Thursday, April 27, 2006

Last and Final

The worst of the Big Project is over and now it’s just a matter of taking all 34 draft reports and creating the final versions (“finaling”). It came down to the wire. The insurance underwriters had some concerns about eight of the properties and had proposed some exemptions on the policies. Well the deal wasn’t going to happen with these exemptions. On a conference call we had to talk our way through these issues with the underwriters so they could get comfortable. And at the end of the day it worked out.

One critical piece to deal with was the underground wastewater treatment tank at one of the properties (actually re-termed a “vault” which somehow makes it more palatable). I flew down to San Jose last Monday and Tuesday to watch the tank be pumped out and cleaned. By the time they got to the bottom of the tank there was a foot thick layer of sludge that reeked of solvent. It didn’t look good. We had dropped a couple borings around the tank earlier and the groundwater had some limited impact by TCE (trichlorothene), a chlorinated solvent once used extensively in the electronics industry and as a degreaser. The concentrations of TCE in groundwater were four times higher than what is allowed in your drinking water. Not screaming hot but enough to raise a concern.

After the tank was cleaned, the contractor cored through the concrete bottom of the vault so a soil sample could be collected. The owner’s consultant grabbed a soil sample using a slide hammer to drive a core barrel into the soil. I took a split sample. The soil sample turned out to have some low level impact, but nothing above actionable levels.

Tuesday we began a Geoprobe soil and groundwater investigation to determine the extent of impact from the vault and also to see if any contamination was moving on or off the site. The results of the investigation showed a localized impact to groundwater around the vault but also showed that there was a regional impact to groundwater. In other words, we found groundwater contamination across the site. This part of Silicon Valley has extensive regional groundwater contamination caused by several former electronics manufacturing facilities.

I flew back to Seattle Tuesday evening and left the rest of the Geoprobe work to one of my colleagues from our Irvine office. Meanwhile, the vault was still in the ground and the owner was planning to close it in place. Our client wasn’t very happy about that and he came unglued at me on the phone. Well the contractor wasn’t working for me and my client didn’t own the property yet. And we had told our client what the owner’s plans were for the vault – close it in place if the soil is clean (I had an email documenting that). I grabbed the contractor and told him the vault had to come out and to tell me how soon he could do it. The contractor was a great guy and we had gotten along real well. He pulled out all the stops and made it happen within two days, permitting and everything. He had even pulled one of his key excavator operators off a big job at Fort Ord to make it happen. My colleague from Irvine took care of all the observation and split sampling. It went like clockwork.

When all was said and done the tank came out of the ground, some soil was overexcavated, and the confirmation soil samples came back at less than actionable levels. Our client was happy, the insurance underwriters were comfortable, and the deal closed on all 34 properties – a billion dollars worth of real estate changed hands. It was one of the most stressful weeks I’ve ever had at work.

Last weekend I took a short overnight backpacking trip with my oldest son out to the Olympic Coast. More on that later. Suffice to say it was a great trip for both of us, just hanging out with number one son, no TV or video games, just a billion stars and the sound of the waves.

Next week I’m in Denver to do a Phase I on a downtown office building and hotel. Then the week after that I’m in Albuquerque for a sector meeting with all my other colleagues who do this nutty work. I plan on spending a couple days at Chaco Canyon before the meeting. I am totally fascinated by the Anasazi. And Chaco is the center of the Anasazi universe.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Almost There

The Big Project just keeps on rolling and our other clients and projects don’t stop because of the Big Project. Between the Big Project I wedged in an easy Phase I. The Phase I was of a site down in Sumner, WA currently in the grade and fill phase of development for two large warehouse buildings. It was good to be out of the office walking this site on a gorgeous spring day, sunny blues skies with clearing clouds from the overnight rain. If only the cell phone would shut up.

We went to Phase II soil and groundwater sampling on several of the Big Project sites for various reasons, potential solvent releases, potential former landfill use, potential leaking tank, etc. We also did a geophysical survey of a couple of the sites looking for potential underground storage tanks. We have an expert group of geophysicists in our office and stuff like this is really a cakewalk compared to some of the exotic things they do. Basically they survey the site using a magnetometer looking for large buried metal objects and they also use ground penetrating radar (GPR). A buried cylindrical tank leaves a nice parabolic signature on the GPR scan.

One of the sites has a wastewater treatment tank that, based on our sampling results, has released some chlorinated solvents into the soil and groundwater. The owner (the seller) had scheduled the closure of this tank before the transaction closes. But now the presence of chlorinated solvents in soil and groundwater potentially originating from this tank has the potential to crater the whole 34 property deal. Our client (the buyer) needs to obtain environmental insurance before they can purchase the property. The insurance underwriters won’t issue a policy if the extent of contamination is not characterized. The deal closes April 25.

Again I am finding myself jumping onto a plane Monday morning for San Jose so I can observe the tank closure activities and collect split samples. The owner has a contractor who in turn has hired a consultant to collect samples. The owner has also hired a consultant to watch the contractor (and us). This should be fun – consultants watching each other.

We’re also doing some soil and groundwater sampling to characterize the impact around the tank. We’re using direct-push probe equipment (“Geoprobe”) to collect the samples. Basically this involves driving a core barrel sampler into the soil and retrieving a nice soil core. Groundwater samples are obtained using a PVC well screen inserted into the hollow drive rods or a hydropunch (basically a stainless steel well point driven into the water table). A small bailer lowered into the well screen is used to collect the water sample or the sample can be obtained using PE tubing and a peristaltic pump. There are many variations on this theme.

I’ll be kicking off the soil and groundwater sampling on Tuesday with one of my colleagues out of our Irvine office. I’m sure we’ll have Mr. Owner’s Consultant watching over us. I’ll fly home Tuesday evening while my colleague wraps up on Wednesday.