Seismic Tech Goes Environmental

'Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later'

As a self-described "oil industry refugee," Tom Temples says he has been trying to bring petroleum technology into the environmental business since 1991.

He has met with a surprising amount of resistance — and some success.

Horizontal drilling, advanced geophysical methods, high-resolution seismic, ground-penetrating radar all represent potential tools that are "very applicable to the environmental business," he said.

Temples said technologies and computer programs for reservoir modeling hold promise for environmental study as well.

Working with the Department of Energy through the 1990s and the University of South Carolina Center for Water Research and Policy since 1999, Temples has had opportunities to apply techniques like seismic stratigraphy to help explain problems affecting cleanup efforts at certain waste sites.

In two examples covered in a poster session to be presented in May during the AAPG Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, high-resolution seismic data were collected initially to see if contaminants could be detected directly.

Seismic technology proved to be a valuable tool in another way — understanding the subsurface geology of the sites and providing explanations for unexpected problems and pointing the way to better solutions, Temples said.

Image Caption

A structure contour map on base of the channel (purple event on seismic section)

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As a self-described "oil industry refugee," Tom Temples says he has been trying to bring petroleum technology into the environmental business since 1991.

He has met with a surprising amount of resistance — and some success.

Horizontal drilling, advanced geophysical methods, high-resolution seismic, ground-penetrating radar all represent potential tools that are "very applicable to the environmental business," he said.

Temples said technologies and computer programs for reservoir modeling hold promise for environmental study as well.

Working with the Department of Energy through the 1990s and the University of South Carolina Center for Water Research and Policy since 1999, Temples has had opportunities to apply techniques like seismic stratigraphy to help explain problems affecting cleanup efforts at certain waste sites.

In two examples covered in a poster session to be presented in May during the AAPG Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, high-resolution seismic data were collected initially to see if contaminants could be detected directly.

Seismic technology proved to be a valuable tool in another way — understanding the subsurface geology of the sites and providing explanations for unexpected problems and pointing the way to better solutions, Temples said.

  • At one location, a Savannah River Site seepage basin, contaminants were migrating through the aquifer system to a lower level than could be explained by traditional characterization methods. Stratigraphic data allowed scientists to identify a channel allowing the contaminants into the lower aquifer.
  • At the Charleston Naval Weapons site, an underground solvent plume was spreading in the "wrong" direction, according to predictions. Standard cross-section interpretation did not show a channel that was apparent from seismic data, Temples said.

"I doubt it would have been picked up if we had not shot the seismic data," he said, adding that identifying the channel allowed remediation efforts to be better focused.

The result: A reactor barrier wall — an underground structure filled with crushed iron to break up the chlorinated solvent — could be placed more effectively.

Positive Factors

The environmental business remains resistant to new technology, Temples said, citing several possible reasons — including, of course, "because we've never done it that way."

Customary environmental waste-site characterizations are made from drilling core holes in a grid pattern over the site.

"Mother Nature is not always cooperative," Temples said, citing how drill holes may not detect channels that allow contaminant migration and, in some cases, actually may exacerbate the problem by opening a secondary pathway for contaminants.

Cutting down the number of holes drilled, he added, is an immediate advantage of newer technology.

Cost is a factor as well.

In explaining, Temples said that moving into environmental geology from the oil industry was "eye opening" — in petroleum exploration, resources seemed virtually "unlimited" if an undertaking looked profitable, but in environmental geology, the end result usually will cost money.

Perhaps a lot of money, he added, depending on what the geoscientist finds at a particular site.

"Instead of generating a revenue stream, I'm going to cost someone some money," Temples said.

But he quickly adds that deploying advanced technology on the front end can have cost benefits.

"It's the old 'pay me now or pay me later' — go in cheap and have to spend a lot of money to redesign a system," he said.

"Doing it right, up front, also increases out credibility with the regulatory agencies," he said. "We don't want to have to go back and say, 'we missed this and we missed that.'"

On the other hand, some regulatory agencies are not comfortable with new, unfamiliar technology.

Overworked and underpaid staffers like to "cookbook" remediation efforts, Temples said. "Trying a new technique puts an extra burden on them."

The University of South Carolina has a 120-channel seismic system and several companies specialize in environmental geophysics, Temples said, and he and his colleagues use commercially available software, including PC-based and UNIX systems, in their research.

For Temples and other oil patch refugees, environmental sites may provide targets for their expertise for some time to come.

Waste sites vary from traditional landfills to seepage basins to simple burial pits.

From the 1950s into the '70s, the common way to dispose of industrial waste was to "go out and bury it — out of sight, out of mind," Temples said.

"Now they're all leaking."

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