December 2023, Vol. 250, No. 12


Crucial Role of Testing Labs in Pipeline Emergency Response

By John Gerken, Vice President of Corporate Accounts and Specialty Analytical Services, Pace 

(P&GJ) — Emergency situations, like explosions due to pipeline ruptures, often happen instantly and without warning. Pipeline managers know about the risks that come with the job, but the aftereffects of pipeline ruptures and leaks are often secondary to protecting human life. 

This is not to diminish the importance of preventing the loss of life, but rather, to raise awareness of how essential emergency response truly is, following a pipeline disaster. 

Contaminant Releases 

Pipeline ruptures and leaks happen; it is an unfortunate reality. Knowing the cause helps emergency responders know how to manage the contaminants that subsequently leak or spill. There are several signs to watch for that indicate contaminants have been released from a pipeline. 

Water containing oil will have an oily sheen, and pools of bubbling liquid may appear from oil leakage in flooded areas. Dry soil or vegetation and blowing dirt are common on contaminated land, and plants can become discolored or die in an otherwise healthy area. Petroleum also has a distinct smell that will be noticeable near a spill. 

In the event of a gas leak, fogs and odors — as well as a quiet hissing or loud roaring sound — may be present. Sewage leaks are easily detectable because of their foul smell, but they can also be detected by brown puddles or lush spots of grass. 

Pipeline incidents usually occur due to compounding factors. One of the most common causes of pipeline damage is corrosion or rust. External corrosion occurs due to environmental factors outside the pipe — things like natural reactions with the air, water or soil surrounding it. Internal corrosion is caused by conditions inside the pipe, due to naturally occurring byproducts of the materials being transported. 

According to the Department of Transportation, external corrosion accounts for just under 40% of corrosion incidents, while internal corrosion accounts for about 60%. Pipes are coated to prevent corrosion, but there are a multitude of factors that can render the coating useless. 

Excavation damage can cause catastrophic failures for a pipeline and can lead to significant injuries or death. Natural forces — such as flooding, earthquakes, lightning or extreme temperatures — have been known to cause large-scale failures, due to their magnitude and unpredictability. 

Human errors do also occur, although they are more infrequent. This includes manufacturing or welding errors, as well as equipment or operation failures. Damage caused by vehicle or equipment contact, accidents or fires, vandalism or even sabotage and terrorism are possible, but they are less frequent. 

No matter the cause, it is of utmost importance to test all surrounding air, water and soil that may have come into contact with any bacteria, toxic chemicals or other harmful substances. Doing so will protect both the environment and the health and well-being of people potentially exposed to the contaminant. 

Stage 1: Planning 

During any environmental emergency, timing is critical. Emergency site assessment has three critical stages: planning, response and remediation. 

Stage one is the planning stage, which involves the gathering of information surrounding the incident and assessment of the site itself. First calls should be made to emergency responders, the local Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory bodies, as well as to professional environmental testing providers. 

Responders will conduct interviews with relevant personnel, to better understand the cause of the incident and contamination, as different contaminants require different solutions. As much information as possible must be gathered, in order to respond effectively and efficiently. 

Planning can also be fluid, with requirements changing based on the severity of the contaminated soil, air and water or additional discoveries. In situations where people may be displaced, there must be expedient processes. Once a plan is developed, responders can move into the next stage. 

Stage 2: Response 

In the response stage, an extensive investigation into the extent of the contamination itself is conducted, via the gathering of various environmental samples from the land, water and air. Land samples generally include soil, vegetation and animal tissues. Water samples are taken from groundwater that is pumped out of wells or from surface water pumped from streams, ponds, etc. 

Air canisters will capture air samples near incident sites. The EPA has strict regulations detailing how samples should be collected and handled, to avoid cross-contamination. Once collected, samples are then sent to the contracted laboratory for analysis.  

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. 

The second stage is fairly labor-intensive, due to the logistics involved in determining the extent of the contamination. Safety and managing fatigue are just as important in the laboratory as in the field. As the project scales up, the need for cross-trained staff and multiple team members to support ongoing emergency requirements grows. There may even be possible scope changes as well as changes to collection and testing requirements that can occur overnight and are hard to predict. In most cases, frequent changes should be expected. 

Pace Analytical Services — a regulatory testing and analytical laboratory services company — works with industry professionals to provide on-site analysis and emergency sample kits that can be shipped back to their laboratories for analysis. Hiring a professional laboratory that specializes in emergency response situations not only expedites the process, but it also ensures that the testing is done correctly. 

Stage 3: Remediation 

Once the laboratory evaluates the data collected from the groundwater and other environmental samples, regulators will determine whether it is permitted to move into stage three: remediation. At this time, the public should be notified of all dangers within their surrounding environment and the best remedial course of action. 

Meanwhile, an action plan to remove and dispose of the hazardous materials must be put in place. The EPA also has strict regulations regarding the amount of a certain contaminant that may be present in the environment.  

It can take weeks or months to get to the remediation stage. Moreover, it can take months or even years to thoroughly remediate the site. 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 the water can be put through in situ chemical treatment, to immobilize contaminants. Soil and vegetation are commonly excavated and taken to a disposal facility, given in situ treatment or put through various other treatments, such as a controlled burn.  

Air contamination is much more difficult to treat, as gases mostly disperse upon release, but high concentrations may be treated through controlled burns as well. Because removing contaminants takes time, regulators will require frequent testing of all contaminated sources, until they reach acceptable levels. 

Why Test? 

As we know, toxic materials that leak into the soil will cause it to dry out, and they can poison vegetation. Animals that dwell in the area may consume contaminated plants or drink contaminated water, which can kill them. People who drink water and eat food contaminated by oil or breathe air contaminated by methane can develop cancer, birth defects, liver damage, cardiovascular disease and respiratory symptoms. 

Sewage spills can spread bacteria like E. coli and campylobacteriosis. Additionally, methane is a greenhouse gas and is 25 times more potent than CO2, making it one of the largest contributors to climate change. 

Anything from a slight leak to a full pipeline rupture can have a whole host of negative impacts on the environment and the public. 

Many emergency situations associated with pipelines are unpredictable; however, it is clear that early detection must be a number one priority, to avoid catastrophe. This means that testing is the most reliable way to ensure the public and the environment are safe from harm. 

Author: John Gerken has been with Pace for over 30 years, after joining the company in 1992, and he has spent his entire career there in various roles. Gerken has served as a corporate accounts director for 13 years and created the Emergency Response Analytical Program, before stepping into his current role of vice president of Corporate Accounts and Specialty Analytical Services. Gerken studied business administration at the University of Kanas. 

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