Robert Giattino

Robert Giattino

dump 3468127 1280

You got a letter in the mail from an environmental health agency in California, typically a county or city - but it could be a State agency. The letter points out that contamination was found on your property and you are responsible - you are named the “responsible party”. The letter goes on to say that the agency is authorized under the California law to open a cleanup case.

Remedial Action Agreement: What is it?

In most cases, the health agency ends their letter with some kind of language inviting the responsible party to sign a “Remedial Action Agreement”. Typically, they request a signature from you acknowledging your responsibility and accepting their requirement that you reimburse their agency for oversight costs.

The oversight agency is tasked with reviewing cleanup plans and results, ensuring regulatory laws and guidelines are followed, and making decisions regarding case closure. There is a balance to be struck between the need for information to make decisions (agency) and the cost of that information (responsible party). And it’s the oversight agency that’s tasked with striking that balance.

It sounds straightforward, but it is also complicated, painful and frustrating. So where is the bullying?

Where is the Bullying?

Bullying is taking advantage of an imbalance in physical or social power.

In the case of a local environmental health agency, the agency has power over the property owner by virtue of its ability to issue permits, regulate development and building, oversee community planning, and oversee environmental health. And if that’s not enough, the California Health and Safety Code also allows for State agencies to enforce environmental regulations.

meter wellA property owner can ignore the local agency request, and the local health agency may move on to more important cases, but when the property owner wants to do something with their property - like remodel, develop, or sell the property - the local health agency will step in and hold up plans until their requests have been addressed to their satisfaction. Technically, it’s not bullying. The local agency is empowered on behalf of all of us by law - it just seems like bullying when that power is turned on us. The local agency is just a neutral actor enforcing the law (bullies).

But their power to seemingly bully doesn’t stop there.

The local agency can pass you on to another bully - the State. When you question signing the voluntary agreement, the local health agency is quick to point out that if you don’t sign, your case will be referred to the California State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control. How do these State agencies differ from the local health agency? They are regionally based and have powers of enforcement that local agencies are without. These State agencies can levy fines and pursue other legal remedies.

So if you feel bullied - don’t worry -  it’s just the neutral hand of the law. Really, the issue is which bully - I mean agency - you should sign up with.

Which “Bully” do I sign up with?

We recommend that you always start with your local health agency if they have the capability to handle the case. They can make that determination and inform the state agencies of their decision to open a case or refer the case to a state agency.

The local agency can provide guidance and approval, and your relationship with the regulator might feel less onerous because they’re more focused on the local community. And like any good relationship, you can end it at any time and go to a State agency for oversight. 

Why do I feel bullied by environmental health agencies?

Environmental health agencies are not bullies - we need them. It’s easy to see their contributions to our communities in clean air, clean water, and good health. But sometimes -  it feels like they are bullies. Contact us if you feel like you’re bullied and we will help turn the situation into a collaboration. We have years of experience working with local and state agencies on our client’s behalf, with our client’s best interest in mind.  Call us at 831-227-4898 or click the button below for a free consultation.

Visitors walk the trail during the wildflower bloom at Table Mountain, a basaltic plateau near Oroville, California. Photo taken April 22, 2019.Kelly M. Grow / California Department of Water Resources, FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLYEnvironmental consulting firms play a pivotal role in navigating the complexities of environmental regulations and mitigating risks associated with environmental factors. Whether you're a business owner, a property manager, or a project developer, understanding why you might need to hire an environmental consulting firm is crucial in ensuring compliance, minimizing liabilities, and fostering sustainability.

Top Reasons to Hire an Environmental Consulting Firm:

1) Compliance with Environmental Regulations

Environmental regulations are becoming increasingly complex and stringent, and it can be difficult for businesses to keep up without the help of an expert. A professional firm providing environmental consultanting services can help you identify and understand the regulations that apply to your business, develop a plan to comply with them, provide due diligence for transactions, and keep track of changes in the law.

2) Assessment of Environmental Risks

Environmental risks like spills, leaks, or contaminated soil can pose a significant threat to the environment and businesses, both in terms of financial liability and operational disruptions. Licenced and certified environmental professionals found at consulting firms can help you identify, assess, and manage environmental risks at your property or facility. This may include conducting environmental site assessments, analyzing air and water quality, performing hazardous waste evaluations, and preparation of health and safety plans.

3) Remediation of Environmental Contamination (Clean Up Contamination)

If your property or facility is already contaminated with hazardous substances, you will need to take steps to remediate the contamination. Environmental consultants can develop and implement remediation plans, oversee the cleanup process, and ensure that the cleanup meets regulatory standards.

4) Obtaining Environmental Permits

Many businesses need to obtain environmental permits to operate. For example, permits for air quality are necessary for anything from asbestos removal to baking with cannabis. Environmental consultants can help you prepare and submit permit applications, provide technical support during the permitting process, and ensure that your business complies with permit requirements.

5) Developing and Implementing Sustainability Plans

drilling a contaminated siteBusinesses are increasingly adopting sustainability practices to reduce their environmental impact and enhance corporate responsibility. Environmental consultants can help you develop and implement sustainability plans that align with your business goals and objectives.

6) Conducting Employee Environmental Training

Environmental training can help employees understand environmental regulations, identify environmental risks, and take steps to protect the environment. Environmental consultants can develop and deliver environmental training programs that are tailored to the needs of your business.

7) Respond to Environmental Incidents

Environmental emergencies, such as fires, spills, and contamination incidents, demand swift and efficient response strategies. Consultants provide prompt incident management, minimize environmental impact, and ensure regulatory compliance during crises.

8) Staying Up-to-Date on Environmental Issues

Environmental issues are dynamic, requiring businesses to stay informed about emerging issues and trends. It can be difficult and time-consuming to keep up with the latest developments. Environmental consultants can provide you with up-to-date information on environmental issues and help you understand the implications for your business, enabling proactive decision-making and risk mitigation.

Why Would You Need an Environmental Engineering Firm

Beyond consulting services, environmental engineering firms offer specialized expertise in areas such as regulatory compliance, risk assessment, and remediation. From addressing human health risks to managing financial liabilities, the diverse skill set of environmental engineers makes them indispensable partners in addressing complex environmental challenges. Whether you require assistance with regulatory compliance, contamination cleanup, or infrastructure projects, an environmental engineering firm can provide tailored solutions to meet your specific needs.

Contact RRM for All Your Environmental Engineering Needs

Ready to explore how an environmental consulting firm can benefit your business or project? Click the button below for a free consultation or call (831) 227-4898 to speak with our team of experts.

 

Sunday, 31 December 2023

What is an Indoor Air Sample?

fresh air at sunsetIn addition to asking for soil gas samples, many state and county environmental health agencies in California ask for indoor air samples. Let’s take a look at the "five Ws and a H” of an indoor air sample - or the what, why, who, when, where, and how of an indoor air sample.

What is an Indoor Air Sample?

An indoor air sample is what you get when you remove a small portion of the air inside an indoor space and isolate it for testing. Air inside a building can contain suspended particles, chemicals from inside the building, chemicals from outside the building, and chemicals from soil and water beneath the building. At some level, these airborne particulates and chemicals become harmful to human health. One strategy used to protect human health is to take a look at the chemical makeup of indoor air by collecting and analyzing indoor air samples. By the way, a volume of air is approximately 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, 1% argon, and 0.04 percent carbon dioxide.

Where underground chemical contamination is a concern, a sample of indoor air can be used to find out if contaminated soil gas has entered the buildings above it. Contaminated soil gas entering an indoor space can contain chemicals such as gasoline and cleaning solvents (tetrachloroethylene or PCE). Contaminated soil gas may also have by-products of chemical spills like the vinyl chloride that comes from the breakdown of PCE.

Why get an Indoor Air Sample?

Indoor air is sampled to look for the presence of particulates and/or harmful gasses that are either naturally occurring or the result of a spill. The samples are analyzed to find out what particulates or chemicals are in the air, what the levels are, and what the risk to human health is. Particulate or chemical levels detected at the lab are typically assessed by comparison against levels judged to be safe by the regulatory community. These levels, sometimes called environmental screening levels (ESLs), are considered safe becuase they were shown not to pose a risk to public health and the environment.

Who is the Indoor Air Sample For and Who Collects the Sample?

In most cases an environmental consultant or environmental oversight agency proposes collection of indoor air samples. Sometimes building owners hire an environmental consultant to collect indoor air samples as a precautionary matter. Indoor air samples are tyoically collected by personnel trained in indoor air sampling and related health and safety concerns. Sampling objectives and methods are typically spelled out in a work plan that is approved by the regulatory oversight agency prior to samping.

Where are Indoor Samples Collected and Where do They go?

Indoor air samples are collected in indoor spaces away from walls, windows and doors. In the case of soil gas contamination, bathrooms or utility rooms are targeted because pipes and utilities that go through the building floor are places where contaminated soil gas can enter a building. An indoor air sample is collected in mid-air, about 4 to 5 feet above the floor. Once the air samples are collected, they are taken to a laboratory for chemical testing.

Indoor air samples go to a state-certified laboratory for analysis. Sample containers are labeled with the sampling location, time sampling started and stopped, the initial and final canister pressure, and the sample identification. After labeling, the samples are placed in a sealed container and transported to a lab for analyses.

A chain of custody is prepared at the point of sample collection and travels with the samples to the laboratory. The chain of custody contains contact information, a list of the samples collected, and instructions on analysis. Each person that handles the samples during the trip from the sample location to the laboratory signs and dates the chain of custody, so that if anything happens to the samples, there is a clear line of responsibility from the sample location to the laboratory.

When are Indoor Air Samples Collected and When do the Results Arrive?

Indoor air samples can be collected at any time. For contaminated soil gas, it is suggested that indoor air samples be taken twice per year to show levels during rainy and dry seasons. Indoor air samples are collected over a time period that usually spans 8 hours, but sometimes extends to 24 hours. One specific method of indoor air sampling allows sampling periods of up to a month. Once at the lab, it usually takes about two weeks to get the results. Of course, if you are willing to pay more, sample testing can be “rushed”.ambient air sample

How are Indoor Air Samples Collected?

Indoor samples are collected using a vacated stainless steel canister, a passive sampler (container of adsorption material), or a combination or pump and adsorption material, any of which are supplied by a laboratory.

The canister is delivered sealed and under a vacuum. The canister is equipped with a valve that controls the air flow into the canister. The laboratory sets the flow rate according to the sample period. For example, the valve for an 8-hour sample is set to limit the air flow so that it takes about 8 hours to fill the canister. During sampling, the canister is mounted about 4 to 5 feet above the floor. Sample collection stops after sample period or when the canister pressure gauge shows the canister is nearly filled.

Passive air samplers work by allowing natural air currents to bring air into contact with a material that certain airborne chemicals stick to (adsorb). Chemicals that stick to the adsorbent material are later removed at the lab and tested to find out what chemicals are in the air and at what levels. Passive samplers are placed just like canister samplers and sampling periods can extend up to a month. Some passive air samplers come in the form of a badge that is worn by someone who could be exposed to particulates or chemicals in the workplace. If a certain particulate or chemical level is reached, the badge turns color or emits a sound.

Indoor air is also sampled using an air pump combined with an absorption material as used in passive air samplers. In this case, instead of relying on the natural air movement inside a building, a specific amount of air is collected at a set air flow using a pump. As with the passive method, chemicals that stick to the adsorbent material are later removed at the lab for analysis.

Close

Here we answered the five Ws and a H for an indoor air sample. If you have any other questions about indoor air sampling, or need help with another environmental question, please call us or click the button below for a free consultation.

Tuesday, 21 November 2023

What is a Soil Gas Sample?

Soil gas sample set up“What is a Soil Gas Sample?”

It’s a good question. It’s part of a string of questions most of us are familiar with -  the what, why, who, when, where, and how of something. Let’s check the list.

What is a Soil Gas Sample?

A soil gas sample is what you get when you remove a small portion of gas inside soil and hold it in a container for testing. Underground soil is like a sponge in that it has empty spaces. Between the surface of the ground and underground water (groundwater), these soil spaces are filled with gas and water. The gas is mostly air, but it can also have gaseous contamination from underground spills of chemicals such as gasoline and cleaning solvents (tetrachloroethylene or PCE). The soil gas may also have by-products of chemical spills like the vinyl chloride that comes from the breakdown of PCE.

Why get a Soil Gas Sample?

Soil gas is sampled to see if there are any harmful gasses that are either naturally occurring or the result of a spill. The samples are usually analyzed at a State-certified lab to find out what chemicals are in the soil gas sample and what the levels are. There are several reasons to collect a soil gas sample.

One reason is to find out if there is a risk to human health and the environment. To check for risk, chemical levels detected at the lab are typically compared to levels judged to be safe by the regulatory community. These levels, sometimes called environmental screening levels (ESLs), are considered safe when they do not pose a potential risk to public health and the environment.

Another reason to collect soil gas samples is to find out where contamination is and where chemical levels are highest. A map showing where chemicals are found and at what levels they are found can provide a good idea of the area of contamination and highlight areas with higher levels. This can help to steer property development plans and keep people away from potentially harmful areas. This information can also significantly lower investigation costs by showing where soil and groundwater sampling should be targeted.

In the case of known underground contamination, soil gas samples may be collected over a period of time to monitor the change in chemical levels. A change that shows a decrease in chemical levels is necessary for environmental case closure.

Sometimes the reason for soil gas sampling is to just find out whether there is underground contamination. For example, a property owner may have soil gas samples collected along a property boundary shared with a dry cleaning business to find out if contamination from the dry cleaner moved beyond the dry cleaner’s property line.

Who is the Soil Gas Sample for and Who Collects the Sample?

Usually, an environmental consultant or environmental oversight agency proposes collection of soil gas samples. As mentioned above, the reasons are to find out what chemicals are in the soil gas, what the levels are, and where the chemicals are located.

In most cases, personnel trained in soil gas sampling collect soil gas samples. Sampling goals and how the sampling will be done are typically spelled out in a work plan that is approved by a regulatory agency prior to samping.

Where are Soil Gas Samples Collected and Where Do They Go?

Soil gas samples are collected in areas of known or suspected underground contamination. Once the soil gas samples are collected, they are taken to a laboratory for chemical testing. In some cases, an on-site field laboratory is used to analyze samples.

In the field, soil gas sample containers are labeled with the sampling location, time the sample was collected, and a sample identification number. After labeling, samples are placed in a sealed container and transported to a state-certified laboratory for analyses. 

A chain of custody is prepared at the point of sample collection and it travels with the samples to the laboratory. The chain of custody contains contact information, a list of the samples collected, and other important information. It is a clear line of responsibility from the sample location to the laboratory.

When are Soil Gas Samples Collected and When do the Results Arrive?

Soil gas samples can be collected at any time, but it is suggested that samples not be collected within 5 days of a good rainfall. Policy makers suggest that after you know where the soil  gas contamination is, you should take samples twice per year to show levels during rainy and dry seasons. Once at the lab, it usually takes about two weeks to get the results. Of course, if you are willing to pay more, sample testing can be “rushed”.

How are Soil Gas Samples Collected?

Soil gas sampling equipment and wellSoil gas samples are collected from wells installed to at least 5 feet underground or from sample points that allow access to soil just underneath a concrete floor. In most cases samples are collected using a stainless steel canister that is supplied by a laboratory. The canister is delivered sealed and under a vacuum. During sampling, the canister is attached to a manifold that connects the canister to the well or sample point. The manifold is also equipped with pressure gauges, a filter, and a flow limiter that controls the flow of soil gas into the sample container to maintain sample quality. Sample collection stops when the canister pressure gauge shows the canister is nearly filled.

Close

We answered the five Ws and a H for a soil gas sample. There are plenty of questions to ask about soil gas, contamination, and exposure at our homes and workplaces. We are here to help answer those questions and provide related services such as soil gas sampling and vapor intrusion mitigation system design,  installation, and monitoring.

If you have any other questions about soil gas, or need help with another environmental question, please call us or click the button below for a free consultation. We’ve been helping folks for 35 years and we know what we are doing.

removeUST

California's RUST Program

RUST stands for Replacing, Removing, or Upgrading Underground Storage Tanks.

The RUST program is a system of grants and loans to help small business owners and operators come into compliance with regulatory requirements for underground storage tanks (USTs). Compliance is achieved through removing, replacing or upgrading USTs. The program is administered by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The RUST Program is a great way for small businesses to protect their business and improve their bottom line. By removing or upgrading their USTs, businesses can reduce their risk of environmental liability and save money on maintenance and repairs.

California's Deadline for the Removal of Single-Walled USTs is December 31, 2025

California has reminded owners and operators of underground storage tanks (USTs) that they are required to permanently close single-walled (SW) USTs by December 31, 2025. This includes connected SW piping. With the deadline looming, it’s time to learn about California’s Replacing, Removing, or Upgrading Underground Storage Tanks (RUST) Program.

What Costs are Eligible for a RUST Grant or Loan?

Eligible costs for grants include:

  • Costs for removing and replacing single-walled* USTs and/or piping with doubled-walled** USTs and/or piping.
  • Costs for upgrades to USTs including installation of containment sumps, under-dispenser containment boxes/pans, and electronic monitoring systems.
  • Costs for conducting enhanced leak detection tests.

Eligible costs for loans include those for grants and:

  • Costs for corrective actions necessary to meet applicable local, state, or federal standards including, but not limited to, any design, construction, monitoring, operation, or maintenance requirements adopted pursuant to the California Health and Safety Code.

*Single-walled USTs have one wall between the petroleum fuel and the underground soil.

**Double-walled USTs have two walls between the fuel and the underground soil. The second wall provides extra containment that helps to prevent leaks from reaching the soil. It is a tank in a tank (piping in piping) system.

Who is Eligible for a RUST Grant?

Independently owned and operated small businesses with petroleum USTs and fewer than 20 full-time and part-time employees are eligible for a RUST grant. The principal office and business officers must be domiciled in California. Businesses dominant in their field of operation are excluded.

The facility must have legally been in business retailing gasoline after January 1, 1999, and must have sold less than 1,500,000 gallons of gasoline annually for the two years prior to filing an application.

All USTs owned and operated by the applicant are in compliance with State UST regulations. Grant applicants may be eligible for a waiver from the permit compliance and/or retailing gasoline requirements if the project tanks will be removed and will not be replaced with new tanks and the applicant does not qualify for a RUST Loan. 

“Domiciled” means the permanent legal place of residence of a natural person or the principal place of business of a juristic entity.

“Dominant in their field of operation” means having more than twenty employees and a significantly larger market share than the next largest rival. Dominant firms are typically considered to have market shares of 40% or more.

ust exposed

Who is Eligible for a RUST Loan?

Independently owned and operated small businesses with petroleum USTs and fewer than 500 employees are eligible for a RUST loan. As with a grant, the principal office and business officers must be domiciled in California, and businesses dominant in their field of operation are excluded.

All USTs owned and operated by the applicant are in compliance with State UST regulations.

What are the RUST funding amounts?

If you are eligible for RUST funding, you cannot begin work until you have a grant or loan executed by the State Water Board. 

RUST Grant Funding Amounts

The RUST program grants are available for between $3,000 and $70,000 per grant.

A small business may receive multiple RUST grants, but the maximum lifetime limit in grant money for each small business is $70,000. 

RUST Loan Funding Amounts

Loan terms of 10 or 20 years at ½ the State’s most recent general obligation bond rate are available. Contact the State Water Board for the current interest rate.

Loans are available for between $10,000 and $750,000. 

Ten-year loans are secured by a Uniform Commercial Code Financing Statement on the business property, assets, and equipment. Twenty-year loans are secured by a deed of trust on the business property and a Uniform Commercial Code Financing Statement on the business property, assets, and equipment. 

Additional collateral and guarantees may be required to provide sufficient security for the loan. The borrower must pay a loan fee of 2 percent at the final loan closing.

How to Finance UST Removal in California

The State Water Resources Control Board offers grants and loans to help small business owners and operators come into compliance with regulatory requirements for USTs. Compliance is achieved through removing, replacing, or upgrading USTs.

We talked about eligible costs, eligibility requirements, and funding. Are you considering replacing, removing, or upgrading USTs? Give us a call at 831-227-4898 or click below for a free consultation.

Understanding Vapor Intrusion Assessments

An attorney we work with asked me to look at a phase I environmental site assessment (ESA) for his client. His client was really interested in the property, which already had a solid lease.

The ESA disclosed a historically recognized environmental concern (HREC) and a recognized environmental concern (REC). Both had to do with a release of gasoline from a former underground storage tank (UST) at the property. The property had environmental case closure with very low levels of gasoline contamination left in place.

The question posed by the attorney’s client boiled down to the Phase I recommendation - “Complete a Vapor Intrusion Assessment and Prepare a Soil Management Plan”.

“Is this necessary?” the client asked.

I told them that the recommendation was very conservative based on the information provided by the ESA. I let them know that if they planned to redevelop the property, the county would probably look to them to voluntarily investigate for vapor intrusion and prepare a soil management plan as part of the redevelopment.

I advised that the recommendation was overly conservative given their intention to hold the property as is. I also told them that it was unlikely a vapor intrusion assessment would disclose a vapor intrusion problem.

As we were wrapping up, a question came up, “What is a vapor intrusion assessment?”

I started my answer with an explanation of vapor intrusion.

What is Vapor Intrusion?

As a liquid chemical evaporates, it turns from a liquid into a vapor or gas. All liquids evaporate to some extent, and the extent to which a liquid evaporates shows its volatility. The more volatile a liquid is, the more quickly it turns into vapor.

When a liquid chemical leaks into the ground, it enters the soil and groundwater. Once in groundwater, the chemical moves along with the groundwater. As this process unfolds, and depending on its volatility, some of the released chemicals turn into a vapor and enter the space of dry soil above the groundwater. The vapor can leak up through the ground and enter a building causing a buildup of chemical vapors in the building. This process is vapor intrusion.

What is a Vapor Intrusion Assessment?

vaporintrusionAs time goes on, groundwater carries the dissolved chemical downstream from the chemical release. At the same time, a vapor plume (just like the billowing smoke that forms above a smokestack) forms in the soil above the affected groundwater. The area of the vapor plume mirrors the area of chemically-affected soil and groundwater.

A vapor intrusion assessment uses the link between the vapor plume and affected soil and groundwater to confirm whether there is contaminated soil and/or groundwater in an area and to determine whether any detected contamination poses a human health risk due to vapor intrusion.

In practice, a vapor intrusion assessment involves collecting soil vapor samples from small wells spread across the area you are investigating, and testing the soil vapor samples for suspected contaminants.

Typically, detected contamination levels in soil vapor are used to estimate how much area is contaminated, identify areas of high contamination or “hot-spots”, and gauge potential human health risks by comparing detected levels with published environmental screening levels (ESLs).

What are the Advantages of a Vapor Intrusion Assessment?

A vapor intrusion assessment has some real advantages over the more traditional phase II soil and groundwater assessment for figuring out where soil and groundwater contamination is, where the highest levels of contamination are, and whether soil vapor intrusion poses a human health risk.

Number one, a soil vapor assessment costs much less than a soil and groundwater assessment, generates less waste, is less intrusive, and provides information that can be used to target a groundwater and soil investigation, and possible cleanup. Additionally, a soil vapor assessment can be used to examine vapor intrusion health risks.

Of course, a soil vapor assessment does not provide all the information a soil and groundwater investigation can, but it gets you well down the road and allows more efficient and cost-effective phases of investigation and cleanup.

Our recommendation: Before drilling for soil and groundwater samples, use a soil vapor assessment to get a valuable overview.

Close

In this article, we took a look at soil vapor intrusion, explained what a soil vapor assessment is, and described some of the advantages a soil vapor assessment has over a traditional phase II soil and groundwater investigation.

If you have a Phase I ESA that recommends verifying an HREC or REC, go ahead and get a second opinion, and if necessary, consider using a soil vapor assessment to confirm the ESA recommendation. With over 30 years of experience in conducting soil vapor assessments and reaping their advantages, we can help. Please call us at 831-475-8141 or click below to schedule a free consultation.

Wildflowers along a stream at Table Mountain a basaltic plateau near Oroville, California. Photo taken April 4, 2013.Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

Effective Methods for Active Vapor Intrusion Mitigation

I got a call from an exacerbated client who was rightly concerned about a letter from the county. “The county letter said my neighbor has finished cleanup at their dry cleaner and they were implementing active vapor intrusion mitigation, “ she told me. We were helping this client navigate the issues, concerns and requirements regarding investigation and cleanup at a property adjacent to her own. “What is active vapor intrusion mitigation and what does it mean for our property?” she asked.

“Good question,” I told her. “I know we’ve already talked about vapor intrusion as it relates to your property, but let's go over it briefly, then we can talk about active vapor intrusion mitigation."

What is Vapor Intrusion?

“When we first spoke about investigation and cleanup at the dry cleaner next door, I told you there was a possibility that groundwater contaminated with tetrachloroethylene (PCE) traveled from beneath your neighbor's property to below your property,” I recalled. “I told you that PCE in the groundwater could contaminate soil vapor and contaminated soil vapor could enter the building on your property. Contaminated soil vapor traveling from an underground source into a building or building basement is vapor intrusion.”

“At the time, I let you know that soil vapor samples collected on your property showed there was no risk of vapor intrusion,” I said. “If we had found there was even a potential risk of PCE-contaminated vapor entering your building, we would have recommended active vapor intrusion mitigation (VIM) to keep vapors from entering into your building and to protect occupants from exposure.” 

“While cleanup has occurred next door,” I continued, “it wasn’t enough to eliminate the vapor intrusion threat posed by the remaining contamination. So, to allow safe occupancy of the building, your neighbor decided to use active VIM until cleanup goals are reached.”

“Okay, sounds reasonable,” my client said. “So what is active VIM?”

Active Vapor Intrusion Mitigation (VIM) Methods

Simply put, active VIM methods create a pressure difference between air on the inside of a building and the soil vapor under a building in a way that keeps vapors out of the building. Active VIM methods tend to be more effective than passive methods, but more expensive. These methods can be used on new and existing buildings, they have a successful track record of performance, they can be applied to a wide variety of site conditions, and simple pressure gauges show they work.

VIM methods require periodic maintenance and they have long-term energy and maintenance costs. Let’s consider three active VIM methods: sub-slab depressurization, sub-membrane depressurization, and building overpressurization.

1) Sub-slab Depressurization

Sub-slab depressurization systems are designed to provide continuous pressure reduction beneath a building’s floor and foundation. This method is for new or existing slab-on-grade foundations. Sumps, drain tiles and block wall foundations can also be depressurized. Depressurization refers to using a fan or blower to bring the air pressure in the sub-slab venting layer down below the air pressure in the building. In this method, a blower or fan pulls contaminated vapor from the venting layer and discharges it above the roof line into the atmosphere. An air discharge permit may be necessary to allow discharge to the atmosphere.

For new construction, a vent layer made from sand or pea gravel is placed below the slab foundation. Soil vapor collection piping and a common header are installed in the vent layer to direct contaminated soil vapor to a discharge stack that ends above the roofline. The blower/fan connects the common header with the discharge stack. Regulatory guidelines suggest using a sub-slab liner above the vent layer to provide added protection if the fan fails.

install piping for vapor intrusion mitigation systemFor an existing slab-on-grade building, installation of a sub-slab depressurization system entails cutting holes or trenches in the building slab, removing soil and building venting pits or trenches in the space left behind. The vent pits or trenches are arranged to provide depressurization coverage over the entire building footprint. Collection pipes are installed in the pits or trenches after which they are filled with sand or pea gravel and covered with slab material. A common header connects the collection pipes with a blower or fan. Extracted soil vapor is routed to a discharge stack.

2) Sub-Membrane Depressurization

Sub-membrane depressurization operates like the sub-slab variety but refers to creating a venting layer beneath a membrane that is installed in crawl spaces over bare earth. It can be used in new and existing buildings with crawl spaces. The membrane covers the exposed dirt surface of a crawl space, creating a venting layer between the membrane and the dirt floor. The rest of the system is similar to a sub-slab depressurization system.

The edges of the foundation and any pass-through piping need to be well sealed and the membrane should be loose enough to prevent tearing. Routine inspection of the membrane is necessary to check for the seals and membrane for damage. An air discharge permit may be necessary to allow discharge to the atmosphere. 

3) Building Overpressure

Building overpressure involves using a building’s heating, venting, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems or a new system to maintain positive pressure in a building relative to the pressure beneath the building floor. This method is typically used for commercial buildings and can be inexpensive for buildings where the HVAC system maintains a positive pressure.

 

Close

We wrapped up our conversation about active vapor intrusion mitigation (VIM) methods and turned to the question of how VIM might impact her property. I told my client that VIM at the neighbor’s property means her property won’t be exposed to soil vapor contamination from her neighbor’s property. I let her know that as long as VIM is underway, the state and local environmental health agencies will oversee the operation and that VIM will operate until cleanup goals for her neighbor’s property are reached. It was good news for my client.

We have over 35 years of experience providing solutions for environmental challenges including vapor intrusion mitigation. Can we help you? Please click the button below for a free consultation.

What is an Environmental Screening Level (ESL)?

KG well drilling 1

“I keep reading about how contamination levels are above the ESL, but all I really care about is closure. Instead, more samples and more talk about the ESL. I don’t know what this ESL is, but apparently I won’t get case closure until it is reached,” she said. “I’ve ignored it long enough - what is an ESL?”

“Good question,” I said. This prospective client came prepared with a tough question.

“ESL stands for Environmental Screening Level, '' I told her. “It’s the level of a chemical that signals there is a potential for harm to humans, water life, and animal life.” In the lull that followed, I added, “I know that’s a lot, so let’s start with where ESLs come from.”

 

Risk-Based Screening Levels (RBSLs) and Environmental Screening Levels (ESLs)

ESLs began as RBSLs

Risk-based screening levels (RBSLs) were first published by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Board) in 2000 as a way to speed up human health and environmental risk assessments for contaminated sites.

Assessments were made easier by using a set of site conditions to estimate chemical levels (risk-based levels) that pose no harm and using them for comparison with levels at a contaminated site. If contaminant levels in soil, groundwater, or soil vapor were found to be below the RBSLs, then the site was considered low risk, otherwise, contamination levels were judged to be a potential risk.

The scope of the RBSLs expanded, and in 2003 the Board changed the name to Environmental Screening Levels (ELSs). Since then there have been several updates with the last in 2019.

The Board states that ESLs are not cleanup goals, however, the Board also states that for many sites ESLs are selected as cleanup goals. At a minimum, the Board accepts ESLs as preliminary cleanup goals.

“Okay,” my prospective client said. “What does low-threat mean?”

IMG 7612

What is a Low-Threat Environmental Screening Level (ESL)?

In the context of ESLs, low-threat typically refers to chemical concentrations in soil, groundwater, or air that do not increase the chance of developing cancer or increase harm to humans.

For chemicals that cause cancer (carcinogen), low-threat means concentrations that result in less than one chance in a million (1 in 1,000,000) of developing cancer from lifetime exposure. For non-cancer-causing chemicals, a hazard quotient is used to gauge the potential for bodily harm. The hazard quotient is a ratio that compares the estimated exposure to a chemical to the reference level of that chemical at which no harmful health effects are expected. A hazard index of 1 or more indicates the potential for harmful non-cancer health effects.

“Well, thank you,” my caller said. “ If I understand you correctly, an ESL is an okay amount of contamination that is not a threat to human health and animals. I can appreciate that.” With that, we set up a time to talk about her site and ended our phone call.

Environmental Screening Levels and Cleanup Goals

We took a look at environmental screening levels, or ESLs, published by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. We noted that while ESLs are not specifically contamination cleanup goals, they can be used as cleanup goals and oftentimes are. Do you have a question about environmental investigation and cleanup? We have over 30 years of experience providing environmental services. Give us a call at 831-475-8141 or click the button below for a free consultation.

 

Saturday, 15 October 2022

What is Vapor Intrusion?

An Inroduction to Vapor Intusion

We got a phone call from a concerned citizen. She was concerned because the county environmental health agency sent a letter stating vapor intrusion could be occurring at her property. “Before I talk to anybody at county health, I want to know what vapor intrusion is and what it means for my family,” she confessed. 

“If you have a moment, I’ll explain,” I said. “Let’s start with the vapor.”

The Vapor

Understanding Chemical Evaporation: Why Some Liquids Evaporate Faster than Others

vaporintrusion.jpgI’m sure you’ve seen gasoline evaporate off the pavement, or a bowl of water evaporate leaving salt rings behind. How about rubbing alcohol? You might have noticed how it quickly evaporates leaving your skin cold. When you think about it, you might have noticed how gasoline or rubbing alcohol evaporates much faster than water. What’s going on?

When a liquid chemical evaporates, it turns from a liquid into a vapor or gas. All liquid chemicals evaporate to some extent, and the extent to which a chemical liquid evaporates shows its volatility. The more volatile a chemical liquid is, the greater the tendency it has to generate vapor. Gasoline has a greater tendency to turn into vapor than water, that’s why gasoline evaporates off the driveway faster than water, and that’s why gasoline is more volatile than water.

The Intrusion

The Risks of Vapor Intrusion: How Chemicals from Leaked Liquids Can Enter Buildings

When a liquid chemical leaks into the ground, it enters the soil and groundwater. Once in groundwater, the chemical has the potential to move along with the groundwater. As this process unfolds, and depending on its volatility, some of the released chemical turns into a vapor and enters the space of dry soil between the groundwater surface and the ground surface. At the ground surface, the vapor can enter buildings causing a buildup of chemical vapors. 

Vapors primarily enter through openings in the building foundation or basement walls such as cracks in the concrete slab, gaps around utility lines, and sumps. It also is possible for vapors to pass through concrete, which is naturally porous. In their vapor form, contaminants like gasoline, tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be inhaled, thereby posing immediate or long-term health risks.

What is Vapor Intrusion?

After explaining what vapor is and what intrusion is all about, we got back to the subject of the county's letter. I explained, “The letter is warning you that a groundwater plume contaminated with PCE may have moved under your property and the PCE vapor from the plume may be causing a vapor intrusion health risk.”

“The letter goes on to request you contact the county office so they can arrange sampling soil vapor at your property and determine if there is a health risk,”  I finished.

“So what if they find contaminated vapor beneath my property?” she asked.

I told her it depends on the level of contamination. At low levels, only monitoring may be necessary to show vapor intrusion is not a threat over time.  At moderate to high levels, contaminant cleanup and/or mitigation might be required to eliminate a vapor intrusion health risk.

“I have one more question,” she said. “Who’s going to pay for all this? It wasn’t our fault the contaminated groundwater moved under our property.”

I sympathized and explained that there are various grant and funding programs in California for this situation. “I am sure that if the county finds contamination, they will look to those responsible for the contamination, and if they can’t find those responsible, they will use the appropriate funding mechanisms available from the state.”

What is the definition of vapor intrusion?

Vapor intrusion refers to the migration of volatile chemicals from contaminated soil or groundwater into the indoor air of buildings. This can occur when chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or radon gas migrate through the soil and into buildings through cracks in foundations, basement floors, or walls.

Protecting Yourself from Vapor Intrusion: Tips and Solutions

We looked at what vapor intrusion is and how it could affect anyone near a contaminant release, even if the release didn’t happen on your property. The next question is how to protect yourself from vapor intrusion. Check this space for some answers.

We have over 30 years of experience dealing with problems like vapor intrusion, cleanup, and mitigation. If you have similar issues, we may be able to help. Click on the button below for a free consultation and learn more about what we can do to help.

What is Site Cleanup Subaccount Program (SCAP)

We have a client who was the operator of a dry cleaner. Before he retired, he had already faced the consequences of being the responsible party for tetrachloroethylene (PCE) release from his operation. He did what was required by the local oversight agency and received a closure letter.

Our client had been retired for some time, living on a fixed income, when he got a letter from the local oversight agency he had dealt with while in business. The letter said that an investigation down the street from his former dry cleaning business found PCE, and they pointed the finger at the retiree. He replied with the truth; “I don’t have the money.”

That didn’t stop the oversight agency. The next letter told our client to apply for a SCAP grant. The regulator was referring to the Site Cleanup Subaccount Program (SCAP) run by the California State Water Resources Control Board (Board). Of course, our client had no idea what SCAP was and called with a host of questions.

What is Site Cleanup Subaccount Program (SCAP)?

SCAP is a funding program established by California Senate Bill (SB) 445, allowing the Board to issue grants for the cleanup of surface water or groundwater contaminated with human-made chemicals that harm, or threaten to harm, human health and the environment (e.g., fish, animals).

Who is a SCAP Grant For?

An applicant must meet three conditions to be eligible for a SCAP grant:

  1. The applicant must have a site with surface water or groundwater contaminated by human-made chemicals.
  2. The contamination harms or threatens to harm human health and the environment.
  3. The site is under regulatory oversight for cleanup.

SCAP grants are awarded to responsible parties (those named by the Board as responsible for a release), public agencies, public utilities, non-profit organizations, tribes, and mutual water companies. The grant applicant(s) must show they lack sufficient financial resources to perform the required work. This means the applicant must provide certain financial records. For example:

  • Individuals – individual income tax returns for the most recent three years.
  • Businesses – business income tax returns for the most recent three years; Secretary of State documentation identifying the business and authorized signatories.
  • Trusts – income tax returns of the trust and trust documents
  • Limited Liability Corporations (LLC) – income tax returns of the LLC and identification of the partners who receive income from the LLC.

In addition to financial information, the Board also asks for a scope of work, cost estimate, and duration of the proposed project. 

The financial information, project budget, and project duration are used to make a preliminary determination of the ability of the applicant to pay for the project. The Board uses The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Penalties and Financial Model to estimate the applicant's available cash flow for the duration of the project.

Aerial view of the levee improvements at the Natomas East Main Drainage Canal, formerly known as Steelhead Creek, which flows into the American River in Sacramento County, California. By 2013, Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) and the state completed 18.3 of the 42 miles of levee improvements required to meet current flood control standards. The Natomas Basin is surrounded by 42 miles of levees that provide protection from the American River, Sacramento River, Natomas Cross Canal and Natomas East Main Drain Canal. Photo taken October 24, 2013.Paul Hames / California Department of Water Resources, FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

What Cleanup Projects are Eligible for a SCAP Grant?

Cleanup projects are eligible when they:

  • Provide cleanup to remove the harm or threat of harm to human health and the environment;
  • Are not eligible for other Division of Financial Assistance funding programs; and
  • Emphasize cleanup.

What are the Factors for Consideration for Awarding a SCAP Grant?

SCAP requires the Board to weigh the following considerations for awarding a grant:

  1. The level of threat to human health, safety, and the environment from surface water or groundwater contamination at the location.
  2. Whether the location is in a small or financially disadvantaged community.
  3. The cost and potential environmental benefit of the investigation or cleanup.
  4. Whether there are other potential sources of funding for the investigation or cleanup. 
  5. Any other information the Board identifies as necessary for consideration.

There is no other guidance provided by the Board regarding how the five considerations are appraised, but there is a list of sites that received a SCAP grant. We took a sample of those sites, reviewed site characteristics as they relate to the five considerations, and summarized our findings as five rules of thumb.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 1

Rule of Thumb 1 - The location of a contaminated site poses an immediate or imminent threat to human health, safety, and the environment (aquatic and terrestrial); or the site has significantly high PCE and TCE concentrations (>100,000 ug/m3) in soil vapor that pose an immediate threat or strong potential threat to human health, safety, and environment.

To get information for the sample sites, we reviewed case files uploaded to GeoTracker, the Board’s database of contaminated sites. Dry cleaners topped the list recently of awarded grants with at least 10 grants from a total thirteen sites awarded SCAP grants. One site was designated as a “Brownfield” site. While SCAP is not exclusively for dry cleaners, the list of awarded grants leans heavily in that direction. For the sites we reviewed, contaminants of concern were mostly long-lasting compounds such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MtBE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and trichloroethylene (TCE).

There were a few sites where petroleum hydrocarbons (gasoline and diesel) were the contaminants of concern, and while the impact did not cause immediate threat (ongoing exposure to contamination), it did leave the sites with an imminent threat (strong potential for exposure) to human health and the environment. In one case involving petroleum hydrocarbons, the location of the impact threatened surface water and levy construction that if left undone would have caused an immediate threat to human health, safety, and the environment due to flooding.

In the case of MtBE, contaminant levels in groundwater were moderate, but the Board suspected that MtBE-impacted groundwater infiltrated an unused water supply well that connected upper water zones to deeper water zones. MtBE-contaminated water moving from shallow to deeper zones was considered an imminent threat to human health and safety. 

For most of the sites we reviewed, groundwater was impacted by PCE and TCE, but it was the concentrations in soil vapor that created a threat  to human health. In these cases, PCE concentrations in soil vapor easily exceeded 100,000 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). For perspective, the Tier 2 commercial environmental screening level (ESL) published by the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Board for PCE in subsurface vapor is 67 ug/m3. In some cases there was vapor intrusion into occupied spaces (immediate threat), and in other cases there was imminent threat of vapor intrusion. In all the solvent cases reviewed there was either an immediate or imminent threat based on exceedingly high PCE and TCE concentrations in soil vapor beneath occupied buildings.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 2

Rule of Thumb 2 - The location is disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution and with population characteristics that make them more sensitive to pollution.

Over half the sites reviewed were categorized as disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged, a term used for water management and other public agency planning. The designation stems from digital map screening tools that help identify communities unequally challenged by multiple sources of pollution and with population characteristics that make them more sensitive to pollution. This information is available for sites on GeoTracker and is found under the” Community Involvement” tab on a site’s index page.

For sites that were not listed as disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged, it was unclear how this consideration was factored into the decision to award a SCAP grant; however, that does not mean the sites were not in a small or financially disadvantaged community.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 3

Rule of Thumb 3 - The scope of work, duration, and cost of investigation and/or cleanup is reasonable and necessary to fix an immediate or imminent threat to human health, safety, and the environment.

This factor was difficult to discern from the available information. For all the sites reviewed, there was a lack of funds available to meet the regulatory directive and applicants had provided financial information, project scope of work, project duration, and project cost.

While the financial and project information were not available for our review, it was clear for most of the sites that contamination level or the location posed an immediate or imminent threat to human health (e.g, vapor intrusion), safety (e.g, risk of flooding), and the environment (e.g., poison fish). Since the environmental threat was immediate or imminent, action was necessary. SInce removing the immediate or imminent threat is beneficial and the cost is approved by the Board, the cost is reasonable.

Sites reviewed with SCAP grants had a scope of work, duration, and cost estimate that were necessary and reasonable to fix immediate or imminent threat to public health.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 4

Rule of Thumb 4 - Applicants must show there is no other funding available to meet regulatory directives by providing financial information along with the project scope, duration, and cost estimate for investigation and/or cleanup. 

SCAP applicants were awarded grants because they showed there were no other sources of funding, including their own resources, to meet a regulatory agency directive. They showed there were no other sources of funding by providing financial information along with the project scope, duration, and cost estimate for investigation and/or cleanup. There is no broad consideration for this factor. A financial model is used by the Board as part of the assessment process. 

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 5

Rule of Thumb 5 - Applicants should engage in routine communication with SCAP and respond quickly and accurately to information requests.

Obviously, it’s hard to know on a site-by-site basis what other information the Board might consider in its deliberations. In some cases regulators make recommendations for a grant based on data not previously considered by the Board. The Board recommends routine communication and responding quickly and accurately to information requests.

Am I Eligible for a SCAP Grant

We looked at who a SCAP grant is for, what projects are eligible for a grant, and the five considerations weighed for awarding a grant. We have the experience to be your partner in the SCAP process. If you are interested in SCAP, contact us for a free consultation.

Page 1 of 3