Another Strange Tale 8/8/19

By Richard Bleil

The strange thing about my life is how many truly unusual things have happened. Like the time I crushed a chemical tanker truck.

Yup, true story.

It was 1985. I was a wet-behind the ears kid with a newly minted BS in chemistry, heading to try my hand as an analytical chemist. I was hired by a small company with questionable ethics in Cincinnati. The USEPA had started the Superfund just five years earlier to finally reign in polluting corporations and clean up the environment. Prior to the Superfund, pollution had gotten so bad that architectural schools were arguing why a church in New York was made with gray/black bricks when the architect generally used brighter bricks only to discover that it was made of rose quartz coated with soot. The Ohio River first caught fire in 1952, the first river in history to ever do so, and continued to periodically “flare up”. Littering was so rampant that it made Native Americans cry on TV.

Don’t ask.

A myriad of small environmental analytical labs cropped up, funded primarily by USEPA Superfund grants to test water, soil, air, oils (for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB’s) to try to figure out priorities in cleaning. My company was one of them, and I say it was ethically questionable because, so the stories go, the owner would periodically contract to get rid of a few barrels of toxic waste which vanished mysteriously after showing up without paperwork. It was suspected that these barrels ended up on a farm in Kentucky that the company founder owned, but these are unsubstantiated (to the best of my knowledge).

One of our contracts was in Virgina, just across the bay from Washington D.C., with the US Navy. Before we get to my story, we need to back up a bit.

In the company, one of my fellow colleagues was a gentleman I lovingly refer to as “Bonehead Jeff”. Now, Bonehead Jeff had a tremendous skill; he could run the same routine task, thousands of time, and manage to not get mixed up. It’s a skill I don’t have, and it’s nothing to sneeze at, but God save anybody who asks him for an original idea. The contract with the navy was for hazardous waste cleanup, and prior to my employment, they sent old Bonehead Jeff out to help clear out cyanide laced water from a warehouse, along with a supervisor and a few other pairs of hands. Apparently, in his previous job, old Bonehead Jeff mitigated cyanide in soil by adding bleach to the soil, which does work. So, he convinced the powers-that-be that they could do the same thing here. Without concern for the fact that it was a different medium (water, not soil) or the concentration, he popped open five (FIVE) fifty-five barrel drums INSIDE the warehouse, and proceeded to dump bleach in all five, rather rapidly. When the barrels started bubbling and smoking, they had to evacuate the warehouse and call in Hazmat to clean up the mess.

On a US Naval Base.

Somehow, the president of the company managed to save the contract, but only on the condition that they NEVER AGAIN have to see Bonehead Jeff.

Enter the new wet-behind the ears kid. I didn’t have to come up with a plan; my job was just an extra pair of hands. See, they had some thousands of chemicals in various containers from small glass bottles all the way up to gallon carboys. We were tasked with emptying these containers into fifty-five gallon barrel drums (again), which were then, when the barrels were full, sucked up into the chemical waste tanker. We didn’t worry about side reactions; it was all going to the same truck where it would react anyway, so if a barrel started foaming up or doing something odd, you’d hear somebody shout “TURN ON THE PUMP” and SCHLOOOOOP it got sucked into the truck and reacted to its hearts content.

It took much longer than anticipated, though.

We were up until about 4 in the morning. The driver wasn’t about to take off then, so he left the truck open and got a hotel room. We all went back to our hotel, grungy and dirty, to shower and finally SLEEEEEEEEEEP.

Until 8 AM the next day, when my phone rang.

Chuck and Di were visiting Washington DC that day (yes, Princess Di was still alive, and not even yet with child), and our chemical tanker had imploded on a major highway. Oh, joy.

Fortunately, the inner tank never did rupture, but the outer skin had a hole in it that you could have stuck your head in. It looked like a can somebody started to crush but changed their minds. The truck was feeling odd to the driver, so wisely, he pulled off to the shoulder to check it out. And it’s a good thing that he did.

We should have called Hazmat, but, what the hell are a few federal code violations when royalty are visiting among friends? They looked at me and said, “You’re a chemist…FIGURE THIS OUT!” So, they pulled two samples for me of the black sludge within, one from the bottom and one from the top, and armed with a junior chemistry kit from a local hobby store, I set up a small lab in my hotel room, breaking even more laws. Without saying a word, they found an abandoned air field (we believe circa WWII), and slowly drove the truck there. Between the four of us, we stood guard for two nights (and I had my shift as well, but I was so ticked off that I got Chinese takeout for dinner that night just so the car would smell to high heaven for the next “guard”). I lost more sleep than most as I performed my experiments, and settled on a hypothesis.

They didn’t want to spend the money on the plan I found. See, a lot of the chemicals were ammonia based which is both highly soluble and has a high vapor pressure. The truck was about 2/3 full, and it was left open, so I reasoned that the ammonia vaporized, and displaced the air in the tank. When it was closed up and the driver took off the liquid sloshed around re-dissolving the ammonia vapor creating a vacuum, and as it turns out, those trucks (at least them) had pressure relief valves, but nothing to alleviate a vacuum.

Thanks to me, they probably do now.

So, if we added sufficient vinegar (and I did figure out an estimate of how much it would take), we could have neutralized the solution, the ammonia would have become salts which are far less volatile, and it would arrive safely.

Nope, costs money. They saved money by NOT FOLLOWING FEDERAL LAW, but God save them from spending money on vinegar.

So, we brought two trucks, half filled with water, pumped the sludge into them, and drove them around the lot until there was no more vacuum. Another environmental catastrophe, well, maybe not AVERTED, exactly…

To this day, when I am driving with somebody and I see one of those trucks, I still say, in as a “matter-of-fact” voice as possible, “Yeah, I crushed one of those…”

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