What is the worst possible outcome from a train derailment, pipeline rupture, major fire, or any other disaster? Most will ask how many people have been injured, or did anyone lose their lives? These are perfectly acceptable questions to ask, as we should absolutely be concerned about the well-being of all people. However, many of us get so wrapped up in the immediate consequences we fail to see the road ahead. The fact is, contaminants from a large-scale oil spill, for example, can impact the surrounding area with a remediation timeline of anywhere from two to 10 years or more. The recovery process after an environmental disaster is often long and arduous, but it is an exceptionally important one. Laboratories play a crucial role in this process from start to finish until contaminants are removed.
Transition into the Recovery Phase
During any environmental emergency, timing is critical. The emergency response process has three stages: planning, response, and recovery. Moving from planning to response (which involves an extensive assessment of the disaster site) is a fairly smooth transition, but regulators have strict guidelines in place which must be followed in order to move into recovery. It can take weeks or even months to get to this stage because regulators must understand the full extent of the contamination before clean-up of the affected areas can begin. If an untested area is later found to be contaminated, the entire process must start over. Laboratories are highly involved in the emergency response process, as it requires extensive research into the area through the gathering of air, water, soil, and plant and animal tissue test samples.
Some samples are easier to collect and analyze than others. For example, surface water is fairly easy to collect from places like ponds and streams, while groundwater is more difficult and must be pumped from wells, which often must be drilled for the collection process. There are also strict regulations on how samples are to be collected in order to avoid cross-contamination. Testing will uncover the severity of the contamination and how far it has spread. It is crucial to test as soon as possible since early detection can prevent the spread of contaminants and minimize the impact on the environment and the public.
All samples are sent to a contracted lab for analysis. It is the job of every lab to analyze the samples in order to determine the affected area which needs to be treated or disposed of. But once the necessary testing is completed and the extent of contamination is known, what is the job of a laboratory in the recovery stage?
Laboratories and Their Essential Role in Recovery
Testing the environment for contaminants does not stop once they are located. When a lab evaluates the data collected from the environmental samples, regulators will determine whether the involved parties can move into disaster recovery. At this time, the public should be notified of all dangers within their surrounding environment and the best remedial course of action. The EPA has strict requirements on the form, manner, content and frequency of public notifications. In a time of environmental crisis, people must be aware of threats to their water system and surrounding environment so they can make informed decisions regarding their safety.
The EPA also has strict regulations on how much of a certain contaminant is acceptable in the environment. For example, the EPA recently proposed an enforceable limit of just four parts per trillion (ppt) in drinking water for two different PFAS chemicals, down from 70 ppt. PFAS chemicals do not break down naturally in the environment, thus their nickname “forever chemicals.” As a result, their removal can take years to complete. Whether it is PFAS or any other contaminant, the job of a laboratory is not done until contaminants reach acceptable levels. Without rigorous testing regimens, it is impossible to know if contaminants have been reduced or removed.
As recovery crews devise and carry out an action plan to remove and dispose of the hazardous materials, laboratories analyze samples from the area on a daily basis. Part of that process is data validation, a crucial step taken for every sample analyzed by the laboratory. Data validation is the practice of checking the integrity, accuracy and structure of data before it is used to draw conclusions. There are many EPA methods used by laboratories to conduct different tests for an abundance of contaminants. Labs are essential in ensuring those methods are followed correctly and the data is accurate.
Quality control management is also an important part of emergency response actions. Laboratories provide results for multiple types of quality control samples which inform the data user of potential process, matrix, or sample issues that may impact the reported results so proper decisions are made using the data. The controls consist of “blind” duplicate samples, field or sampling blanks, and matrix spike samples to determine the effects of the actual matrix tested on the analysis. Laboratories should be consulted to assist in determining the type and frequency of control samples based on project needs and resources. Depending on the severity of a spill, leak, fire or other environmental disaster, some labs can either support field crews remotely or provide emergency on-site services to accelerate decision-making and response efforts. Some labs even supply first responders with sample test kits so they can begin collecting samples immediately upon arrival. Because timing is so critical, many laboratories also actively invest in research and development to enhance disaster response capabilities.
Long-Term Monitoring and Remediation
After data is collected, reviewed, and a plan is devised, clean-up crews are deployed to focus on remediation. The goal is to extract contaminated soil, water and vegetation and restore the area to its original state over the course of months or years, depending upon severity.
Groundwater and surface water can be removed by pumping it out, transferring it to a treatment facility, and returning the water to where it originated, or, through in situ chemical treatment, to immobilize contaminants. Soil and vegetation are commonly excavated and taken to a disposal facility, or otherwise given in situ treatment or other various treatments such as a controlled burn. Air contamination is much more difficult to treat as gases mostly disperse upon release, but in high concentrations it can be treated through controlled burns as well. Because removing contaminants takes time, regulators will require labs to engage in frequent testing of all contaminated sources until they reach acceptable levels.
After immediate recovery efforts, laboratories may continue to monitor environmental conditions in the affected area to assess the long-term impact of the disaster and the effectiveness of remediation and restoration efforts. As layers of soil or sediment are removed and water is pumped out of their respective locations, samples will be frequently collected and analyzed by a laboratory for an extended period of time. Air quality may also be monitored depending on the specific contaminant. Sometimes contamination may resurface well after the situation is thought to be under control due to the unpredictable nature of these events. Labs will continue to monitor the affected area in compliance with regulatory standards until the air, water and soil are deemed safe.
There are a multitude of adverse effects various contaminants can transmit to the environment and people. Toxic materials leaking into the soil can cause it to dry out or poison vegetation. Animals in the area may consume contaminated plants or drink contaminated water, which can be fatal. People who drink water, eat food, or breathe air contaminated by toxic materials have been known to develop various cancers, birth defects, cardiovascular disease and many other illnesses. Some disasters can even be linked to climate change.
It is impossible to list every potential outcome, but the importance of independent laboratory support during disaster recovery is undeniable. Without their efforts, the recovery process would be far longer, and the disaster impacts significantly more widespread. Therefore, testing through an accredited laboratory remains the most efficient and effective way to ensure the public and the environment are safe from harm.