FORT MONMOUTH, N.J. -- Charles Appleby scrutinizes old documents, conducts field excavations and uses ground-penetrating radar among other techniques in methodical pursuit of his prize.

Appleby doesn't wear a brown fedora hat, nor does he carry a coiled whip at his side a la Indiana Jones, but his commitment to unearthing his quarry is just as resolute.

An environmental specialist with the Directorate of Public Works (DPW) at Fort Monmouth, N.J., Appleby and his colleagues are charged with the environmentally safe removal of heating oil or septic tanks that were used at various times throughout Fort Monmouth's long history. The fort is scheduled to close in September 2011.

Thus far, more than 500 tanks identified and registered with the state of New Jersey have been excavated.

"We pulled our last registered tank that was regulated about a month and a half ago at the FBI building," Appleby said. "Since then, we've been going after tanks that were abandoned in place."

A tank may have been abandoned in the ground under various scenarios. The building may have been demolished, converted to natural gas use, or modified in some way that made the tank unnecessary. So it was simply left in the ground.

"We're now going into the field and identifying them through old property records and different survey techniques," Appleby said.

Howard Syvarth, a hydrogeologist in the DPW, is a member of the team researching possible tank locations. Fortunately, the Army has been pretty good at keeping property records, Syvarth said.

Records may show when a building was converted from coal to oil heat and the dates tanks were installed. "We want to make sure that we don't miss any," he added. "It's tedious work, but it has to be done."

Aside from property records, the DPW has an archival area where engineering drawings, some going back to the 1940s or earlier, are stored in long metal cabinets with thin drawers. Some of the aging drawings have the appearance of greenish wax paper.

Yet the drawings can yield important clues that may be a starting point for locating additional tanks.

Modern detection techniques are also used to pinpoint underground tanks, such as ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers or metal detectors.

A sled-like device is moved across an area believed to contain undiscovered tanks. A computer processes the data to produce a color image that resembles an infrared scan. Suspected tank locations are further highlighted by small, green squares.

Recently, such technology was used to detect a row of underground tanks in an area once occupied by barracks.

"We take photographs of all the tank pulls," Appleby said. "The amount of paperwork associated with the program is huge."

The process related to tank excavations, described only in part, is methodical:
--Identify the tank administratively and confirm that it exists.
--Submit a plan for removal to the state of New Jersey and ask for approval to remove it.
--A crew goes to the location to identify any nearby utility lines and makes appropriate markings.
--A backhoe and dump trucks are used to remove the topsoil and uncover the tank.
--The tank is cut open and any remaining oil or sludge in the tank is removed. The tank is pulled to the surface and labeled.
--Soil samples from the tank area are collected and analyzed to ensure it meets state standards.

The DPW has expanded its laboratory facilities over the years to perform more detailed analysis for its environmental programs. "It's a fully functional lab certified in multiples states doing services way beyond the original purpose in 1992," Appleby said.

"We have the best technology, the best equipment and the best people to get the best results," he added.

If soil samples are deemed acceptable, a tank pit is filled with clean soil after the tank is removed. The tank and any contents are recycled. An administrative record and report on a tank extraction are completed and sent to state officials, who in turn issue a letter that no further action is needed.

The DPW also has 198 monitoring wells throughout the fort to keep tabs on environmental conditions. Every three months, samples are collected from the wells and analyzed.

The organization also has licensed, certified employees and contractors to perform various aspects of tank removal.

If deemed necessary, permits are sought to inject chemicals into the ground to speed up the natural decomposition of contaminants.

New Jersey state officials will periodically make on-site visits to oversee the tank-removal program, including at times observing the extraction of tanks, Appleby said.

Whether it's with old drawings or the latest technology, the detective work continues to unearth the underground remnants that partly reflect the operations of a fort scheduled for closure in two years.

"We're doing due diligence in evaluating these things," Appleby said. "We're fortunate that we have the resources here and we want to do it right the first time."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16