SOOOOO MANY FIELDWORK “WAR” STORIES…

and they are all true

The porta-potty method of “cooling off”

Where: Former Naval Training Center, Orlando, FL

    It was so hot and humid on a US Navy sampling project that we’d go into porta-potties, stay there for a few minutes, and because it’s so damn hot and hard to breathe in there, the second you came out you’d say:

    “oh, it’s not so hot outside anymore”

    This was an ongoing long-term monitoring project for Southern Division of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFACENGCOM) that we were performing on for 5 years.  The work consisted of low-flow groundwater sampling of approximately 150 monitoring wells on a quarterly basis  at a former military base which underwent Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).

    The scope of work, while straightforward, consisted of a vast network of wells spanning several different Study Areas and Areas of Concern, each with its own set of analytical and field testing parameters.  For example, a couple of study areas required natural attenuation field testing for sulfate, sulfide, iron, and other qualitative sampling tests.

    A typical sampling event lasted about 2 weeks of field time, with the usual issues: it always rained hard in the mid afternoon.  The weather was typically hot AF.  Ocassionally we would miss a well or two due to overgrowth or construction having destroyed the well.  Oh…and bugs…lots of them…mosquitos, gnats, hornets nests…even an alligator every now and then.

      “Don’t let anything fly out of the field cart!”

      Where: Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, TX

        One of our projects required sampling a bunch of wells once a year at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station.  Most of the wells on base were in areas that were generally accessible with a base pass.  However, a few of them were on the flightline. That meant having to go to flightline safety training class, and getting clearance to work on the flightline.  Oftentimes, this meant a scheduled 2-hour window at nighttime.

        On one particular sampling event, Black Hawk helicopters were going to take off at a particular time, and we had to get our work done before their engines fired up.  One thing we were taught in flightline safety training a few days earlier was to never let anything lightweight like paper and gloves loose, because it will take flight in windy conditions, which is the case 99% of the time on a flightline.  And if a glove flies out of the field cart, it can get sucked into a jet engine.  You don’t ever want that to happen.  Ever.  If it happens, good luck renewing that contract.

        And try doing all of this work in the dark, using the work truck headlights to see what’s going on, in super windy conditions, with a clock on your ass ticking away. Have you ever worked in windy conditions, trying to fill an empty 40 mL vial in the dark? Yea, not pleasant.  Chances are high that the vial will tip over and spill its few drops of preservative.  Point is, doing your work under these conditions is challenging.  Adding more work to the folks doing this stuff only makes their job harder, so keep that in mind when asking them to fill in some complicated forms.

          Gorgeous weather one minute,
          black clouds, hail, and tornado warnings the next minute

          Where: Former Atlas Missile Site #7, 10 miles North of Vernon, TX

            We performed drilling and sampling work in response to a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS) for the US Army Corps of Engineers near Vernon Texas at a former Atlas Missile site.  For context, Atlas missiles were nuclear warheads placed in underground silos all over rural America during the Cold War in the early 1960’s, pointed at Russia. This particular missile site was decommissioned in the late 1960’s.  Trichloroethylene (TCE) was discovered in nearby water wells used by livestock in a nearby ranch.  This triggered an investigation, which consisted of installing multiple wells with screens set at roughly 200 ft below land surface.  Because of the geology in the area, these wells were installed as double-cased (telescoping) wells using a mud-rotary drilling method.

            The drilling effort was slow AF, lasting multiple weeks.  One of the main problems encountered was the drill rig provided by the drilling contractor.  That pile of shit broke down all the time.  I won’t name names, but the drilling outfit was from Houston.  Whenever the drill broke for some reason, someone would have to drive a part from Houston to Vernon.  And this is Texas we are talking about, where it takes an entire day to drive in one direction.  The issues encountered caused multiple delays, meaning multiple unexpected round trip flights.

            Most of the work was conducted in the summer, where temperatures approached 115°F.  During those days, we’d have to install a portable canopy, use water-cooled towels, and a crapload of ice and Gatorade to stay hydrated.  Snake chaps were part of the attire, as rattlesnakes were prevalent in this part of the country.  Two of our trips to the site were conducted in early May, when the weather was cooler.

            But this is also in tornado ally.  And the weather didn’t disappoint.  On one of those May trips, the weather was awesome.  Until it wasn’t.  A black cloud appeared out of nowhere, pretty soon the wind started howling, golf-ball sized hail started pounding the site, and then 10 minutes later it was all over.  Weird stuff.

            On another trip, a tornado watch around 2pm prompted us to have to break down and call it a day.  When we arrived at the hotel, none of the staff was there…they had all left to take care of business at home.  And when the tornado came pretty close to the hotel, that afternoon looked like evening.  Not to mention all the flying litter pelting cars and the building.

              “Hurry up! FedEx stops taking shipments in 20 minutes!”

              Where: Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Reserve Depot, Jacksonville, NC

                One of our projects involved sampling some 50 or so drinking water supply wells at Camp Lejeune.  The sheer amount of lab analyses per well required an entire cooler full of sample containers for each well sampled.  About 22 sample containers for each sample set.  Analyses included VOCs, SVOCs, munitions, priority pollutant metals, nitrates/nitrites, herbicides/pesticides, hexavalent chromium, perchlorate, and PFAS.  Yea, it was a lot.

                One of the big issues is that this particular project was ultra fast-paced.  You had a military escort driving ahead of you from well to well. Typically, the day starts at 7:30am and ends at 3-3:30pm, to give enough time to drive out of the base and into Jacksonville NC to prep the sample containers, coolers, and chain of custody forms. FedEx was notoriously unreliable in Jax, and they stopped taking shipments between 4 – 4:30pm.  If you didn’t get your coolers out to them on time, you’d have to do it the following day, keeping those coolers left behind on new ice and watching out for hold time exceedances.

                The logistics problems necessitated having a dedicated courier to assist.  And eventually we bypassed FedEx and had a local courier hired to drive the containers to the lab in Georgia every day.  Oh yea, and keep in mind that when you are on base, cell service doesn’t exactly work in many areas there.  So whatever you use for documentation needs to work in offline mode.

                  “Dude, you look ashen and near dead.  You need to get yourself back home to warm up.”

                  Where: Tanker truck spill, Wilson, NC

                    In mid December, a tanker truck overturned in the early morning hours along a rural road near Wilson, NC, spilling about 5,000 gallons of gasoline into the roadway drainage ditch lines. Fire trucks were dispatched immediately, an emergency response cleanup crew followed, and we followed shortly after to supervise and direct the cleanup and verification work.

                    The temperature that morning was hovering around 33°F, with drizzling rain coming down most of the morning.  One of our guys dropped everything and headed to the jobsite.  Unfortunately, he didn’t dress appropriately for the weather.  By the time I got there, his face was ashen-grey and he looked dead.  Like lterally a walking corpse.

                    He stuck around for a bit longer, warming up in the field truck. I had dressed more appropriately with long underwear, multiple layers, and a heavy winter jacket. But yea, he looked dead.  Weather is no joke.  It will always beat you if you are not prepared for it.

                    This kind of field event can become what appears to be a controlled chaos.  A lot of fast decision-making is required, many people start showing up including State agency regulators, a lot of equipment arrives and needs to be put into action, and everything needs to be documented from the start.  The last thing someone needs in situations like this is a complicated field documentation system.  

                      What all these stories have in common

                      Fieldwork is hard work. It takes a lot of effort.  Field crews are busy, have to think on their feet, and have a lot to do in the given time on site.  And they have to do all of this regardless of the weather, equipment malfunctions, and other unexpected issues that will inevitable happen.

                        Simplicity matters

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