Case Study: Solving This Warehouse “Mystery” Saves Our Client Six Figures

Posted by Mark Roman on November 7, 2017

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When there is indoor air contamination – specifically, vapor intrusion – in a building on a contaminated property, it’s usually assumed to be coming from soil and/or groundwater contamination. That’s a solid assumption, as that is usually the case.

But, when investigating environmental risk, an assumption like that can be expensive and dangerous. A “usual” cause for a certain type of contamination should only be the starting point for a thorough inspection of all possible causes. And when things don’t add up – you need to take a much closer look.

At Envision Environmental Inc., that’s the approach we take with all our work. And for a recent client of ours in New Jersey the fact that we took that extra step when something unexpected came up during our investigation saved them tens of thousands of dollars – probably six figures, actually – for years of mitigation and monitoring. In fact, our work won us an Industry Leader Best Practices Award from the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey in 2017.

It started like many other jobs we’ve done over our 20+ years in business. We were called in because our client was closing down a manufacturing facility after selling it. The buyer turned the building into a warehouse.

A “Simple” Job Becomes a Mystery to Solve

Our services to the seller included building decontamination/decommissioning, investigation, and remediation, as well as Licensed Site Remediation Professional Services and Industrial Site Recovery Act management. We do a lot of this type of work during handover of facilities.

It was to be a standard due diligence investigation, but it turned into anything but.

The seller was involved in metal forming, which uses lubricating oils and chlorinated solvents for degreasing. My team and I knew from past experience that these sorts of materials can be released over time into the environment through leaking sumps and trenches, as well as underground storage tank leaks.

Our testing found that was indeed the case – there was contamination on site in the soil and groundwater. And that compelled us to test further – the concern being vapor intrusion into the building.

Vapor intrusion from volatile organic compounds, also known as vapor off-gassing, has been a major issue in recent years. State and federal regulators (including the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) have focused on this problem because of the possible adverse health effects to building occupants.

The first step in these cases is to test the soil gas or vapor under the floor of the facility because the vapors can come up through cracks and other pathways and enter buildings. The sub-slab soil gas samples did show elevated levels of tetrachloroethene, a common chlorinated solvent. It’s also called by the names tetrachloroethylene or perchloroethylene, and in addition to degreasing, it’s also used in dry cleaning.

(By the way, it’s not just industrial sites that can have vapor intrusion issues. Dry cleaners are one of the most common areas to find vapor intrusion because of the extensive use of chemicals in the dry cleaning process.)

Finding this material in the soil gas requires further testing – it’s a step-by-step process. The next thing we did was indoor air sampling to determine air quality.

We set up bowling ball-sized air quality testing units. Sure enough, we did find indoor air contamination.

Most environmental services companies would have moved directly on to an extensive and expensive mitigation process. In this case, it would have required capturing the vapors under the building and “cleaning” them (removing the contaminants). This system would have to run for years with the costs of installation and operation covered by the seller, of course.

But we decided to work harder on behalf of our client.

Digging Deeper Pays Off

We discovered that the contaminant found in the indoor air quality samples was a compound called 1,2-dichloroethane – not the tetrachloroethene found in the soil vapor below the building.

Our enhanced investigation, including a thorough review of the literature, found that this contaminant was not the result of our client’s historical activities at the site. The data just didn’t make sense.

The culprit?

The buyer, who remember was using the building as a warehouse, had stored a large amount of plastic housewares manufactured in China – items for hotel rooms, like ice buckets and tissue holders. Our review of relevant studies showed those specific materials were linked to the off-gassing of, you guessed it, 1,2-dichloroethane. 

The end result of our “multiple lines of evidence” investigation approach was that our client did not have to pay for further investigation or mitigation, saving what easily could have been six figures when all was said and done.

The Lessons Learned

Indoor air quality and vapor intrusion are hot-button topics these days. They are a source of concern for manufacturers and other companies, to be sure. Indoor air quality affects employees and anybody in the building.

According to studies from the National Institutes of Health, long-term inhalation of some chlorinated solvents have been linked to central nervous system damage, negative effects on cognitive and motor functions, several types of cancer, damage to the liver and kidneys, and more. Even low-level exposure can be damaging to health. You can see the importance of such investigations.

So, it’s clear that any sort of contamination of a site or facility could lead to pricey legal action down the road from exposed workers. It’s a huge liability to leave the issue untreated. Just think of all the asbestos lawsuits still going on to this day. In fact, law firms around the country have recognized the potential here for legal action. Law suits, including class actions, have been filed in multiple states in vapor intrusion cases. And it’s not just large companies – small businesses have been sued, too.

It’s a serious issue. And that’s why it’s so important to be thorough.

In the case of the warehouse in New Jersey, it would have been easy to assume the indoor air quality was being affected by the soil and groundwater contamination via vapor intrusion. Unlike a manufacturing facility with extensive and long-term use of solvents and other materials, a warehouse, after all, is pretty innocuous.

But at Envision Environmental, Inc. we don’t assume. That’s why we took the extra step and examined the situation further to discover the real cause of the contamination.

One thing we knew from experience is that indoor air quality testing equipment is notoriously sensitive. Contamination in these cases is measured in parts per billion. So, in many cases, simply having the fumes from a gas can from a lawn mower or even having someone in a recently dry cleaned suit walk by the testing unit can signal contamination.

What’s worse, if the client had been compelled to go forward with the mitigation for vapor intrusion from the soil and groundwater contamination, it would have had no effect on the indoor air quality. The tests would have shown that the mitigation wasn’t working because it was not correcting the real cause. Who knows what would have happened then – probably more expensive testing and remediation.

Why We Never Take the “Easy” Road with Projects

At Envision Environmental, Inc., this is how we handle every project, large and small.

Some of the larger environmental firms take a “by the numbers” assembly line type approach, handled by junior-level staff. You might meet the principles during the sales meeting. But once they have the project, staff with less experience take over the job.

Of course, they try to get through each project as quickly as possible so they can move on to the next one. I’m not alleging anybody is being negligent – they just don’t have the experience or incentive to take the extra steps when there are unusual factors involved – like the Chinese-made hotel tchotchkes in the New Jersey warehouse.

We specialize in being more methodical. And our most experienced team members – with 20+ years in the industry – personally handle all projects along with a network of consultants and associates, all experts in their fields, we have nationwide.

At Envision Environmental, Inc. we strive to do quality work in investigating, remediating and mitigating any environmental issues faced by our commercial and industrial clients at an affordable price. We focus on solving problems for the long term – not just compliance in the short term.