Emergency situations often happen instantly, without warning, and in the event of groundwater contamination, the effects can be long lasting and widespread. With approximately 50 percent of U.S. drinking water coming from groundwater, the first hours or even minutes after an emergency arises are crucial in saving lives and protecting the environment in the long term. Avoiding harmful situations is always preferred, but when disaster strikes, knowing what to do and having an emergency response plan can help to limit impact and prevent future strife.

Groundwater Contamination Causes

Train derailments, floods, tornadoes, and wildfires are just a few causes of groundwater contamination. Many human-induced contaminations occur through industrial discharges, urban activities, agriculture, groundwater pumping, and waste disposal. Fuel from leaking tanks or pesticides and fertilizers applied to lawns and crops can accumulate and migrate underground. A well could also have been placed on land that was once used as a garbage or chemical dumpsite.

Unwanted substances can also occur naturally. Water flowing underground can pick up high concentrations of metals that dissolve in water, such as iron and manganese. Harmful bacteria such as E. coli that can cause serious illness when ingested can enter water systems from septic tanks or through leakage from waste-disposal sites. Testing all surrounding water that may have come into contact with any bacteria, toxic chemicals, or other harmful substances, no matter the cause of the contamination, is of utmost importance. Doing so will protect the environment and improve the population’s health and well-being.

Stage 1: Planning

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

The first is the planning stage, involving 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), as well as professional environmental testing providers. Responders will conduct interviews with relevant personnel to better understand the cause of the incident and contamination; different contaminants require different solutions. As much information as possible must be gathered in order to develop an effective and efficient response.

Planning can also be fluid, with requirements changing depending upon the severity of the contaminated soil, air, and water or additional discoveries. When lives 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 contamination itself is conducted through the gathering of groundwater and other environmental test samples. 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 provide critical data that can help prevent the spread of contaminants and minimize the impact on the environment and the public.

As far as the testing process is concerned, prior to sampling, stagnant water first must be purged from a water well. Samples are typically collected from wells through the discharge line of a pump or bailer and then sent to the contracted laboratory for analysis. The U.S. EPA has strict regulations detailing how samples should be collected and handled to avoid cross-contamination. The regulations include the use of stainless steel or Teflon bailers and mandate the use of clean, new, nonpowdered disposable gloves at each sampling location. Following regulations is imperative in assuring tests are accurate.

The second stage is 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 needs scale up, the demand for cross-trained staff and multiple team members to support ongoing emergency needs grows. Scope changes, as well as changes to collection and testing requirements, can occur overnight and are hard to predict.

Laboratory companies may work with industry professionals to provide on-site analysis and kits with which samples can be taken at the site and then shipped 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 the remediation stage. At this time, a determination might be made to notify the public of all dangers within the water system, and the best remedial course of action will be decided. Meanwhile, an action plan to remove and dispose of the hazardous materials must be put in place. The U.S. EPA has strict regulations regarding the amount of a certain contaminant that may be present in groundwater.

Getting to the remediation stage might take weeks or months. Moreover, thoroughly disposing of all contaminants could take months or years. The traditional approach to removal from groundwater is to “pump and treat” by pumping out contaminated groundwater using a vacuum pump. Removal can also be accomplished through in situ treatment, which can immobilize, destroy, or remove contaminants. Because removing contaminants takes time, regulators will require frequent groundwater testing.

Predicting when and where a train derailment, natural disaster, major fire, or pipeline rupture will occur is anyone’s guess. However, early detection must be the top priority to avoid catastrophe. If groundwater may be contaminated, test, test, test until the toxins are gone and the environment and public are safe from harm.

About the author John Gerken is vice president of corporate accounts and specialty analytical services at Pace®, serving previously as corporate accounts director. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1991 with a degree in business administration and management. The next year, he began working for Pace®, where he has spent his 30-year career.

About the company Pace® Analytical Services is a provider of regulatory testing and analytical laboratory services in the United States, advancing the science of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries and supporting businesses, industries, consulting firms, government agencies, and others to make the world a safer, healthier place.


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