Ron Ebelhar has provided leadership in civil engineering projects and ASTM technical committee work since the 1970s. This year, he brings his experience to his elected position as chairman of the ASTM board of directors.
You have worked on dozens of engineering projects since getting your degrees in civil engineering. What are some of the most interesting and challenging jobs you have been involved with?
When I was working in Houston with McClelland Engineers in the mid-1980s, we performed many geotechnical explorations for foundation design for large offshore oil platforms around the world. I worked on many platforms in many locations, but among those that stood out was the Mobil Oil Ram Project in the Gulf of Mexico. At that point, platform development didn’t go much beyond 1,200 feet of water. The Mobil project was in about 3,400 feet of water. It required a whole new set of evaluation techniques. Since we were looking at an area we hadn’t explored before, we used an integrated geo-scientific survey that employed both shallow and deep non-penetrating geophysical exploration, using sub-bottom profiling and side-scan sonar, as well as more traditional drilling and in-situ testing. We were evaluating the geotechnical strength properties of the soil — how it would behave under both the static and dynamic loads of heavy equipment — but also the impact of potential wave loads. Today, deep water development is occurring in over 10,000 feet of water, but that project was among the first to venture beyond about 1,200 feet.
I’m currently working on the geotechnical design of large bridges over Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake near the New Madrid Seismic Zone. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is replacing narrow bridges that were built in the 1930s over two rivers in that area. The original bridges were raised when they dammed the rivers to form two large lakes, and the area between them is now a national park. The highway is a significant lifeline route for people trying to leave or enter the region in case of an earthquake along the seismic zone. In this kind of work, Terracon comes in early in the process to answer questions from the owner and engineers, such as, “What kind of foundations do we need? Can we use existing embankments? Should these be deep foundations and, if so, how deep?” Once we give them that information based on our studies, they can determine the type, size and location for the bridge piers and foundations.
When did you join ASTM International and what was your early experience like? How do you and your fellow committee members take new members under your wing these days?
My graduate school adviser at the University of Kentucky, Vince Drnevich, was, and still is, an active member and strong proponent of ASTM. He encouraged me to join as soon as I entered the workforce. I was fortunate to have the early support of my company — at that time McClelland Engineers — to participate in standards development activities. Richard Ladd, another active ASTM member and former board member, encouraged me at every turn to take on more active roles in the work of ASTM Committee D18 on Soil and Rock. I give those two gentlemen the credit for mentoring me along the road.
In D18, we have used a combination of new member orientations, lunch workshops, tours of local labs or academic institutions and technical workshops to help new and potential members learn about how rewarding ASTM participation can be.
We also have a very active awards program in D18. Obviously there are no author names assigned to ASTM standards, so to honor individual contributions, we give awards to members who do outstanding work on new standards or significant revisions.
How has your experience in ASTM contributed to your leadership capabilities?
Leading standards development activities has been very important to my career development. In Committee D18, I learned how to encourage compromise and consensus among the varieties of stakeholders who came to the table. We achieved the highest quality standards possible, incorporating perspectives from academia, equipment manufacturers, engineering consultants, government representatives and so on. Learning how to run an effective meeting where all voices are heard translates well into the workplace, where you have to work with diverse groups to get the job done.
Terracon, like other companies, gains by encouraging their associates to participate, both in terms of the professional development of their employees, but also staying current in the marketplace and networking relationships.
The needs of ASTM’s customers are always evolving. From your perspective at Terracon, how can ASTM continue to meet the needs of customers for access to standards and other solutions that will add value to their businesses?
Video content showing how to perform tests is very helpful, and there has been a strong program to create those videos for selected ASTM standards and offer them with subscriptions. We’re watching that develop with great interest and helping to provide content where we can.
The online collaboration areas for standards development have helped members work together beyond face-to-face meetings. Providing a similar way for interested standards users to provide feedback and suggestions for content would allow for valuable input that members may not have considered.
Finally, in technical committees that rely on specifications more than Committee D18 does, the ability to have machine data accessible in specifications so that machine tools can react to specification tolerances is an area of interest that ASTM is looking into.
ASTM’s board met in October in Seoul, South Korea. In addition to its meetings, the board conducted a CEO roundtable and made visits to local businesses, government agencies and trade associations. What are your impressions after being involved in these activities?
ASTM staff and our board member Kaphong Choi worked hard to set up meaningful opportunities to engage Korean agencies and companies interested in international standards. We met a number of Korean representatives of government agencies and local and multinational businesses there.
Those that I spoke with in particular expressed their confidence in the comprehensive nature, quality and relevance of ASTM standards in their industries. They also spoke freely about emerging technologies in their industries that will require the development of new standards and expressed interest in collaborative efforts to pursue that development. We look to leverage the relationships developed during this trip for the mutual benefit of all involved.
ASTM has four offices around the world, having opened two of them in just the last two years. What is the strategic value of having a presence in various regions?
Just as Terracon sees the advantage of having boots on the ground in a variety of countries, having local representation and face-to-face meetings are the best way to develop relationships and a reputation as a globally focused organization. Terracon’s multinational clients typically want to use ASTM standards for the development of their international facilities. They have a comfort level with them; they know they can rely on ASTM standards to provide the best possible information needed to construct their facilities and infrastructure.
In countries that have standards in place, those standards often don’t cover the comprehensive range of methods across the broad range of technical disciplines that ASTM has in its catalog. Access to and relationships with regulators and code officials in various regions of the world encourages dialogue on what’s currently available and what the local needs are.
Having ASTM staff positioned strategically improves access to interested parties and helps encourage their engagement in the process. When industry and regulators see our relatively low barriers to entry and participation, we can expect increased international participation in our standards development activities.
In general, how do geotechnical standards contribute to the safety of the built environment?
For any structure that is about to be built, we have to consider how the ground will respond to the loads that will be produced. The geotechnical standards developed by Committee D18 provide a consistent approach to the field and laboratory testing that models the loads imposed. Those in turn give us design parameters that we use to determine how a foundation will perform. All these work together to produce the input parameters for geotechnical engineering analyses.
The adoption of these standards by local building codes in the United States is a key factor in ensuring the appropriate testing and engineering is done to reduce risk to acceptable levels for the public.
These same standards are also used internationally with many of the multinational clients for whom we work. Frequently, we’ll use the local standards where available and when appropriate. But many times they don’t fully cover the needed range, so we typically specify and recommend ASTM standards to complement the local standards. This way our clients can be assured they are getting a consistent analysis for geotechnical or structural engineering purposes.
You were chairman of D18 when the hydraulic fracturing subcommittee was formed. Can you discuss the reasons stakeholders decided to form this subcommittee and what its goals are?
During the time that hydraulic fracturing was first raising a much higher public profile due to development of the Marcellus shale and other areas across the United States, we heard from a number of stakeholders who were concerned about the potential impact of this development on groundwater quality and other issues. There was a need for standards, guides and practices to help ensure that hydraulic fracturing work was being done safely.
Many of the stakeholders affected by this resource development felt they had little or no voice in guidelines that were already being developed by industry groups, and they approached ASTM. We established a task group in Committee D18, led by Jack Germaine, to evaluate the path forward by interacting with ASTM staff, other ASTM technical committees and D18 members affiliated with the hydraulic fracturing industry. The relevance of existing standards and the need for new standards were discussed during a meeting with ASTM committees on petroleum, water and environmental assessment.
Later, ASTM staff conducted a public webinar that included speakers from the American Petroleum Institute, Committee D18, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Conference of State Legislatures. The consensus in those discussions was that D18 had the best existing infrastructure by virtue of its groundwater sampling and testing standards, and that we might be the logical starting place for a standards activity in this area.
Information obtained from these internal and public meetings was submitted to D18’s executive subcommittee; it was discussed in great detail and ultimately led to the decision to form Subcommittee D18.26 on Hydraulic Fracturing. They now have several standards in development.
How has the evolving arena of environmental issues impacted geotechnical standardization?
The first and most significant impact was in the area of groundwater testing. The environmental awareness of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s led to a number of federal laws — like the Superfund legislation and various offshoots of that — that led to awareness of the need to protect groundwater. To protect groundwater, you need to know its baseline condition, so we had to be able to sample it appropriately and submit it to environmental quality testing laboratories. From a geotechnical standpoint, we characterize water primarily because of its impact on the structural properties of the soil — how the soil will behave under load conditions, or in excavations, etc., so this was a significant, though complementary, addition to how Committee D18 considered groundwater standards.
So Committee D18 formed Subcommittee D18.21 on Groundwater and Vadose Zone Investigations. Working in concert with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they developed about 100 standards. That was a large push that has had a lasting impact on D18. As I mentioned earlier, the newer hydraulic fracturing subcommittee will benefit from having that infrastructure.
In the late 1990s, the cross-pollination between D18 and Committee E50 on Environmental Assessment, Risk Management and Corrective Action led to awareness of the role of engineering judgment when dealing with standardization. Committee E50 had been developing its Phase 1 and Phase 2 environmental assessment standards, and they were interested in using D18.21’s groundwater standards. Professional engineers were concerned, however, about how the use of the term “standard” would negatively impact the use of sound engineering judgment in preparing professional reports. From personal experience, I know that every site is different and not every standard applies in quite the same way to all circumstances. In response, ASTM members developed a series of caveats in practices and guides that would allow for modifications if engineering judgment necessitated that for a given site.
In terms of sustainability, there is a lot of cross-pollination of committee work as well. In Subcommittee D18.14 on Geotechnics of Sustainable Construction, we look at the beneficial reuse of waste materials for use in structural fills. Those standards help evaluate the use of materials like coal ash or reclaimed rubber or asphalt in certain types of structures.
Before we close, is there anything else you’d like to add?
While I’ve had some opportunities to work alongside other ASTM groups, on the board and through some cross-committee projects like the Built Environment Advisory Committee, I’m looking forward to meeting contributors from many other committees. I’m eager to hear their perspectives and bring those back to the board as we deal with some of the over-arching, broader issues that ASTM is facing.
I’m also looking forward to gaining insight from the international members who are now sitting on the board. We may be at an all-time high in terms of the number of non-U.S. directors. It will be enlightening to learn from those people how ASTM is perceived globally and how to provide more global focus to our ASTM activities. This should be an exciting year.
Since it was formed in 1965, Terracon has thrived as a 100 percent privately held, employee-owned consulting engineering firm, providing quality services to clients across a broad range of industries. From its roots in geotechnical engineering, the company has evolved into a successful multi-discipline firm specializing in environmental, facilities, geotechnical, and materials services.
Internal growth and acquisitions have powered Terracon’s expansion since its founding, and the firm currently employs more than 3,500 professionals nationwide in more than 140 offices across 40 states. The firm’s success is further evidenced by a ranking of 35 in Engineering News-Record’s 2014 listing of the Top 500 Design Firms.
Salt Lake City, I-15 Core Project
Utah’s first fixed-priced/best-design procurement, the I-15 CORE, was reconstructed and widened to add two lanes in each direction within a three-year span. With the critical goal of meeting an aggressive 10-month design schedule, Terracon provided consulting services in support of the $1.2 billion project. As part of the design and construction team, Terracon was a trusted partner, followed very stringent quality assurance plans, reviewed more than 200 geotechnical design submittals and helped the contractor produce a sustainable project within budget and ahead of the already accelerated schedule.
Ronald J. Ebelhar
Ronald J. Ebelhar, P.E., D.GE., is a senior principal with Terracon in Cincinnati, Ohio. Terracon is a multi-disciplinary engineering firm that provides services locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, Ebelhar joined McClelland Engineers in Houston, Texas, as a staff engineer/consultant in 1977. From 1987 to 1996, he served as division manager and then as vice president for Rust Environment & Infrastructure (and its predecessors, S&ME, Westinghouse and SEC Donohue) in Cincinnati, Ohio, before taking the position of vice president with H.C. Nutting in 1996. He assumed his current role when Terracon purchased H.C. Nutting in 2007.
As a project manager for geotechnical and environmental engineering projects worldwide, Ebelhar has provided design and consulting services for commercial, industrial, transportation, waste disposal and public utility projects; geotechnical engineering design and construction, including site soil response under seismic, cyclic and dynamic loading; and marine geosciences and engineering field explorations.
Ebelhar, who joined ASTM International in 1980, is past-chairman of Committee D18 on Soil and Rock. An ASTM fellow and 2003 Award of Merit recipient, Ebelhar has received several awards from D18, including the R.S. Ladd Standards Development Award for ASTM D7400, Test Methods for Downhole Seismic Testing; the Woodland G. Shockley Award; the A. Ivan Johnson Outstanding Achievement Award; two Special Service Awards; and the Committee D18 Technical Editor’s Award for STP 1213, Dynamic Geotechnical Testing II. He also received a Service Award from the ASTM Committee on Technical Committee Operations, on which he served a two-year term. He has served on the ASTM board of directors since 2010. In addition to his ASTM work, Ebelhar is a fellow and member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a Diplomate, Geotechnical Engineering, of the Academy of Geo-Professionals.