By Andy Maslowski
As if standing guard, a variety of electronic devices monitors the environmental safety of a large number of facilities and systems essential to our modern society. Often hidden or buried, these systems include pipelines, steel casing, and tanks that transport or store the water, energy, chemicals and wastes we produce and use.
A vast underground: network of pipelines carries petroleum products around the clock, including crude oil, gasoline and natural gas. Not only does electronic equipment help move these products with compressors and pumps, but an assortment of gas detectors are constantly searching for harmful leaks.
Many of these field instruments make use of the latest in microprocessor technology and have sensitivities as low as 50 parts per million (ppm). Other components are capable of detecting polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in soil samples where hydrocarbons may have leaked.
The Alyeska Pipeline in Alaska is a case study of engineering and environmental concern. Approximately 420 miles of the 800 mile pipeline are built above ground where permafrost is present and where heat from the line might thaw unstable soils.
This elevation also allows for migration of caribou and other wildlife. In some places heat pipes have been installed which use an ammonia bromide solution to radiate heat from the soil through vaporization and condensation. Opened in 1977, this pipeline has survived unbearably freezing temperatures and even a few sabotage attempts (now thwarted by frequent helicopter patrols). Throughput of the 48-inch diameter pipe, which is insulated with four-inch thick fiberglass, is 1.6 million barrels of oil per day.
Recent Congressional additions to the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act have signaled a stronger commitment to fighting water pollution. New laws have given millions of dollars to help states control “nonpoint” pollution, including runoff from farms, mines and other residues. Trying to enforce these new laws is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA is in the process of developing new regulations to address such groundwater concerns as underground storage tank systems and producing oil and gas well discharges. Owens-Corning Fiberglas [sic] Corp., Toledo, Ohio, manufactures fiberglass storage tanks. Marketing manager Michael Messmer said fiberglass tanks have an advantage over steel storage tanks because they do not rust. “Since corrosion has been reported to be a major cause of leaks in underground tanks, the EPA has recommended that all steel tanks be protected with a coating or cathodic protection.” Electronic leak detection equipment must be installed during tank excavation. In addition, the EPA said all underground storage systems must be periodically tested for tightness.
Electronic detectors are playing a large role at toxic waste dumps . . .
A leaking steel tank can be re-lined providing there are just a few perforations, the EPA said. Fiberglass tanks can be repaired by factory trained representatives.
The EPA estimated there are at least 1.4 million underground storage tanks in the U.S. About half of these store retail motor fuels. About 45 percent store petroleum products for private fleets. Only four percent of the underground tanks are used to store chemicals.
In January 1988, an above-ground storage tank operated by Ashland Oil Co. about 20 miles upriver from Pittsburgh collapsed, spilling about 860,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Monongahela River. However, this environmental disaster was blamed on a structural failure in the surface tank, something apparently missed during a mechanical inspection.
More than three mission wells have been drilled in the U.S. in search of crude oil or natural gas during the past 130 years. Most of these were drilled before there were any regulations for wells plugging or salt water disposal. Many oil and gas wells produce associated salt water brine which now has to be disposed of in an EPA approved manner.
Most of the brine is placed in underground injection wells. Francoise Brasier, chief, underground injection control with the EPA’s Office of Drinking Water in Washington, D.C., said the EPA is looking at all oilfield wastes. “The well plugging and abandonment issue has specially taken the fancy of Congress and is not going to go away,” she said at an oil and gas association meeting in Columbus, Ohio last year. One of the most important issues involves mechanical integrity testing of older producing wells. Electronic pressure and calibration instruments are used to make sure the steel casing cemented into every oil and gas well is not leaking fluids into fresh water formations.
The EPA, with the assistance of state and industry groups, was expected to present its final report on underground oilfield injection by the spring of 1989. Following this, public hearings will be held which could eventually lead to new standards for well site equipment or procedures. Pipeline or storage tank leaks can be reported by field service personnel or customer call-ins. Clues can also be leak detector surveys.
Most gas detectors have combustible or semiconductor sensors that slightly ignite or conduct electricity when hydrocarbon materials, such as gas fumes, enter a small testing chamber within a gas detecting instrument.
Some natural gas transmission and distribution companies use aerial surveys to check their lines. Some believe satellite remote sensing also offers gas leak detection possibilities. As part of a five year, $13 million program sponsored by NASA, the Ohio State University and industry partners, the Center for the Commercial Development of Space at Ohio State is looking at remote sensing to detect leaks in long pipelines.
Gas leaks might change vegetation (or soil conditions, and these changes may be evident on remote sensing, computer enhanced images. Electronic detectors and components are also playing a large role at Superfund toxic waste dumps.
There the environmental enemies are more deadly, including DDT, heavy metals, dioxin and PCBs. Without specialized electronic equipment, these harmful or cancer-causing chemicals would be less likely to be detected, and the world would be in even sadder shape environmentally.
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