Tanker 1/21/22

History with Richard Bleil

There is a good chance an earlier blog already told this story, but I’m not finding it, so let’s tell it again. 

Some years ago (when Princess Di was alive as she and Charles were visiting Washington D.C. when this occurred), I was working as an analytical chemist for a little company in Cincinnati.  We did environmental testing (soils, water, and oils) for pesticides, herbicides, PCB’s and other pollutants.  I had just finished my bachelor’s degree in chemistry.  The company had waste disposal contracts, including one in Virginia with the military across the bay from Washington, D.C. 

I was working with “Bonehead Jeff”.  I’ve written about Bonehead Jeff before, and as much as I enjoy chiding him, I do honestly respect his ability to perform massive amounts of routine tests.  I do not, but he lacks independent thinking.  The company, before I arrived, was brought out to the base to dispose of cyanide contaminated water, and before this, Bonehead Jeff worked for a company that mitigated cyanide in soil by mixing it with bleach.  So, Bonehead Jeff suggested, hey, let’s just throw bleach in the fifty-five gallon drums, not thinking about the fact that water is a different medium, or considering the potential level of contamination.  Inside the warehouse, he laid out tarp to catch and spillage, and popped open not one, not even two but three drums, and poured bleach into all of them.  They began bubbling and smoking, and the navy had to evacuate the warehouse and, much to their chagrin, call Hazmat to clear out their building.  Somehow, our company did not lose the contract, but one of the conditions for keeping it was that Bonehead Jeff never, ever, again shows up on a job.

So there I was, and the company needed an extra pair of hands out in Virginia.  I was not sent as a chemist, but basically to do grunt work.  I was out there for two weeks and put in eighty hours of work.  That in and of itself doesn’t sound terrible, except I put in eighty hours of work EACH week I was there. 

One of the reasons I was sent was to go back to that same naval base.  They had fifteen hundred chemicals to dispose of, most of them being photography chemicals.  We brought in a chemical tanker truck, pulled out some empty drums, and began pouring the chemicals into the drums.  As the drum filled, they turned the pump on the truck on and we sucked them into the tanker.  We didn’t really worry about side reactions, the logic being that they would just react in the tanker anyway. 

In the two weeks out there, my boss was in the hotel room next to mine.  We were supposed to have Sunday off, and she had promised to let me borrow the rental car to see the sites as I’d never been in DC before.  We finished loading the tanker about 3 AM the night before, and I was so excited that I got up about 8 to go see the sights.  Having showered, I was dressing when the phone rang.  It was my boss.  She asked me not to go anywhere.

Damn.

A few minutes later, she calls back saying, “do you remember that tanker from last night?  It imploded.”

So much for my day off.  We drove out to where it was pulled to the side on the highway.  It looked like a can somebody had started to crush and then changed their minds.  She sent the third person out to try to find a safe place to pull the truck, then she turned to me, saying, “you’re a chemist.  Figure out what happened.”

Ugh, are you kidding me?  No colleagues, no reference books, no lab, just “figure it out”.  She gave me a list of the fifteen hundred chemicals as if that would do any good.  The other person found an old abandoned airfield from WWII when the military realized there were none to protect the capitol, and while Chuck and Di were visiting, we probably violated twenty federal laws by slowly driving the crippled tanker to the airfield (the inner tank was intact, but the outer skin had a huge tear in it).  They drew samples of the contents from the drain on the bottom and the lid on top, and probably violating another half dozen laws I set up lab in the hotel room and started testing.

As it turns out, those tankers have pressure relief valves to deal with excess pressure, but they rarely have valves for vacuums.  The truck was about 2/3 full, leaving about a third air.  The driver had left the top open overnight and took off the next day.  My hypothesis is that as it sat, ammonia fumes slowly dissipated the air in the empty space.  When he capped it off and started driving, the ammonia redissolved as the fluid sloshed around creating a vacuum.  We brought out two more tankers, each half filled with water to dilute the contents, and managed to get the waste to the processing facility.  And me?  To this day, every time I’m with somebody and see one of those tankers on the highway, I’ll point to it and casually say, “yeah, I crushed one of those.”

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