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Ecological Detectives Help Track Polluters : Environment: Global Geochemistry has made its reputation in a competitive field. Demand for the firm's special abilities is growing.

June 01, 1993|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In his laboratory, Ian Kaplan stands before a maze of high-vacuum glass tubing, adjusting various valves and traps attuned to capture oil compounds. Nearby, his technicians in clean white coats tend vats of liquid nitrogen and take measurements from yard-high manometers.

This team of environmental detectives is sorting out which type of jet fuel has leaked from an underground storage site at a military base. Their findings could spell the difference of $100 million or more in cleanup costs that either the federal government or a commercial airline may be liable to pay.

The analysis is performed by Global Geochemistry in Canoga Park, a firm Kaplan started 16 years ago and which specializes in forensic geochemistry, or the study of oil to determine its age and origin.

Kaplan, a UCLA professor emeritus of geology and geochemistry, has a staff of 25 at Global Geochemistry and does about $2.2 million in revenue a year. The company checks everything from underwater oil spills to acid rain, leaky underground gasoline tanks and soil contamination, and Kaplan's clients range from environmental agencies and law firms to commercial property owners, utilities and oil companies.

The competition among firms that perform such environmental testing is fierce. Since the California State Department of Health Services consolidated testing agencies in 1989, about 200 agencies a year have been certified through its environmental laboratory accreditation program. There are now about 800 California firms that perform work similar to Global's, as well as 80 out-of-state firms certified to test in California.

Global, however, has carved a niche through an ability to perform exhaustive fingerprinting of hydrocarbons, the major element found in petroleum products. And the laboratory is one of a handful of U.S. firms that can use atoms as tracer markers to determine, for example, if methane gas originates from a compost pile or from a broken pipe line. Called stable isotope analysis, this procedure is in increasing demand by environmental agencies.

"Companies that use us typically need to know what type of pollutant they're dealing with, how long it's been in the environment and whether there are multiple sources for the contamination," said Kaplan. "These cases involve cleanup costs of several million, or even hundreds of millions of dollars. It's easy to see why the analysis we do can be so crucial."

Global is usually employed by a law firm or an environmental remediation firm, such as Pasadena-based Tetra Tech, that assesses the extent of contamination in cases involving several parties.

Larger companies, including Texaco, Occidental Petroleum, Hughes Aircraft, Westinghouse Electric and Chevron Oil, have sought out Global either directly or through contractors.

About 30% of his business involves companies that require analysis of oil from potential drilling sites in Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, South America, Nigeria and the Middle East.

Government agencies and research institutes that require environmental or medical analyses, including study of acid rain and atmospheric pollutants, make up the rest of Global's business.

Global Geochemistry's initial contracts, however, were for oil corporations that sought new exploration sites for fossil fuels. Recognizing the oil companies' demand for such information, Kaplan took $15,000 of his own savings in 1975 and linked up with an existing Duarte-based firm, and a few ex-students from his UCLA classes. The oil boom was on, and with contracts multiplying, Kaplan bought out his partners in 1977.

By 1985, his total annual contracts topped $2.5 million, but a slide in U.S. oil production saw Global's revenue drop to $1.6 million.

However, in 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency began targeting leaky underground storage tanks found at gas stations and bulk distribution areas, such as truck companies.

"Virtually every underground storage tank leaks, so there's been more work for testing firms since then," said Richard Spinner, a public health chemist with the Berkeley-based laboratory accreditation program.

Since Global began targeting companies that require environmental testing, Kaplan's business has picked up again.

"Global Geochemistry has a very innovative approach to measuring elements in the environment," said John Holmes, director of research for the California Air Resources Board, which hired Global in the 1980s to analyze atmospheric organic compounds in the Los Angeles Basin. "They're on the frontier of atmospheric measurements."

Such expertise is in increasing demand because of "a rising number of federal, state and local environmental statutes," said Peter Niemiec, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in environmental law. "There may be multiple sources of contamination on one property because of commercial ventures that date back decades. Parties want to shift the cost of cleanup around. With good scientific data, you can target who's responsible."

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