Track that spill

Jan. 2, 2006
Chemical Processing's readers offer tips about how to locate and identify a chemical spill.


We recently had a spill at our chemical plant during the night. The night-shift supervisor didn’t write it up, so we weren’t sure of the exact location. Since our plant is in the Southeast, the soil is sandy and we were worried about the spill contaminating any water wells in the area.

Is there an easy way to locate, track and identify a chemical spill? Is some sort of equipment available that can do this?

Conduct a geophysical survey
The answer to this challenge is more straightforward than it might appear at first. There are some simple things that you or an environmental consultant can do to locate the spill quickly and relatively inexpensively.

The first is a geophysical survey. The technique requires a moderately expensive transmitter/receiver combination to measure electrical conductivity in the ground. The equipment is portable and relatively easy to use, but you might want to hire a trained operator to interpret the results. Two or three types of transmitters/receivers are commercially available for rental.

The first type is a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey. The device is wheeled or dragged over the ground with the antennas pointing downward. The readings show up as radar traces. This is excellent for finding buried drums and metallic objects, but it is often blind if there is a high clay concentration in the soil, or if there is the presence of salt water. The second type is an electromagnetic (EM) survey device. The equipment is portable and can measure the conductivity of soils to a depth of about 6 meters. The third type is a resistivity survey, which is slightly more difficult to use and requires a geologist to conduct and interpret.

I have used an EM device to locate buried oil. The conductivity data was cross-referenced with physical survey data, and the result was placed on a grid structure, which was then plotted using 3-D topographic mapping software. The location of the oil (crude in this case) corresponded to the low points in the topographic survey profiles. One caution is in order, and that is that the EM survey will detect changes in conductivity from any of a number of sources. If there is disturbance in the soil from excavation or other activities, including the presence of pipelines or buried metals, the EM survey will show those as well, although those tend to be shown as high points on the survey plot.

Another type of survey you can use to locate volatile compounds is a soil gas or vapor survey. In this type of survey, a shallow probe is driven into the ground and the air in the soil is sampled and analyzed by a gas chromatograph. Depending upon the type of soil and the volatility of the compound, it might be possible to conduct this type of survey using a photoionization detector or other handheld device, if it has sufficient sensitivity.

The cost of a geophysical survey will often be between $3,000 and $5,000, but it can save many thousands of dollars compared to drilling wells to detect underground contamination.

The cost of a vapor survey will be about the same, but it depends upon the porosity of the soil and the volatility of the compound you are seeking. The results are quite accurate, but in some cases the detection ability for chemicals dissolved in water is very low because of the low vapor pressure due to the low solubility of the compound in water (Henry’s Law). In desert areas, underground plumes have been tracked through 100 ft. or more of soil. In the Southeast, even in clay soils, it is often possible to locate a plume at depths greater than 30 ft.

By comparison, well construction and exploration will cost between $30 and $50 per foot, plus a one-day mobilization charge of $500 to $1,000. A well survey can easily cost upward of $10,000, and many can go up to $30,000 or higher. The well installation directly locates the product, tells you how thick it is and how much is dissolved in the groundwater, but when you drill a monitoring well, it can often cost more than $500 per well, plus the cost of the analyses.

You might ultimately have to drill monitoring wells to satisfy the regulatory authorities and protect the public health, but that’s a concern you will have anyway, and will have to be addressed as part of the cleanup plan.

David Russell, P.E., president
Global Environmental Operations Inc., Lilburn, Ga.

Know the properties of the chemical
If you know which chemical was spilled, the MSDS might be a good source for information about the physical and chemical properties, which might be used to locate the general area of the spill. There are several easy ways to help locate a spill: a portable Flame Ionization Detector (FID) for many hydrocarbon spills; chemical-specific detector tubes (although not very accurate); and your lab might be able to perform wet-chemistry tests on surface-soil samples. Visual tests, such as soil discoloration, are also a good way to find the general location of the spill.

In addition to the MSDS, the manufacturer of the chemical can offer specific information about spill detection.

Unfortunately, tracking the spill as it migrates through the soil is difficult because of scant data available on the subject. Some chemicals behave according to the octanol-water partition coefficient, which is an index relating the extent to which the chemical will stay in the soil or will dissolve in groundwater. Qualitatively, the migration depends on the physical and chemical properties of the liquid, the texture of the soil and the presence of other chemicals at the spill site.

In lieu of reliable data or correlation (for leak-tracking), you might have to take auger samples at various depths and analyze the soil to determine the migration. You might also consider seeking help of outside contractors who specialize in soil sampling and remediation services.

Long term, we all realize that regulatory and productivity considerations dictate that focus be directed to minimizing spill frequencies and their magnitude and proper reporting/recording mechanisms.

G.C. Shah, environmental adviser/industrial hygienist
Total Petrochemicals, Bayport, Texas

Your lab can help with identification
Having worked in the laboratory at a number of oil and chemical companies, hearing about spills in the plant is somewhat common. However, all efforts to contain them are done first in the tank farm, such as having dikes or a containment system that runoff can safely go into and be pumped out later. This is proper engineering.

When a spill occurs in which a product is not readily known, your laboratory might be able to identify it. Monitoring your waste is also a way to identify system leaks. Once in the soil, it becomes harder and samples might have to be sent to an outside laboratory. You can also trace some chemicals with industrial safety and engineering controls equipment.

Myron Crum, quality control manager
Perkins Products, Bedford Park, Ill.

Gather as much information as possible
You should begin by gathering information. Start by finding out if the suspected spill might constitute a reportable quantity (RQ). If it does, immediately notify the state EPA and begin an emergency response.
If the material does not constitute an RQ, you have a little more time to plan your response. Identify the chemical and its physical properties from the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). Follow the recommendations in the Emergency Response Guide (ERG) and the MSDS. Have the night supervisor prepare a written incident report to document as many details as possible. Obtain geology reports for the area -- the response team will eventually need them. You can keep the material from leaching deeper into the soil if it is raining by spreading poly tarps or polyethylene sheeting. If practical, dike and divert runoff to impoundment for treatment and analysis.

Contact a company that specializes in spill response and remediation. In the long term, this is the best strategy to protect the community, the environment and the company’s assets. While the spill remediation company is mobilizing a response team, it would be prudent to cordon off the suspected area. You might consider notifying neighboring businesses and local police or the fire department, and provide copies of the MSDS to all responders. Discontinue the use of all spark-producing activities if you suspect a flammable liquid was spilled. For instance, do not operate forklifts, smoke or use cell phones and two-way radios that are not intrinsically safe.

If it is safe and prudent, you can have onsite personnel don the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and start investigating where the material is before the spill-response team arrives. You might try one or more of the following: • use gas-sampling tubes or a lower explosive limit (LEL) meter to sample the air trapped beneath the
tarps if the spilled material is volatile and/or flammable;
• watch for signs of unusual behavior, distress or death in local flora and fauna, such as brown patches in the grass or dead fish in impoundment ponds; and
• look for areas where bare soil is discolored or oily slicks are present on the surface of standing water.
The material might have characteristics that make it easily identifiable. Consider the following:
• UV fluorescence and analytical dyes;
• oily materials can be identified by the way they turn brown paper translucent -- roll out a strip of brown wrapping paper in a suspected area and walk on it;
• alcohols and other chemicals can be identified by smell; and
• animals might be attracted by, or repelled from, the odor  in the area.

By the time the spill-response team arrives, you should be able to provide a more accurate identification of the extent and location of the contaminated area than if you had done nothing. After the remediation, ensure that a disinterested third party performs soil and groundwater analyses and writes a closure report. Forward the closure report to the state EPA and follow their recommendations for drilling downstream sampling wells.

This will be expensive, so be sure you take full advantage of the opportunity to provide employees with relevant training based on a thorough After Action Review of the event.

James S. Bonnell, manager, environmental services
Barr Laboratories Inc., Cincinnati






We are having continuous problems getting an accurate level reading on the crude vacuum column boot at our refinery. A consulting firm has proposed using a clean, medium oil (HVGO) flush to keep the level taps clear. However, they have no idea how much flush oil is needed, and we need to know so we can size the restriction orifices. Is there a good way to determine how much flush oil is required to keep level taps open?

Send us your comments, suggestions or solutions for this question by May 30. We’ll include as many of them as possible in the July 2005 issue. Send visuals, too — a sketch is fine. E-mail us at [email protected] or mail to ProcessPuzzler, Chemical Processing, 555 W. Pierce Rd., Suite 301, Itasca, IL 60143. Fax: (630) 467-1120. Please include your name, title, location and company affiliation in the response.

And, of course, if you have a process problem you’d like to pose to our readers, send it along and we’ll be pleased to consider it for publication.


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