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Miles T. Powell, Decatur-based regional manager and senior consultant of Highland Technical Services Inc., takes a reading on a local groundwater remediation system. Jobs sometimes come to Highland as a late-night call and a panicked plea from someone staring at diesel gurgling from an underground tank. But most contacts are more sedate.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
Miles T. Powell, Decatur-based regional manager and senior consultant of Highland Technical Services Inc., takes a reading on a local groundwater remediation system. Jobs sometimes come to Highland as a late-night call and a panicked plea from someone staring at diesel gurgling from an underground tank. But most contacts are more sedate.

Low- and high-tech sleuthing
Highland tracks down land’s environmental hazards via public records, soil analysis

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

Highland Technical Services Inc. calls itself an environmental consultant. But detective is more like it.

Highland spends most of its time seeking out bad guys, who take the form of leaked gasoline, dry-cleaning solvents and dozens of other harmful chemicals.

These bad guys are better at hiding than Inspector Gadget’s nemesis, Dr. Claw. But Highland’s investigative arsenal makes Inspector Gadget’s collection look tame.

The Birmingham-based company opened a Decatur office last year.

Jobs sometimes come to Highland as a late-night call and a panicked plea from someone staring at diesel gurgling from an underground tank. But most contacts are more sedate. One of the first gadgets Decatur-based regional manager and senior consultant Miles T. Powell usually pulls from his bag is an old city directory.

Often, a client is interested in buying a property or using property to secure a loan. But before he does, he wants to be sure he’s just buying land, not a toxic dump that could cost a fortune to clean up.

“They call us because they want to know if there are any environmental liabilities associated with the property,” Powell said.

Researching records

Powell starts making calls to former owners and tenants. What business was on the property? What chemicals were used?

“We need to ensure that we’ve determined all prior historical tenants of the facility,” Powell said. “That may take us to the library, to old city directories or to deed records.”

Then he eyeballs the property. Are any problems visible? Are the neighbors using chemicals or in facilities whose previous owners might have used chemicals?

This information ends up in a Phase 1 report, often the first and last stage of the analysis. In some ways, Phase 1 is the most important phase, Powell said, because it dictates the cost of later phases.

“What the client needs is professionals with extensive experience, with boots on the ground, conducting this assessment,” Powell said. “And most critically, writing a report that communicates the findings to the client.”

The Phase 1 report may say you have no toxic substances on a property. Or it might make the client grimace: You may have a problem: Dr. Claw may be lurking.

Confirmation

The hint of a problem will sway some clients from their plan to buy a property, but other clients want confirmation. Are there bad guys on the property and, if so, can they be caught?

At this point Powell, who obtained a law degree while serving as an environmental risk assessor for AmSouth Bank, and his colleagues — engineers, geologists and biologists — switch from shoe leather to high-tech gadgets.

Large, powerful gadgets, for the most part.

Every site is different, but Powell said Highland normally tries to analyze soil and groundwater to a depth of up to 40 feet. Sometimes they will use a mobile drill. Other times they’ll use a track-mounted hydraulic Geoprobe. The latter is a hole punch on steroids.

“We’re going down at least 30 feet to get a column of soil samples and hopefully hit the groundwater and get a sample,” he said.

Powell’s group ends up with numerous samples of soil and water, which it immediately bottles, chills and ships to a lab for analysis.

“There are chemicals that break down if they’re not kept down to at least 4 degrees Celsius,” Powell said, “so we have to chill it to maintain the integrity of the sample.”

This is nail-biting time for the client, especially one who already owns the property. If Powell’s shoe leather turns up a past dry cleaner in the area, the feared test result could include elevated chlorinated solvents. If there was an underground tank, the nightmare test report may feature benzene.

Positive test is negative

A positive test result is bad news, but the detective work is still far from done. Inspector Gadget has confirmed Dr. Claw is a bad guy, but still needs to figure out where he is and how to apprehend him.

Back to the Gadget Mobile.

Highland needs to define the boundaries of the toxic release. It does so with more drilling, extending outward from the known contamination site until the samples come up clean.

In the best-case scenario, remediation is simple: dig up the contaminated soil.

The inspector’s nemesis is not always so easily corralled, however. Some releases seek the lowest level, and the lowest level is bedrock. Problem is, bedrock is rarely level. It is replete with spirals and channels and even tunnels, each of which can cause the release to migrate, through groundwater, in unexpected directions.

Map work

Part of Highland’s task in some cases is to produce a rudimentary topographical map of the bedrock. By tracking each drilling site and the depth at which the drill hits bedrock, Highland geologists get a feel for whether the release is likely to have migrated from its source and, if so, in which direction. That information is invaluable as it continues its effort to determine the parameters of the contamination.

Narrow monitoring wells, either temporary or permanent, are also in its grab bag of gadgets. By analyzing the concentration of a chemical in carefully placed wells, it can determine the direction and extent of flow.

“You’re getting hits, and then all of the sudden you’re not getting hits,” Powell said. “If you have a whole series of wells around this plume, you can identify the depth and the breadth of the impact.”

Removing contaminants

Removing contaminants from groundwater is one of the most complex — and expensive — tasks Highland faces. Sometimes injecting biological agents into the groundwater, causing the contaminant to break down into non-toxic components, will suffice. If that’s not an option, Highland uses a combination of wells and pumps. The groundwater is circulated through a portable treatment plant and returned to the ground.

Highland’s clientele is almost as diverse as the contaminants it tracks down. It opened an office in Decatur with the primary goal of serving industry, which needs assistance if cited for a regulatory violation. But it also represents banks, lawyers, business owners, developers and governmental entities.

Each client, said Powell, has different needs, and those needs define the scope of Highland’s services. Those services are dramatically different when the Alabama Department of Environmental Management gets involved. Highland, unlike Inspector Gadget, doesn’t have the luxury of answering solely to Chief Quimby.

“If we’re dealing with ADEM, there are set guidelines for the investigation,” Powell said. “When you’re (consulting for) a private industry or business, you have more professional flexibility. You can become more creative in how you attack the situation.

“There’s a big difference between regulatory-driven issues and private risk-management consulting.”

Pet peeve

Powell’s pet peeve — and sales pitch — is consultants who are so absorbed in the ADEM regulatory mentality that they forget they are consultants with a client who has a fairly narrow goal.

“It’s one thing to go out in the field and conduct black-and-white, guideline-driven regulatory services. It’s quite another to have a client with a concern that is associated with a specific business decision,” Powell said. “If the black-and-white service provider doesn’t understand the client’s purpose, he’s at risk of providing bad consulting services.

“The clients don’t need to know the whole universe of issues; they need to know what impacts their purpose.”

Environmental consultants typically wear two hats, one for regulatory compliance issues and the other for assessing risk for a private client. Highland’s goal, said Powell, is to make sure it wears the right hat for the right job.

“The firm that deals primarily with regulatory services,” said Powell, his consulting and sales hats stacked like Curious George’s, “is going to go out there and provide that client with a Size 12 service when the client is needing a Size 6.”

Just as the initial shoe-leather work by a detective dictates the success of the investigation, the Phase 1 report frames the expenses that follow.

“A (poorly prepared) report is going to create more questions than answers,” Powell said. “If you don’t understand what is triggering the need for a report, typically you’re providing a service that causes more problems than solutions.”

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