Environmental hazards not always recognized
October 2, 2013
When farmers and ranchers think about chemical spills, they almost never consider the potential hazards surrounding fuel.
Yet University of Nebraska-Lincoln Senior Environmental Specialist Dan Olsen says the most serious and costly chemical spills he has witnessed involved diesel fuel and waste oil.
"Corroded tanks can often cause fuel spills," Olsen says. "Especially when it comes to waste oil. Water collects in waste oil tanks, sinks to the bottom of the tank and is never removed. If the tank is located in an area where it's not very visible, it's easy for that leak to go undetected for a long time."
More serious fuel spills can lead to contamination of groundwater, incurring thousands of dollars of cleanup costs and causing a major impact on the environment.
"One of the most unusual spills of diesel oil that I know of occurred in an isolated area," Olsen says. "Cattle were grazing near an irrigation system where a 2,000-gallon diesel tank was sitting. When a near white-out blizzard occurred, the cattle drifted in the storm and came in contact with the diesel tank, causing a release. Because of the storm, the spill wasn't discovered for about a week. As a result the spill was tracked around a large area and spread across a significant area. The cost of cleanup was nearly $30,000."
Olsen points out that a fence around the diesel tank would have helped prevent the spill. In addition to this, secondary containment for all fuel tanks, the preferable option being steel, can aid farmers and ranchers in avoiding environmental and economic disaster.
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"Most farmers and ranchers store a significant amount of fuel on their farm now," Olsen says. "A leak can quickly become a serious issue, especially if it happens in a time frame where it isn't discovered right away."
Olsen recommends that farmers and ranchers take time to look at the environment surrounding their fuel and oil tanks and consider a "what if" evaluation.
"Some fuel tanks are located in areas where they might spill into a ditch but wouldn't reach a water source," Olsen says. "Others are within 100 feet of water. Asking what might happen if fuel was spilled could help determine what kind of secondary containment is necessary or what kind of major disaster a release could cause. If fuel were leaked into a body of water, state officials would become involved in cleanup, and the farmer would deal with a lot of headaches related to resolving the issue."
Chemical contamination doesn't always occur in large doses and Olsen says current environmental laws cover instances related to disposal of minor chemical substances such as paint.
"When I was a kid growing up on an Iowa farm we thought nothing of washing our paint brushes out and disposing of the water in the stock yard," Olsen says. "Now, if a livestock owner uses a lagoon or holding system for waste, it's illegal to discharge paint or any chemical into that system."
For the most part, farmers and ranchers have become adept at applying pesticide, insecticide and herbicide, closely following instructions and recommendations. One important aspect of using the chemicals – understanding their hazards to health and the environment – may not be as well known.
"Each chemical product comes with a data safety sheet that explains the consequences of exposure to the chemicals and what steps to take if a spill or exposure happens," Olsen says. "In my experience, it's pretty common for users to overlook the importance of reading and understanding that information so they know what to expect if they're exposed to a chemical … and how to respond."
Olsen believes the general public isn't fully aware of the necessity for reading a chemical's data safety sheet to help them prepare for mishaps.
"Some chemicals pose a threat if they're inhaled. Others can be a problem if they're in contact with your skin," Olsen says. "The data sheet for each specific chemical explains what symptoms to look for to confirm exposure and provides directions for any necessary treatment. Sometimes users are concerned about being exposed to a chemical but don't exhibit any symptoms. By understanding the information provided with the chemical product, they can more accurately determine whether or not there is a problem. That's an industry-wide issue that's not isolated to farmers and ranchers. Typically employers and employees don't take time to review and absorb that information."
Olsen also points out that chemical treatments stored on the farm are often contained in large tanks, so a spill would result in a major impact on health and environment.
"I believe farmers and ranchers are good about reading label instructions," Olsen says. "One important thing to keep in mind is that a chemical that may not harm a plant can often cause a problem for wildlife. It's critical to consider how a chemical release would impact your family, your wife and kids. Those kinds of details are important to safely storing and applying chemicals."
Evaluating fuel and chemical tanks and taking note of the surroundings where volatile liquids are stored can help farmers and ranchers reduce the risk of contamination and reduce the impact a mishap may have.
"A steel secondary containment is the ideal safeguard," Olsen says. "You can use an earthen containment, but in the event of a spill that still requires significant cleanup. Checking on the condition of tanks and being as informed as possible about the properties of a chemical are the best ways to reduce the results of leaks or spills."