, LLC, a consulting engineering firm that offers expertise across a multitude of service areas including mining.  In light of the downturn in the mining industry, I am committed to aiding SME in leading an effort to devise a strategy to improve the public perception of mining.

The University of Kentucky Mining Engineering Foundation has granted me the honor of speaking at their Distinguished Lecture on April 21, 2016 at the Lexington, Kentucky Marriott where I will be discussing my observations on Mining around the World in 2015.  It was a tumultuous year in mining – from the hollows of Appalachia to South America, Asia and Africa.  Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs as commodity prices plummeted and regulatory influences affected the ability of miners to turn profits.  Worldwide protests occurred against new mining proposals and the public perception of mining is at an all-time low.  Mining supplies virtually everything that modern society requires, from the raw materials for cell phones to solar cells, the buildings we live in, the roads we drive on and the fertilizers to grow food to feed the world.

As a native of Appalachia, much of my career has been spent in the region. The past year has witnessed a flood of new proposed rules and regulations that will significantly curtail domestic energy production and make it more difficult for the United States to be competitive in the global marketplace.  Regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency limiting greenhouse gas emissions from coal fired power plants, better known as the Clean Power Plan (CPP), are causing a mass decommissioning.  The Office of Surface Mining (OSM) has published a proposed Stream Protection Rule (SPR) to limit environmental impacts to streams from coal mining. These rules are quite voluminous—in excess of 5,000 pages—and will certainly further diminish the nation’s use of coal. The SPR has been demonstrated to have been based on faulty assumptions and questionable science.

These regulations will have an impact on an industry that is already reeling from a historic downturn. We all know the various causes of the downturn: the very real “War on Coal”; other environmental regulations from the federal government; the slowdown in the global economy; competition from cheaper natural gas; growing competition from subsidized renewable sources. In a nutshell, the energy landscape is changing dramatically, and these regulations only serve to accelerate those changes.

Are these rules another nail in coal’s coffin? They appear to belie a stated “all of the above” policy for the nation’s energy portfolio. Given the Clean Power Plan is dramatically different in its final form compared to the proposed rule, and given the Stream Protection Rule is new to all of us, there will be quite a bit of scrutiny in the upcoming weeks and months regarding the impact of these regulations, not to mention years of litigation surrounding both of these regulatory actions.  Coal and the rest of the mining industry will be facing some big unknowns in the next few years.

Almost every mining sector is down economically with significant layoffs, but the coal industry has been hit extremely hard and most likely will not completely recover.  Other mining sectors have to rebound in time as we all know the importance of mining to society.  Due to this downturn, ECSI has diversified its service offerings.  While we will continue to be a leader in engineering and environmental services for all mining sectors, we are now expanding our focus to civil engineering, surveying, environmental, and litigation support services for the public, private and energy sectors.

Largely due to the importance of keeping mining and development in Appalachia a focal point of our business, the ECSI local partners were afforded the opportunity to repurchase stock owned by Ecology & Environment, Inc. in 2015 and establish itself once again as an employee-owned company. In light of this change and those within the industry, I believe this year is a new beginning for ECSI. With our dedicated staff and management team, I am excited to extend our reputation for excellent client service and satisfaction to our new service areas while expanding our geographic reach.

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Welcome to Engineering Insight

Engineering problems are under-defined, there are many solutions, good, bad and indifferent. The art is to arrive at a good solution. This is a creative activity, involving imagination, intuition and deliberate choice.

― Ove Arup

That is what we do. Develop  workable solutions. Ones that are durable. Ones that are based on thorough investigations, site surveys and accepted engineering analyses. Ones that sometimes takes hundreds of hours to complete. Those solutions may enable a building or a site to serve as a landmark. Those solutions may prevent flooding or improve the environment. Those solutions may provide energy to thousands, even millions. As engineers, planners and scientists, our aim is to provide solutions; to take your projects from an idea and make them into a reality. We think big while focusing on the smallest of details.

Sometimes without realizing it, the world faces the kinds of problems we can help solve every day. The market trends in the civil, environmental, mining, planning, surveying and energy worlds are ever-changing, and we, as  professionals, must change along with them. So we evolve. We adapt. We become innovators of new technology and solutions for these industries because engineering and science is always relevant.

Here at ECSI, we invite you to join us as we serve to inform, to share ideas, to identify trends and demonstrate solutions in our fields. Welcome to Engineering Insight.

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