polluted water diving

It’s Not Exactly Rocket Science but…

By Matthew Colip

EPA Scientific Diver trainee Matt Colip returns to the surface following SuperLite 17K Diving Helmet and drysuit training.

Being an EPA Scientific Diver is a lot like being an astronaut; you’re trained with a specific skill-set to “float” through an often unpredictable environment with the purpose of gathering data to advance science and help people.  For me, becoming an EPA Scientific Diver has expanded my scientific capabilities to work in an environment that occupies 70% of the planet and that we all depend on: water.

EPA’s Scientific Diving Program can be traced back over 40 years to a group of divers formed to support the need for diving expertise in contaminated waters for the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration, the predecessor to EPA.

Today, EPA has scientific diving units at strategic locations across the country conducting scientific work for a myriad of federal, state, and local programs.  EPA scientific divers work in both marine and freshwater environments. 

For example, EPA recently conducted a freshwater mussel survey in the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  The divers conducted 12 dives and reported information on the habitat conditions at the river bottom to the surface via wireless communication.  In addition, live and dead mussel shells were collected for species identification.  Ultimately, the information they collected will add to the data Pennsylvania is gathering on the ecological health of the Susquehanna River.

Since joining EPA as a biologist, I’ve wanted to use my recreational SCUBA diver experience to become a member of the Agency’s Scientific Diving Program.  Scientific diver trainees must successfully complete EPA’s Scientific Diver Training Program, which emphasizes safety and includes extensive safety training and drills.

Studying the physics of water pressure and its effects on human physiology, the proper use and handling of oxygen-enriched air, and the unique challenges of diving in polluted waters help us learn important concepts that prevent accidents.

In addition to general safe diving concepts, EPA scientific diver trainees also learn skills to gather data and survey underwater environments. We learn how to use underwater cameras, electronic communications equipment,  conduct a basic benthic survey, sampling techniques for water and sediment, as well as underwater navigation and sampling site survey methods for zero-visibility diving. 

Simply stated, EPA’s Scientific Diver Training Program transforms recreational divers who are scientists, engineers, law enforcement personnel, and/or academics, into EPA-certified scientific divers who use underwater environments as their sampling laboratory.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at: facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the Author: Matthew Colip works as a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Enforcement Officer in EPA Mid-Atlantic Region’s Water Protection Division, NPDES Enforcement Branch.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Drilling for Water – Underwater

By Sean Sheldrake, Rob Pedersen, and Alan Humphrey

In our previous blog posts we’ve talked about how EPA diving scientists support cleanups in the nation’s waterways through collection of samples.  In this post, we’ll talk about miniature wells called “piezometers” that we and other divers place underwater. 

What is a piezometer and what is it doing at the bottom of the river?

Photo 1: close up of a piezometer.

A piezometer (see photo 1) is a miniature well that lets us sample shallow groundwater—essentially a metal tube with a filter on the bottom to allow water to flow in, but keeping most sediment out. They can be installed both on land and underwater. 

But why on earth would someone underwater want to drill for more water?!  We do it to study pollution.

Groundwater that is contaminated by an upland industrial site can discharge into rivers and sounds.  By the time that contaminated groundwater mixes with the water column, the pollution is difficult to detect.  Worse yet, concentrations are far higher in the seafloor or river bottom, potentially harming critical links at the beginning of the food chain.  If levels of groundwater contamination aren’t measured accurately and in the correct place, a big piece of the pollution puzzle could be missed.

How do you collect a well sample at the bottom of an estuary? Here’s what it looks like when we work:

Tending the diver and groundwater sample tubing is a tough job!

Photo 2: preparing piezometer and tubing from the surface.

A surface supplied diver (see photo 2) takes the metal piezometer from the boat to the bottom while spooling out tubes that connects it to the boat or dive platform.

Don’t get tangled! Once underwater (see photo 3), the diver must be very careful to keep all their lines from being tangled; the slightest misstep and the sample line running to the surface could be pulled out, requiring the process to be restarted. 

Photo 3: EPA divers work carefully so they don't get tangled.

(Also see our previous post: Underwater with EPA Divers.)

With the tubing placed, water is pumped through the tube to the surface and checked (see photo 4) on board against samples taken from upland wells to ensure the right kind of sample is being taken. We pump water for the sample for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the rate at which water will flow through the sediments. Then it’s time to move to the next spot. 

Photo 4: EPA staff collecting a sample.

With the data we collect, cleanup managers can determine whether groundwater and sediments require a cleanup, and once it’s started, whether it’s protecting the water.

For more information on EPA’s groundwater collection techniques, underwater, see: Adaptation of Groundwater Evaluation and Sampling Tools for Underwater Deployment.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the authors:  Sean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  Sean Sheldrake and Alan Humphrey both serve on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.  In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.  Rob Pedersen is an EPA diver with decades of experience in environmental sample collection, and has also served on the EPA safety board. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Underwater with EPA Divers

by Sean Sheldrake, EPA Region 10 Dive Team and Alan Humphrey, EPA Environmental Response Team (ERT)

In Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 classic “Back to School” the older college student is called upon to win a high diving competition with his infamous and highly choreographed “Triple Lindy” maneuver. This high dive involves twists, turns, somersaults, and all manner of intricate movements. While EPA does not have a high diving team, we do have a scientific diving program to undertake its mission underwater to protect human health and the environment – and choreography is absolutely part of their training.

EPA scientific divers are often called upon to perform all manner of scientific dive missions on behalf of EPA. Divers in the Gulf Coast areas may conduct invasive species or coral reef health surveys, while divers in Oregon may be studying eelgrass health in estuaries. Divers in the northeast survey for invasives in inland waters and survey artificial reefs to determine their effectiveness. EPA’s Region 10 (Pacific Northwest area) and Environmental Response Team divers primarily conduct work in contaminated water in support of various cleanup projects for EPA and the Clean Water Act.

Northwest divers and the Environmental Response Team often partner on polluted water scientific diving projects all over Region 10’s vast area of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Those collaborations very recently included those on the Willamette River in Oregon. Two divers from Region 10, and one Environmental Response Team diver partnered recently to conduct solid phase microextraction device (SPMD) work with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Like past work where divers installed miniature wells into the river bottom to measure the creep of toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbons, this mission was to place sampling devices into the river bed that mimic the way bottom dwelling creatures, such as crayfish absorb chemicals. The miniature glass fibers within the sampling device will actually absorb chemicals just as the body of the crayfish would — and can be more easily analyzed at the lab. The data will determine whether a multi-million dollar cleanup is working, if it is done very carefully.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at www.facebook.com/EPADivers

About the authors: Sean Sheldrake and Alan Humphrey both serve on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements. In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.