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Oil & Water Do Not Mix

By Karl Faler

Driving South on I-5, exiting West onto Highway 101 towards the Black Lake Exit above Capitol Lake, a small silver sedan bounced off a service truck and into the inside wall on that severe curve. I was just able to avoid the debris field that was forming. Several vehicles stopped and their occupants ran toward the car that was now largely collapsed into the concrete barrier. The radiator was spewing fumes and blue smoke poured out as the transmission fluid flowed over the exhaust system. The mix of antifreeze, engine oil and bubbling transmission fluid mixed onto the rain soaked pavement and into a drain. The driver and her passenger got out and responded to the group of people that ran to them with blankets, jackets and fire extinguishers. The car's occupants responded clearly to our questions and were mostly shaken up.

A witches brew of chemicals and sludge were released in that few seconds on the routine road of life. Our vehicles dump a variety of useful, toxic and persistent chemicals. This is easily seen in parking spaces at busy malls and drive through service spots. These smears on the pavement are puddles of oil, transmission fluid, brake lining particles and the other granular materials that makeup the near microscopic debris from modern society. This mix of oil, water based materials and sediments makeup a mélange that is so toxic that it would require a warning label to transport significant amounts.

So where does it go?
Days later I followed the gunk from that and hundreds of other events that occur on this short stretch of highway. The search lead to a surface drain and down a hill, into a concrete vault device. The marsh around this vault revealed significant oil sheen on the water surface.

I have identified several vaults, grate covers and heavy storm drainage elements that should be preventing the pollutants from being released into the environment. There should be approximately seven of these devices along Capitol Lake. All but one, a manhole at the base of Lakeridge Dr., were covered by debris.

Careful photography of plants, pondments and biotic indicators illustrates chronic exposure to pollutants. The oil in the marshes alone is enough to convince any observer that there is a problem.

On a regular basis, and after any major storm, these devices need to be serviced and inspected, which would require removing the overlying debris and opening the device itself. Photographs collected over a period of years seem to indicate that these devices have not been opened for some time, perhaps years.

My limited experience with oil water separators goes back into the 1980s when I supervised and monitored a carefully designed system of weirs, plates and baffles that recovered oil, sediment and scum (a mixture of detergents, densitizers and froth from pressure washing). These materials were recycled or carefully disposed of. The system I managed was a very overbuilt version of systems used by truck-stop wash stations usually associated with scales and weigh stations.

A properly engineered, installed and maintained Oil-Water Separator device (OWS) captures the vast majority of pollutants. The presence of oil, along with biological indicators downstream from the OWS seems to indicate the opposite: the failure of these installations to remove toxic materials.

One of the vault covers bears the text StormCeptor. A quick search on the internet turned up www.stormceptor.com. The StormCeptor data documents excellent performance, even in things as unexpected as phosphate reductions.

Comparing my experience with the manuals posted online, the picture of a failed system emerges. When a system fails and presents a safety concern, engineers approach the problems in any one of three manners. The preferred solution is an engineered, largely permanent solution, which requires little or no ongoing process. Second choice are "administrative" solutions. These include Standard Operating Procedures, operator manuals, training and log files. Often, the problem requires a combination of these two to ensure proper performance. Where these fail, individual protective devices, such as radiation suits, are the last line of defense. Stormceptors and other similar devices perform well until they fill with sediments, oil or scum. They quickly lose efficiency as space in the chambers is filled. Installations that are not serviced spill their pollutants into the downstream outlet and out into the environment.

Please contact your local water quality representatives to inquire about OWS devices in your area. Offer to inspect, monitor and report overflows and other events or problems. We are the solution; each of us individually can make a difference. Consider becoming a neighborhood water guardian. No municipality or government can check every one of these important devices after a storm. We are lucky if they get most of the big limbs out of our roads so we can get around.

Oil and water do not mix and the many special devices that help keep our water clean need our help.

Karl Faler is a retired explosives engineer living on a maritime sanctuary in Olympia. He also publishes books, art & other media.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22