Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Monkey Science

I had a lazy, incompetent coworker who managed to quit before he got fired. His parting shot when he left: "A monkey can put dirt in a jar!"

Yes, a monkey can put dirt in a jar. You, however, were hired as a geologist. Let me explain what a geologist is supposed to do.

You're looking for contamination. Sometimes it's obvious - you open a split spoon and it reeks of gasoline. Or it may smell sweet, which means you've just inhaled some nasty solvent. Sometimes the soil is an unnatural color, such as dark blue. But you won't know exactly what you have until you get the lab data back.

Another thing to look for is the things that can affect contamination location and movement. How much moisture is in the soil? Finer-grained material may trap contamination that would otherwise drop further down (DNAPLs). Organics may absorb contaminants, but they also affect soil chemistry (microbes tend to go nuts in the presence of organics and use up all the oxygen, e.g. in peat bogs), causing metals to become more or less mobile.

Finally, don't just make assumptions about what you think you see. You may be wrong. It drives me nuts when I see just "till" or "fill" on boring logs. Till may have different characteristics that affect groundwater flow. I may not agree with your interpretation. You can write "till," but you better have some description to support it. Same thing with "fill". Is it inert? Is it medical waste (ew)? Is it metal? If you have no idea what the hell it is, describe it. If it's friable, speckled, gray and white stuff, maybe I can make an educated guess that it's fly ash and we should consider sampling for dioxin.

You won't have the full story until put all the pieces together back at the office. And if you didn't bother to record those details, you may have lost critical information that would allow you to figure out what's really going on. Then you'll waste time and money fixing things that didn't need fixing and not knowing the dirty areas because you didn't do the job you were hired to do in the first place.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think, when you come right down to it, that most jobs can be done by well trained monkeys. But since those are hard to come by we settle for hairless apes of variable training. Better still, if those hairless apes can use Google effectively, they can probably do most of the technical work as well.