By Ronica Brandenburg/News editor
On Jan. 27, 2001, a Marathon Ashland pipeline burst in Clark County. Five-hundred thousand gallons of oil quickly made its way into Winchester’s main water sources. The company called upon the expertise of Ralph Ewers, a professor of geology and hydrogeology at Eastern, to trace the flow of the spill and check for contaminants in local water sources. Ewers’ 30-year career with water pollution has taken him throughout most of eastern North America, western Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, central and western Europe and the British Isles. He works with pollution problems relating to karst aquifers, or rock soluble terrain like limestone.
“Ewers is one of the top karst scientists in the world,” said Joe Ray, of the Groundwater Division of the Kentucky Division of Water.
For the Clark County spill, Ewers took on the role of not only a scientist, but also an educator.
“Our role in the clean-up efforts was to, No. 1, advise the pipeline company and the contractors who were working for them, on the best ways to deal with the groundwater contamination in the limestone aquifer,” Ewers said. “No. 2 was to determine the extent of the groundwater impact relative to private wells and the nearby water supply reservoir for the town of Winchester.”
The 500,000-gallon spill took one year to get under control. Ewers put highly detectable dyes into the contaminated water. The dyes would allow him to trace the route of the contamination and make sure the water did not contaminate other sources.
“Unlike the crude petroleum, the dyes mix readily with the groundwater and move swiftly with these waters,” Ewers said. “The dye is detectable at one part per trillion levels. That’s like measuring one second in 6,000 years.”
Ewers initial assessment was that the contaminated groundwater was in a confined space, and it would cleanse itself. After one year of observing, the assessment was proven correct.
He presented his findings to the Kentucky Environment Cabinet, the Division of Water, Groundwater branch and the Division of Waste Management Oct. 8.
Ewers had help from Kevin DeFossett, a graduate student at Eastern pursuing a master’s of science, Jim Currens, an undergraduate and a member of the Kentucky Geological Survey and Ewers’ Advanced Hydrogeology and Introductory Hydrology classes.
“Involvement in these sorts of practical problems keeps a professor current in his or her discipline, and they provide the best sort of example for teaching purposes,” Ewers said.