by Sheri Tkacz, Marketing Manager
“Would you mind grabbing two boxes of gloves, one medium and one large?” Melissa asked.
Happy to be useful in some way, I answered “of course”, but was thinking “that’s a lot of gloves…we’re definitely not going to need all of these, right?” And that was the first of my many false assumptions of the day.
But I should back up. This story actually begins five days prior at my Project Initiation meeting (or “PI” meeting, as the kids call it). It was happening. Three underground storage tanks (USTs) were being pulled from a gas station and Mike Mostowy and Melissa Luna (both Hydrogeologists in our Manchester headquarters) were tasked with taking soil samples from the site to determine if the tanks had leaked into the surrounding soil during their years underground. And these two brave souls were kind enough to let me tag along.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from our PI meeting. I thought maybe we would discuss what time we were leaving and where we’d eat lunch. It probably should have dawned on me that this meeting would be about safety. After all, three very large (one 8,000-gallon and two 6,000-gallon) tanks were going to be hauled out of the ground, which isn’t exactly my standard Wednesday. Mike had completed the “Field Sampling Summary” form prior to this meeting, which included things like contact information, a summary of the work to be performed, and a site map. Mike walked us through what we would encounter when we got there, showed the locations from which the samples would be taken, and outlined a plan if groundwater was encountered in the tank grave (yes, it’s called a “tank grave”, which the English major in me immediately wanted to turn into an Edgar Allan Poe short story). Marilee Gonzalez, LEP, the Project Manager, explained the history of the site and the larger aspect of Connecticut’s laws, which require that tanks be removed after they’ve been underground for 30 years, a lifespan limit that is affecting most USTs in Connecticut.
But the majority of our PI meeting was focused on a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA). We discussed our PPE (personal protective equipment) – which meant that, in addition to the steel-toed boots I was already excited to wear, I was also going to be geared up in a hard hat and high-visibility shirt or safety vest. (The conversation took an unexpected turn to the lack of steel-toed boot options for women, which is fodder for a future post…) There would be an excavator on site, so they told me about attentiveness and how to make sure you always have the eye of the person controlling the equipment. I was given direction about where to stand, what to be on the lookout for, and tips regarding situational awareness. This was all spelled out on a form, which I signed explaining that I understood what was expected of me. And in case you think this was all done for my benefit (being the rube that I am), this was not the case. Every job, every time, safety first.
Fast forward to the big day. I arrived at the office much earlier than usual. The only other cars in the parking lot belonged to others that were headed out to various sites and those that annoyingly refer to themselves as “morning people”. My first lesson of the day came before we even left the building. Turns out I cannot ascend stairs in steel-toed boots as easily as I can in a pair of pumps. Steel-toed boots not only protect your feet, but they force you to slow down and think about where you want to go. After I completed the climb, I met up with Mike and Melissa and we headed over to load up the truck.
Our haul for the day included boxes of glass vials that would hold our samples, tubing and a geopump in case we needed to siphon groundwater, a heavy black case whose contents I could only guess at (more on this later), a wheel on a stick for taking site measurements, a cooler, a tool box, a long pole with something wrapped in aluminum foil, and the two boxes of aforementioned gloves. We also made sure that we had our PPE, which included my very own hardhat. It wasn’t as cool as Mike and Melissa’s (which had their names and stickers), but Mike made sure it fit properly and I can Pinterest it up in my spare time. And then we were off!
It took about an hour to get to our job site in East Lyme. When we arrived, the work had already begun in earnest. Luckily I had been fully prepped on the site location and everything looked just like it had in my mind – it was just a lot more active than a static image on a paper. The pavement and soil had already been removed from the UST locations, giving us an unobstructed view of the three tanks. While they were bigger than I expected, Mike shared that the first tank he had ever witnessed being pulled was a 20,000-gallon heating oil tank, which probably made these look like Happy Meal® toys. After performing a full site assessment, Mike and Melissa set up and developed a game plan. They couldn’t start sampling until after the first tank had been pulled, so they used this time to fill out their sample sheets, set up vials and bottles, get labels ready, and make detailed notes in their red field books. I noticed that the vials had either a red label or a green label. The green-labeled bottles contained a small amount of water. The red-labeled bottles contained a small amount of methanol. As was explained to me, soils collected in water must either be analyzed within 24 hours or frozen to prevent degradation. Regarding the methanol vials, methanol stops microbial degradation and the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (which is the bad stuff the lab will search for) are soluble in it. This means that these samples can be held for longer periods of time, typically up to two weeks. Regardless of the sample solution, all samples need to be kept below 6°C to slow down reactivity – hence the cooler that we packed earlier.
Then it was time for the first tank (the 8,000-gallon tank) to be pulled out of the ground. Two chains were attached to the UST and the excavator began the process of slowly removing it from the grave. Turns out the USTs are made of fiberglass, so while they look imposing, they are not quite as heavy as one would imagine. Mike gave us some good safety tips about standing at a certain distance and making sure we were fully visible to the excavator operator. Once fully removed, Mike and Melissa sprang into action. Mike had worked with the contractor many times before, so the process was much smoother than I expected. I assumed that we’d be the annoying team on site because, in essence, we are slowing down the contractor’s work. See, the samples have to be taken methodically to ensure accuracy. First, one tank has to be pulled and then soil samples are taken from specific locations around where that tank formerly resided before the next tank can be moved. Because of the way the tanks are situated, once the next tank is moved, the soil surrounding the second tank will disrupt (and, really, cross-contaminate) the soil that was surrounding the first tank. So instead of just taking out the tanks one after the other, there is work to be done in between lifts. And while I assumed that the crew would be annoyed with us, the exact opposite was true. The excavator operator immediately looked to Mike after the first tank was gently placed on the back of a flatbed truck and asked where Mike wanted samples from. Instead of climbing down into the tank grave, the excavator dug based on Mike’s direction, and then the bucket was presented to Mike and Melissa to sample from. They carefully select (while wearing those gloves) smaller samples from the bucket and place them into marked bags. When all locations from the first tank are taken, Mike and Melissa take the bags back to the truck to be placed into their appropriate vials. This allows them to safely work away from the active construction site and places them out of the sun, which this pale, freckled girl appreciated.
And then the dance began…
Stay tuned… Part 2 of this blog will be published soon!
About the Team:
Mike Mostowy has a degree in Environmental Science from UConn. He has exceptional taste in cars, knows more about music than most musicians, and is a gifted and natural teacher. He was exceptionally patient and is the very definition of a leader.
Melissa Luna has undergraduate degrees in Earth Science and Geology and a Master’s Degree in Earth and Environmental Science. She has apps on her phone that show the myriad of rock types in Connecticut and appears like she has been with the company for 30 years, not 3 months.
Sheri Tkacz has degrees in English and International Pastry and is happy to be employed. She would like to thank both Mike and Melissa for not laughing at her questions and always providing her with the answers.