Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017



The Class of 2017
May 04, 2017



One of my responsibilities with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh is coordination of our Senior Design Projects program. In their final semester our Seniors are required to participate in a semester long team design project. Ideally these projects are based on real world problems, constraints, and data.

Most semesters we have between forty and fifty students each semester, subdivided into six multi-discipline teams. The students specialize in one of six disciplines – Construction Management, Structures, Environmental Engineering, Transportation, Geotechnical Engineering, and Water Resources. Matching the requirements of each project to the specialties available on the assigned team is always a challenge.

On the final day of class we hold a day-long Colloquium in which each team has the opportunity to spend an hour presenting the results of their efforts to a large audience of students, faculty, family members, and visiting engineering practitioners. This year’s Colloquium was particularly impressive, and I am extremely proud of the students and their accomplishments.

Perhaps the most impressive of this semester’s projects was implemented by a team of Environmental Engineering students who studied a problem of great interest to me – the pollution of Chartiers Creek by abandoned mine drainage. They selected two nearby sources – Scrubgrass Run and Woodville – and designed a practical, cost effective system to remediate them.

The reddish-orange color in the polluted streams leading into Chartiers Creek is produced by tiny particles of ferric iron oxyhydroxide, the same mineral as normal rust. Remediating the pollution requires oxidizing ferrous iron to ferric, producing the oxyhydroxide, and then allowing the tiny particles to settle out in large settling basins, and then trapping the even smaller particles in vegetation in constructed wetlands.

The team proposed to capture the discharge from the two sources, totaling about 400 gallons per minute, and transport it in a system of pipelines to a three acre site near the confluence of the old creek channel and the current one, just south of Heidelberg. Introducing the flow into the settling ponds over a series of weirs will introduce enough oxygen to convert the ferrous iron to ferric; several days of retention time in the settling ponds and wetlands should be sufficient to remove almost all of the solids.

The technology for this process is currently working very effectively at the Wingfield Pines remediation site between Bridgeville and Mayview, where over 1500 gallons per minute are successfully processed. The team estimated that their system could be installed for about $500,000, an investment that certainly appears to be warranted.

Another team, composed primarily of Geotechnical Engineering students, did a comprehensive design of the site-work, underground mine remediation, and foundation design required for a hypothetic commercial/light industrial complex to be constructed close to the Parkway West. It was based on an actual project recently completed by an engineering firm which employs three of our recent alumni as Geotechnical Engineers.

These alumni provided the team with the actual data they used for their project, including the soil and rock samples from the test borings they made. They also mentored the team throughout the term, following a chronological sequence identical to that of the real-world project. The resulting design included shallow foundations, drilled caissons, removal of semi-hazardous soil, grout injection into an abandoned mine, design of two MSE (mechanically stabilized earth) retaining walls, and slope stability analyses.

A team of Structural and Transportation students expressed an interest in designing a parking garage. They met with the University Facilities engineers and were advised to investigate a site on O’Hara Street adjacent to Thaw Hall and the intersection with Parkman Avenue. They then proceeded to design two alternative garages – a conventional precast concrete garage housing 530 vehicles and a steel frame structure equipped with an automatic stacking system that would handle about 1050 vehicles.

Thanks to our contacts with the Massaro Construction Company, the team was able to tour the new precast concrete garage being erected near Heinz Field and get a first-hand view of its design details. Their cost comparison of the two alternatives indicated that the cost per parking spot was fairly similar independent of the design concept.

A multi-discipline team tackled the challenge of connecting the popular Duck Hollow hiking/biking trail with Hazlewood and, consequently, the network of trails throughout the rest of the city. Their solution is a double switch-back ramp leading from the trail to the deck of the Glenwood Bridge and then on into Hazlewood or to the new Almono site development.

Coincidentally a day later, approval of the new switch-back to connect the Eliza Furnace trail with the riverside trail to the Point was announced. It will be quite interesting to follow its development and compare its detailed design with the one our students produced. The closer our projects come to real-world projects, the more rewarding they become.

Another real-world problem locally is congestion on the Parkway East approaching the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, partly because of conflict between vehicles trying to exit the Parkway onto Beechwood Boulevard and vehicles entering the Parkway a few hundred feet before the exit. A multi-discipline team studied that problem and produced what appears to be a feasible solution to it.

Their design begins with a round-about at the south end of the new Greenfield Bridge, feeding an access ramp to the Parkway descending along the side of hill to a point which significantly increases the weave distance between the two points of conflict. There has been considerable discussion regarding the use of the round-about, a concept with which most local people are unfamiliar. Closer to home, it will be interesting to see how well this concept works when it is installed at the intersection of Lesnett and McMillan Roads with McLaughlin Run Road.

The final project was the design of a workable potable water treatment system for an indigenous village in Panama. It consists of a roughing filter (primarily layers of crushed stone) and three slow sand filters, with a daily capacity of 5,000 gallons. The team built a successful pilot plant in our hydraulics lab to confirm the adequacy of their design.

Our faculty is deservedly proud of the Senior Design program and the students who pass through it. Every effort is made to motivate the students to apply the skills they have acquired to real-world problems they have not previously encountered and to develop innovative solutions to the problems.

In contrast, I recently received a newsletter from my (graduate school) alma mater reporting on CMU’s equivalent senior design project program. Last Fall their seniors “designed and built a dragon containment system that allowed the tethered dragon to roam freely within a 20 foot radius while not allowing movement of the structure itself”. Included was a photograph of one of the projects – a piece of pipe sticking out of a pile of sandbags. I am reminded of my mother’s advice – “If you haven’t anything good to say about something, it is best that you remain silent”.

My continued optimism about the future is reinforced by my observation of this group of very special young people (our Pitt students, not their CMU colleagues). They are admirably equipped to make a positive contribution to our society and almost certainly to all the different cultures that make up Planet Earth.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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