An estimated 30,000 gallons of unprocessed crude oil seeped into the river from a broken pipeline under the riverbed on Jan. 17. Crude oil contains a variety of hydrocarbons — some light, some heavy — that have to be extracted and analyzed using different techniques, explained Bill Brown, president of Energy Laboratories.
“We’re just lab geeks; we don’t take the samples,” Brown said. “We leave it to biologists to determine how representative the samples are that they want to send us.
“We have no idea if we’re getting samples from above or below the spill, and no idea of what fish it is from,” he added.
Biologists put the tissue samples into small glass jars that are cooled for transport. The jars are kept in coolers to minimize volatilization of the chemicals because some of the lighter hydrocarbons can easily vaporize.
“The samples’ integrity is huge for us,” said Jeff Blatnick, an analytical chemist at the lab. “They have a custody seal so we know there’s been no tampering.”
The fish samples, however, were hand-delivered by the client so no custody seals were involved.
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Energy Laboratories has done similar sampling in the past, but the company has a diversified clientele, everything from municipal water and sewage treatment facilities to the Environmental Protection Agency and mining companies.
For any of those laboratory analyses requested by clients, Brown said the company’s chemists always “keep their blinders on” about what they are testing, and may not even know where the samples are coming from.
So even with a topic as emotional as a river oil spill that temporarily contaminated Glendive’s water supply, analytical chemist Josie Pickard said she and her fellow employees make sure everything is done with the same integrity, no matter the issue.
To further ensure technical quality, there are several quality assurance samples that follow each tested sample through the process. For example, a quality assurance sample called a method blank is extracted and tested with the sample to measure any background constituents that could have contaminated the sample while in the lab.
Energy Laboratories employs about 100 people at its Billings facilities, a company that Brown said has been around in one form or another since 1952. Since the 1980s and the advancement of computer technology, though, what the lab is capable of processing is considerably more finely detailed than in those earlier years.
Dating himself, Brown said he can remember using “Trash 80” personal computers, made by Radio Shack, for “anything we could figure out how to hook them up to.” As computers and their operating systems have become continually more complicated and capable, the tasks the machines perform for chemists has become more and more specific and detailed.
Even with all of the whiz-bang computer-assisted analysis amid machines fitted with tiny copper-colored tubes and glass beakers filled with solutions agitated by magnets, it still takes the chemists about a week to work through the samples. Before any paperwork analyzing the data leaves the building, it crosses Brown’s desk for a final stamp of approval.
“It’s more time consuming than people expect,” said LaDonna Weis, co-supervisor of the organics lab. “It’s not like one of those things on TV where you pop it in and get instant results.”
This article was written by Brett French from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.