Author reviewing project work.

As if crumbling foundations weren’t bad enough, along comes the coronavirus.  Well the good news is you can safely read the remainder of this post from the comfort of home, without a mask, and without again encountering the words coronavirus or Covid-19.    

But, before you start here’s a suggestion, read parts one and two about crumbling foundations to better understand the problem with failing concrete in north central Connecticut and south central Massachusetts.  Part one describes the discovery and investigation of my home’s failed foundation; and part two summarizes my experience seeking insurance coverage.  This third and final part is about the reconstruction process.

Now to start, I’ll note that people enjoy talking about improvements they make to their homes.  I certainly understand why.  They’ve installed new kitchens with state-of-the-art built-in appliances; bathrooms with glass walled showers; and welcoming entranceways with imported ceramic tile. We (Mrs. Okun and I) don’t talk about home improvements that way.   Instead we talk about the money we’ve put under our house.  Not because we had a vault with gold in the basement.  No.  It’s because removing and replacing our failed foundation exhausted any prospective home improvement funds and then some!

The Writing on the Walls

Recall from part one that on a trip to my basement in 2006 I discovered mysterious cracks had opened up in the concrete walls.  Soon enough we learned their meaning: “All those cracks in your basement walls? I don’t know exactly what caused them, but I can tell you with certainty that this concrete is toast and needs to be replaced, soon.”  So declared our structural engineer Rob Johnson PE. 

We were among the first of what would become many in north central Connecticut to lose our home’s foundation to bad concrete.  Later testing proved the failure was caused by the mineral pyrrhotite in the concrete.  But upon first discovery it just seemed like extraordinarily bad luck. 

Rob said we needed to immediately hire a contractor to install shoring to support two walls that were already bowing out badly and in the initial stage of collapse.  He sketched up plans for the shoring and told us to give them to the contractor.

This was in 2006, well before the crumbling foundation issue had received much visibility – except for the help we got from our experts, we were on our own.  At that time there were no contractors specializing in foundation replacements the way there are now.  However, thanks to working at OTO I had good contractor connections.  At the suggestion of OTO friend and construction manager, the late Richard Wilke, we hired Kurtz, Inc. of Westfield, MA to install the shoring per Rob’s plan and went on to use them to replace the basement walls, footings and the foundation drainage system. 

In the past few years, as the number of houses with crumbling foundations has grown, support groups have developed, and the state of Connecticut has set up a program to help homeowners pay for foundation replacements.  None of this existed when we were stumbling around trying to understand what was happening and planning what to do next.  We heard stories about a few other families with failed foundations, and tried to reach out to them.  Some were happy to talk about their experiences, but others were quite reluctant.  For them it was like having a disease that they did not want to talk about.

Construction Begins

As more homes and other buildings are found with crumbling foundations the demand for restoration services has grown.  There are now several excellent contractors who specialize in replacing crumbling foundations.  They’ve learned to optimize construction methods, which means getting work done faster and cheaper.  But, this didn’t exist when we did our replacement.  We were “early adopters” of foundation replacement technology, so we and our contractor needed to do on the job learning. 

One factor people overlook when planning foundation replacement work is that you can’t live in a house while the work is going on (figure on 2-4+ months).  In our case we needed to move out for 4.5 months.   All of the utilities need to be turned off and disconnected during the work making the house unlivable.  After we moved out, our contractor Kurtz obtained the building permit and began work by “sistering” all the joists in the basement in accordance with the engineer’s plan.  This meant attaching an additional joist next to all the original joists in the basement.  This added stability and strength to the structure to help it endure what came next.

Kurtz then cut holes through the existing foundation walls and installed big steel I-beams all the way through the basement to support the house.  The weight of the house was effectively now shared between the I-beams and the failing foundation.  A deep trench, resembling a medieval mote, was excavated all the way around the house.  All the soil removed from the trench became giant piles on our once carefully tended lawn. 

Rather than removing the old foundation and then constructing the new one all at once, Kurtz instead removed sections of the foundation and replaced each section one at a time moving methodically around the house.  Big piles of broken concrete now appeared next to the piles of soil on the lawn.  Kurtz also replaced the footings that supported the concrete walls and installed a new storm water drainage system around the house. 

Doorway to nowhere.

At my request, Kurtz installed some steel reinforcing bar into the new concrete walls.  Our engineer, Rob Johnson, told me the rebar was really unnecessary, but I thought I’d sleep better knowing it was there.  Of course we verified that the replacement concrete was from a completely different source than the old concrete.  As shocking as may seem, the supplier of our original concrete was still selling bad concrete batches for use in new homes and other buildings!  Sadly, there are even reported cases of homeowners replacing their bad foundations with concrete from that same bad source and having it fail again!  Now that is bad luck.

Post Construction Stuff

During any construction or renovation work some things inevitably happen that were not planned.  This seems to be as much a law of nature as gravity.  In a way we got off easy in that the only big surprises were the loss of the heating system due to frozen pipes in the boiler and the need to replace some of the clean water distribution piping and valves.  Well then there was also the outdoor lighting that was lost and needed to be replaced.  But overall not too bad.

During our original planning, the foundation of the attached garage looked only slightly deteriorated, so we did not include its replacement as part of the 2006 project.  However, be ten years later in 2016, it was looking much worse.  Since we planned to sell the house in the next few years, we eventually hired a contractor to replace the garage foundation, a similar, but simpler project than the house had been. It went smoothly.

In 2017 we finally did sell the Ellington house and as I walked out the door for the last time I vowed to never again own a house. This is a vow I kept until just this month.  The foundation walls of the “new” house (95 years old) are made of stone, and in addition the structure is supported by two really big steel I-beams.  During the home inspection I noted that one of these beams had a little rust.  When I asked him about it our home inspector told me not to worry, any possible harm from the rust was likely insignificant. 

Oh well, no matter how special the upstairs, my evaluation of a house will always begin in the basement where I can clearly see evidence of the foundation’s soundness

If you haven’t already read Part 1 of this mini-series, please do so before reading this post; what follows will make more sense.

But first, a rant on home owner’s insurance policies.  For your sake, I hope you never need your home owner’s insurance.  You know all those warm fuzzy ads on TV with clever bylines like: “You’re in good hands” or “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Yeah, well good luck with that, because if your foundation is crumbling and your house is starting to collapse, those good hands won’t be writing you any claims checks.  But the companies do come up with clever sales slogans and with creative reasons for denying claims.  And that’s what this post is about.

Discovering the Damage, My First Claim, and Rejection

As you recall from Part 1, on an otherwise normal trip to the basement of my Ellington, Connecticut home in 2005, I discovered the concrete walls were literally disintegrating; this may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not.  Fortunately, working with a bunch of talented engineers at OTO got me going in the right direction.  My co-worker Mike Talbot, PE made an emergency house-call to my basement the next day.  His prognosis was not good.  “I’ve never seen anything like this before.  You better get Rob Johnson, a structural engineer and friend of mine to look at this”.

When Rob saw the basement he was uncertain about the precise cause of the problem, but not about what needed to be done: “You need to immediately install bracing to prevent an imminent collapse of the house and you better start planning for the replacement of the entire foundation … soon. Because whatever the cause, this concrete is toast”.  Getting quick, knowledgeable advice from solid engineers was both depressing and extremely helpful.  At least we didn’t waste time and money with useless attempts at a fix.

As reality sunk in, and I got a sense of just how disruptive and expensive the replacement project was going to be, I called my insurance agent to make a claim.  I sent him photographs of the crumbling concrete, a copy of the Rob’s report, and told him he could visit any time.  He said he would forward the information to the insurance company and they would contact me.

The insurance company assigned an adjuster and retained a consulting engineer to review the information and visit the property.  A couple of weeks later I received the first of what would be three rejection letters.  The letter stated that the failure of the concrete foundation was due to the pressure of groundwater and/or the action of frost against the foundation.  The letter explained that my policy contained an exclusion for damage caused by water, and as much as they would sincerely like to help, they had to deny any liability for my loss.

Picture this – there were eighth to half-inch wide cracks that went clear through the foundation walls to the soil on the other side.  Lots of them. Yet not a drop of water had ever come through those cracks.  The insurer’s engineer had seen these cracks.  How could groundwater with sufficient pressure to crack 12 inch thick hardened concrete walls not also cause water to come gushing through those cracks?  Seemed like a good question to me. Although not one that interested the insurance company.

Since I’m a curious kind of guy I wanted to know the answer (this was before we had the results of the petrographic analysis).  The only way to find out was to do a little groundwater study, so I had monitoring wells installed around the house.  This turned out to be the first of several pricey out-of-pocket research projects to satisfy my curiosity. Mrs. Okun was not wholly enthusiastic about the cost of these projects.

Once the monitoring wells had been installed and water levels were measured, it became apparent that the water table was too deep for groundwater to be pressuring the foundation; the insurer’s engineer readily agreed.  At that point I was still naïve enough to believe that the insurance company would welcome this new information and my claim check would be forthcoming. Hah!!!

Second Claim, and Rejection

So while the insurance company was developing their first rejection letter, we asked our engineer to move ahead with collecting concrete core samples and conducting the petrographic analysis needed to identify the cause of the failure. This was another pricey item, but my curiosity was demanding an answer.  It took a little while to get the results, but they were definitive: the presence of the mineral pyrrhotite in the concrete’s coarse aggregate had caused the concrete to fail.  Part 1 of this mini-series discusses the hazard pyrrhotite poses to concrete in more detail.

I forwarded the petrographic results and the groundwater level measurements to the insurance company and asked them to reconsider my claim.  Their first engineer was not well versed in concrete chemistry, so the insurer retained a concrete specialist to review the petrographic report.  This second engineer concluded that the problem with our foundation was due to sulfate in the groundwater around the house.  In case you are curious, the new engineer did no testing of the groundwater to confirm this hypothesis. It’s a small world of engineers who know concrete chemistry and I had considered hiring this same engineer to do my petrographic analysis; I’m glad I didn’t.

Well, the insurer once again rejected our claim for a bunch of legalistic reasons and because in their opinion the collapse – which to them was not legally a real collapse – was caused by sulfate in the groundwater around our house.

Third and Final Claim Rejection

Fortunately, sampling the monitoring wells that were already installed to test for sulfate was easy and cheap.    So I wasted no time getting this done.  No surprises here, groundwater sulfate concentrations around my house were exactly the same as the published background levels for sulfate in north central Connecticut where the house is located. 

As you would expect, I sent the information on groundwater sulfate concentrations to my insurer with a bunch of legal arguments and asked them to again reconsider our claim.  I broke the claim into seven parts to make it easier for the adjuster to understand, not that this mattered.

Over time the pyrrhotite induced deterioration of the concrete caused the basement walls to expand, which pushed the outer walls of the house upward.  This irregular upward movement causes windows and doors to get stuck in their casings so they will not easily open or close.  This damage symptom was one of the parts of the claim I made.  Here’s the insurer’s response to that part of the claim, verbatim:

The Insurance Company’s Engineer Mr. Smith, PE, has determined that only a portion of the damage to the upper floors resulted from the movement of the foundation.  There has not been any structural impairment of the upper floors and therefore, these portion of the upper floors have not collapsed as that term is defined in Beach v. Middlesex Mutual Assurance Company.  Therefore, for the reasons stated above, any portions of the upper floors which have sustained a loss, which loss was not caused by any movement of the foundation is not covered by the additional coverage for “collapse”.  Furthermore, the collapse coverage specifically provides that “collapse does not include settling, cracking, shrinking, bulging or expansion.”  Also, there is no coverage for this loss because exclusion 2.h.(6) quoted above excludes a loss “caused by: … settling, shrinking, bulging or expansion, including resultant cracking of pavements, patios, foundations, walls, floors, roofs or ceilings.”  However, those portions of the upper floors which may have sustained damage because of the collapse to the foundation may be covered as “direct physical loss to covered property involving a collapse of a building or part of a building (the foundation) caused only by one or more of the following…defective materials…”  Therefore, the Insurance Company will cover the repairs to the openings, windows, doors or walls of the upper which are related to the movement of the foundation.

After I read that last sentence, I reread it about ten times.  I thought, “Well I’ll be!” They have finally agreed to cover something, because to fix the damage to the upper floors, it would first be necessary to fix the foundation! Yes!  All this effort is finally going to pay off! 

When I called the insurance adjuster in the morning to coordinate the next step, he explained that I had misunderstood their letter.  That last sentence in the paragraph where it sounded like they were going to cover some of the damage, I got that wrong.  That language was their way of letting me know they weren’t going to cover anything, because as I had surmised, the only way to fix the upper floors was to fix the foundation, and they weren’t going to cover that at all.


Last three thoughts for this post:

  1. In addition to the claim for damage to the upper floors, part of my final claim was for the reimbursement of engineering and testing costs, here’s their response to that: “The policy terms relating to loss payment do not provide coverage for engineering and testing fees to determine the basis for the loss and there are no engineering or testing fees required to determine the nature and extent of the repairs to any upper portions of the structure for which there may be coverage”. That was galling after all the fake technical arguments they had thrown at me.
  2. Ultimately with the help of a good attorney we entered mediation with the insurer and received a settlement for some of our costs, for which we remain grateful.
  3. Having a solid technical background was immensely helpful as was having access to the talented engineers at OTO and in the broader out-of-OTO network.

Stay tuned for Part 3, what it’s like to have your home’s foundation replaced.

In 1989 my family and I moved from a pleasant Boston suburb to rural Ellington in north central Connecticut. We loved Ellington and quickly made good friends, primarily the parents from our daughter’s play group. Our house was set on 5 acres of mostly forested land, I installed a playground set with swings for the kids and we had many enjoyable times. Life was good, or so it seemed.

However, unbeknownst to us, something insidious was happening to our house that was beyond our wildest imaginings; the concrete support structure (i.e. the foundation) was quietly crumbling away beneath our feet. Who even knew that this was possible? I’m an environmental chemist with a lot of experience and the idea that concrete could literally corrode away over the course of a few years was news to me.

It’s Even Worse than You Thought

In 2005 during a routine trip to the basement I stopped to look at the concrete walls and it became apparent that something was very wrong. Big vertical, horizontal and diagonal cracks had opened up in the concrete walls and the formerly solid concrete had become shockingly friable – you could easily extract a piece of concrete with your hand and rub it to dust between your hands. There was also a snowy-white efflorescence covering most of the walls.

The next day at work I told OTO’s senior engineer Mike Talbot about what I had observed and asked him to take a look. When he did he was dumbfounded and recommended that I have a structural engineer friend of his, Rob Johnson, come by to give his opinion.

A few days later Rob was in the basement saying that he was uncertain what the precise cause of the problem was, but I needed to immediately hire a contractor to install temporary shoring to forestall the imminent collapse of the house. This was bad enough, but the next piece of news from Rob was even worse: I needed to start making plans for the total replacement of the basement walls and foundation footings because the concrete was clearly disintegrating rapidly.

Rob sketched up some plans for me to give to the contractor and soon we had these large wooden supports holding up the basement walls. Speculating, Rob suggested the underlying problem with the concrete could be ASR (alkali-silica reaction), but to find out for sure would require collecting concrete core samples and the petrographic analysis of the cores. Petrographic analysis involves making thin slices from the cores, staining them, and reviewing them under a special microscope.

Concrete coring, showing wall damage

Pyrrhotite Revealed

While we were not this first ones in the area to have a problem with crumbling concrete, to my knowledge, we were the very first to collect core samples for petrographic analysis.

When we got the lab results back it turned out, there was no ASR in the core samples, instead the problem was the presence of pyrrhotite in the concrete’s coarse aggregate.

To put this all in an understandable context, it’s helpful to know a little bit about concrete. Concrete is made from four basic ingredients: cement, sand, coarse aggregate (eg small stones), and water. Concrete is a very strong and durable building material (think Roman Colosseum), but there are two types of stress that concrete cannot tolerate: corrosive acids and tension forces. It turns out that pyrrhotite provides both of these stressors in abundance.

Pyrrhotite is basically a chemically unstable form of iron pyrite, made up of iron and sulfur. When pyrrhotite is mined out of the ground and is exposed to air and moisture, it begins a long slow degradation reaction. As the pyrrhotite degradation progresses, the sulfur turns into sulfuric acid and the iron becomes the mineral hematite. Any exposure to acid is bad news for concrete, but sulfuric acid is by far the worst. It immediately begins to dissolve the cement paste that binds the other concrete ingredients together.

The problem with hematite, which is effectively a type of ferric oxide or rust, is that it takes up more space in the concrete matrix than was occupied by the pyrrhotite it replaced. This results in internal pressure and expansionary forces. These expansionary forces are more than the acid-weakened concrete can withstand and massive cracking begins to appear. At first the cracks are narrow, but they soon expand to an inch or more across. What I saw on my trip to the basement that day was the characteristic cracking pattern referred to as “map cracking”, so named because the irregular cracking resemble roads on a map.

As the cracks widen, the basement walls effectively grow taller, which pushes the sides of the house upwards. Windows no long open and close and doors become crooked, no longer able to shut. The sides of the house became higher than the middle of the rooms. Welcome to Alice in Wonderland.

As has now been shown by so many homes and other buildings in north central Connecticut and south central Massachusetts, the pyrrhotite containing aggregate originating from Becker’s quarry in Willington, CT has laid to waste real estate values.

What’s next?

This story is getting long, but it wouldn’t be complete without the parts about the so-called insurance company (names changed to protect the unbelievably unhelpful), and the parts about the actual reconstruction of the foundation and basement walls. So stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 – and BTW, yes this all really happened to us and it is still happening to many folks in north central Connecticut and south central Massachusetts.

Over the past year there have been a number of articles published about reproductive risks to orcas (killer whales) posed by PCBs (example articles 1, 2, and 3).  Some of these articles go so far as to claim that orcas are threatened with extinction due to their reproduction being inhibited by PCBs.

But do PCBs really pose really pose an extinction risk to orcas?  Or have these authors used limited information to draw conclusions that are out of proportion with the actual science?  With this post I want to consider what we know about orcas and PCBs and evaluate whether the warnings in these recent articles are realistic.

orcas photo


Orca Characteristics and Behavior

Orcas are among the top predators in the ocean.  They are not true whales, instead they are the largest member of the dolphin family.  Although all orcas belong to the same species, scientists that study them group them into three subpopulations (resident, transient and offshore) based on their behavior.  As you would guess, resident orcas live in near-shore locations and remain there for their entire lives, they eat either fish or other marine mammals.

The transient orcas remain close to shore, but migrate along the coast in the pursuit of prey, which consists of mostly of other marine mammals.  Offshore orcas are the least well known, but they live and feed far from shore and are believed to feed on sharks and other large fish or marine mammals.  Although all three groups belong to the same species, they do not interbreed or otherwise mix socially despite being considered highly social within their own group.  As a species, orcas are generally not considered endangered.

Almost everything we know about orcas comes from studies of resident populations because they are relatively easy to monitor.  Possibly the most carefully studied orca group (known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales), lives in the waters of the Pacific Northwest, off the coast of Washington state and southern British Columbia.  Two other closely monitored resident orca groups are: a pod residing off the west coast of Scotland (known as the West Coast Community); and the Northern Resident group, which lives off the more northerly coast of British Columbia.

Orca Population Decline

While the (North American) Southern Resident and (Scottish) West Coast Community groups are different in many ways, both are now experiencing population decline.  In the case of the Southern Resident group, which now has 75 individuals, scientists concluded the decline is due to the reduction in their nearly exclusive food source, Chinook salmon.  Scientists have found a close link between orcas’ annual reproductive success and the abundance of Chinook salmon in their home waters.  A recent decline in the salmon population is believed to have resulted in the orcas expending more effort to achieve an adequate diet and having less reproductive success.  These scientists are hopeful that the key to increasing the Southern Resident group’s population is changing the salmon fishery management to ensure the orcas receive adequate nutrition.

In contrast, the West Coast Community orca group off of Scotland may indeed be on the path to extinction.  This group consists of four-females and four-males, a total of 8 individuals, with no new births in the group in 25 years.  In fact, the group was recently reduced when an older female died after becoming entangled in fishing lines.  Scientists speculate that the remaining females may now be too old to give birth.  There is no agreed upon cause for the reproductive failure of the West Coast Community orcas, however, speculation has whirled around the idea that PCBs may have caused a lack of fertility among the females as a result of its ability to mimic estrogen.

PCBs and Orcas

One report that sheds considerable light on the question of PCBs and orca reproduction is a 2000 Institute of Ocean Studies article, which describes a study in which scientists collected fat samples from 47 live, wild orcas off the coast of British Columbia and tested these samples for PCBs, furans and dioxins.  The samples were collected from transient orcas as well as individuals form the Southern and Northern Resident Groups (note that the Northern Resident Group is distinct from the Southern Resident orcas, but there is some overlap of their territories of the coast of British Columbia).  This study is among the most comprehensive investigations of PCBs in orcas.

The study had three important findings relative to orca reproduction:

  1. The study found all of the orcas sampled had surprisingly high concentrations of PCBs in their fatty tissue. The transient and Northern Resident orcas had higher PCB concentrations than the Southern Residents.  This is believed to be attributable to their different diets.  Transient and Northern Residents consume primarily marine mammals and Southern Residents consume primarily salmon.  Salmon has significantly lower PCB concentrations than do the marine mammals preyed on by the orcas.
  2. In each of the three populations the adult males had significantly higher PCB concentrations (and presumably higher PCB body burdens) than did the adult females. Since their diet and thus their potential PCB exposures are the same, the only explanation for this is that the adult females transfer their PCB body burden to their young during gestation and after birth through their milk when nursing.  Because the fat content of orca milk is high, and because this fat carries the PCBs accumulated by the mother, these PCBs are transferred to the nursing young.  It is estimated that 60% of the mother orca’s PCB body burden is transferred to their young by nursing.  The transfer of PCBs from mothers to their young is seen in other mammals as well.
  3. The concentrations of dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCBs in the orca fat samples were less than anticipated based on the relatively high concentration of non-dioxin like PCBs. The authors suggest that this finding may explain how the orcas could tolerate such high PCB body burdens, without experiencing adverse effects such as reproductive failure.  The authors speculate that the more toxic dioxins, furans and PCBs may have been metabolized by other animals lower on the food chain such that only the less toxic and more chemically stable PCBs are actually passed on to the orcas in their food.


The objective of this post was to consider whether the available scientific evidence supports the claim that PCBs may drive orcas to extinction as a result of reproductive failure.  It is undeniably true that orcas carry high PCB body burdens, and that these PCBs are the result of their diet, whether that diet consists of fish or marine mammals.  However, based on the 2000 Institute of Ocean Studies report, it does not appear that high PCB body burdens are contributing to reproductive failure in the populations studied.

As odd as it may seem, some of the strongest evidence for orca reproductive success from this study is the much lower PCB concentrations found in the adult females compared to those detected in the adult males.  Since the PCB exposure of the females and males are similar (they all derive PCBs from their diet), the consistent large differences in concentration in their fat tissue can only be explained by the transfer of the adult female’s PCBs to their young.   Sexually immature females and males have similar PCB concentrations.  But, upon reaching reproductive age, the female’s PCB concentrations drop, while the male’s PCB concentration continues to increase with age.

The study data indicates that the orcas continue to reproduce successfully among the transient and the resident orca populations on the North American west coast despite their high PCB body burdens.  In other words, the PCBs do not appear to be adversely impacting the orca’s reproduction.

It may not be appropriate to extrapolate the results of the North American orca/PCB study to the decline of Scotland’s West Coast Community group.  However, the study clearly does not provide support for the contention that PCBs are causing a worldwide decline in orca population.

The world wouldn’t be where it is now without machine shops.  Manufacturing operations such as tool and die plants, aerospace parts manufacturers, surgical fitting fabricators, firearms manufacturing, and other metalworking industries (particularly precision work) have had a long history in Massachusetts, from the founding of the Springfield Armory in 1777 through the present day.

As any good machinist knows, though, if you want to work with metal you have to know a fair amount about oil, which is used in many forms in metalworking operations.

The two kinds of oil most commonly used are:

  • Way oil, also known as lube oil, slide oil, or brown oil, is a high-grade hydraulic oil formulated with a tackifier, an additive that improves the oil’s adhesion to metal surfaces such as the hydraulic pistons or sliding surfaces found in CNC machines, lathes and other heavy machine tools, to prolong the useful life of the oil and prevent it from oozing into the working process.
  • Modern cutting fluids, sometimes called metalworking fluids, cutting lube, or cutting oils, are sprayed, misted or flowed onto machining surfaces in manufacturing for several purposes—they lubricate the cutting process and allow machines to go faster, they cool the process and prevent tip welding, where the drill bit or other machine tool overheats to the point where it welds itself onto the workpiece. These products are typically an emulsified mixture of oils and water (either water outside oil or oil outside water),  by means of an oil engineered to be water soluble, or a surfactant or detergent additive. Most cutting fluids range from 1% to 5% oil by volume, and the emulsions can remain stable for weeks. Cutting oils used in these mixtures may be petroleum based or derived from plant or animal materials (lard and fish oil are surprisingly common, especially for manufacturing food grade equipment components), or based on synthetic oils (often used in milling and grinding). High-flash kerosene is sometimes used for working with aluminum.

CNC head
Close-up view of a CNC machine and cutting fluid

In addition, some facilities use quantities of other kinds of oil, such as lubricants, rust preventatives (especially in firearms manufacturing), quench oils, and other products.

It makes economic sense to reuse cutting fluids as much as possible, but cutting fluids deteriorate and almost inevitably become contaminated with way oil and other oils, such as oil films used to protect bar stock, etc., which form separate phase liquids called “tramp oils” that float in blobs on top of a container of cutting fluid, and that would foul the process if allowed to recirculate through the system. If you let a drum of well-used waste cutting fluid sit for a few hours, more often than not a layer of tramp oil will partition out on top. Many modern CNC machines have onboard sumps in which the cutting fluid accumulates before it is recirculated, fitted with skimmers or other devices to remove separated tramp oils. Some larger facilities have central cutting fluid management systems with sophisticated tramp oil separators.

Eventually any machine shop or metalworking facility generates waste oil. In the late 1980s, EPA developed a regulatory framework for waste oils that didn’t meet the RCRA criteria for hazardous wastes (40 CFR 279), and which has been implemented by most states, in many cases along with the states’ identification of waste oil (variously defined) as a state-listed waste.

These regulations ultimately had two goals. The first was regulatory, in order to prevent the inappropriate disposal of hazardous wastes. The second reason was to provide for the beneficial reuse of oils that would otherwise have to be disposed.

Cutting fluids can also accumulate concentrations of RCRA metals (chromium, cadmium, lead, etc.) or chlorinated solvents such as perchloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), or 1,1,1-trichloroethane (TCA), which were historically widely used for degreasing and cleaning metal parts before and after working on them. The older generation of consultants and manufacturing veterans remember the ‘old days’ when jet engines or other machines were dipped whole into vats of solvents for degreasing, like deep-frying a Thanksgiving turkey, and “waste oil” was historically a sort of catch-all waste stream that could contain many other things, including solvents, PCBs from transformer and hydraulic oils, pesticides and caustics. The use of waste oil containing highly toxic dioxins for oiling dirt roads is what turned Times Beach, Missouri into a ghost town. The use of solvents like PCE, TCE and TCA  has decreased greatly over the last couple decades (down by about 90% since 1991, based on data provided by the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Program) but they are still used in reduced quantities and remain of concern.

Uncontaminated way oils are readily recyclable, useful for fuel blending or lube base production, and can typically be recycled as heating fuel in standard waste oil burners if no other option is economical. It’s therefore a good idea to keep spent hydraulic and way oils and tramp oils separate from cutting fluids.

Cutting fluids, by contrast, can pose a number of problems:

  • Although the percentage of oil in a cutting fluid is small, environmental regulations in many states require that the whole volume of the material be managed as a waste oil or hazardous waste, because of the RCRA “mixture rule” requirement that goes with being a listed waste. This can result in relatively small facilities generating enough oil/water mixtures to trigger Large Quantity Generator status, which comes with higher annual regulatory fees, planning and training requirements, etc.
  • On their own, dewatered non-petroleum cutting oils typically have little fuel value, limiting their reuse options, although they can be blended with other oils with higher fuel values to produce a marketable fuel product.
  • Breaking the emulsions and separating the oil from water is advantageous, but this can involve some fairly complicated chemical treatment, such as heating, acidification to a pH of roughly 2 and subsequent neutralization, or the addition of a salt or acetate. Even then the separated decant water will still likely contain some oil and may need to be evaporated, recycled into the process with new oil additives, or treated as an industrial wastewater.
  • Residual cutting fluids will also often cling to metal turnings, and well-managed shops will typically clean their turnings with a centrifuge, wringer, bath, or other means to remove most of these residues before shipping them for recycling.
  • Potentially most seriously, waste cutting fluids or their sludges can contain chemical impurities picked up during use, including metals and solvents. These contaminants can greatly increase the cost of managing the oil, ranging from “off-spec” costs for water, solids or halogens, to needing to manage the oil as a hazardous waste. Addressing these complications after they come up can cost time and money.

One common problem with waste oil is based in simple chemistry. Much of the waste oil generated by commerce and industry is reused for fuel, whether burned in the ubiquitous waste oil fired space heaters, or sent to a plant for batching, re-refining and resale. When oil containing chlorine-containing compounds is burned, the chlorinated compounds break down and the result is hydrochloric acid (HCL). This poses health hazards to workers and the public, and can also corrode and damage the oil-burning equipment. The more chlorine there is in the oil means the more acid there is in the off-gas.

EPA’s policy therefore centered on a “rebuttable presumption” that oils containing less than 1,000 parts per million (0.1%) total halogenated compounds were unlikely to have been mixed, intentionally or not, with a listed hazardous waste, while oil containing more than this threshold were considered to be hazardous unless shown not to be by further testing or generator knowledge. Most waste oil handlers will accept oil with high halogens, but will typically assess a surcharge on a sliding scale according to the halogen concentration.

Halogens are a family of chemicals including chlorine, fluorine, bromine and iodine, so called because they readily form salts (halides) with alkaline metals such as sodium (e.g. sodium chloride, calcium chloride, or potassium bromide). They also readily bond with hydrocarbons to form ‘organochlorine’ compounds, and many of the “better living through chemistry” era’s hazardous legacy products were based on organochlorine technology, whether old standbys such as DDT, perchloroethylene, pentachlorophenol, polychlorinated biphenyls, trichloroethylene, their lesser-known cousins such as Halowax or polybrominated fire retardants, or the increasingly notorious perfluorinated compounds such as the PFAS and PFOS families.

One of the problems with this approach, of course, is that oil technology has changed a great deal since the late 1980s, and in some respects the regulations and analytical methods haven’t kept pace. Many modern waste oils contain concentrations of chlorine greater than EPA’s 1,000 ppm threshold even though they aren’t contaminated with RCRA-listed solvents, or weren’t even generated at facilities where these old solvents are used at all (not even the old and sparingly-used-just-for-repair-emergencies bottle of old-formulation 3-in-1 oil (the kind loaded with trichloroethylene) that so many maintenance men kept in their toolboxes)!

Many modern synthetic or vegetable-based machine cutting oils, as used in machine shops, contain engineered chlorinated compounds in the form of biocides such as CMIT (to keep bacteria from degrading the oil) or as “EP” temperature and pressure additives (typically chlorinated paraffins, although there has been considerable regulatory whiplash over the now-aborted phase-out of shorter-chain hydrocarbons  in favor of less toxic long and very-long-chain paraffins). Let’s just emphasize that these compounds are NOT currently listed by EPA as hazardous wastes, and for the most part didn’t even exist in trade when EPA’s waste oil policy was developed in the late 1980s. It’s also worth noting that, as we discussed in a prior blog post, cutting oils that don’t contain petroleum and that aren’t otherwise a hazardous waste often do not need to be managed as a hazardous waste or state-listed waste oil.

The sticking point is that the common ‘total halogens’ analyses (SW-846 laboratory methods 9253, 9056, 9075, 9076 and the Method 9077 field test kits such as Chlor-N-Oil) report only a total concentration of all the chlorinated, brominated or fluorinated compounds in the sample, which doesn’t tell you if your oil was formulated with a non-regulated chloroparaffin or brominated ingredient, or if it somehow became contaminated with a regulated degreaser such as trichloroethylene or a nonregulated product like a chlorinated brake cleaner. “Failing” a total halogens screening test does not automatically mean your oil is a hazardous waste. Most environmental laboratories can run chemical tests for solvents or other regulated chlorinated compounds in waste oil, and this may be necessary, but the cost can be several hundred dollars per sample to cover EPA’s entire list of potentially regulated compounds.

The first step in a solution to this conundrum is, of course, plain old good recordkeeping. Safety Data Sheets, product formulation spec sheets, and other documentation that provide information on the chemical makeup of the parent product, any additives, and most particularly, what your facility doesn’t use (e.g. solvent products containing more than the 10% chlorinated hydrocarbons threshold in EPA’s listing descriptions for solvent wastes), go a long, long way towards demonstrated that the oil doesn’t contain a listed solvent, and reducing the effort and cost of testing, handling and disposing of these materials.


Some of the OTO crew participated in the Joseph Freedman Company’s seventh annual charitable Bowl-A-Thon on November 10, 2018. This is a fun annual benefit for Camphill Village, held at AMF Lanes in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
Bowling is a great sport for engineers, since it’s a community activity (that gets us away from our labs, offices and job sites), while still letting us try to solve problems (how to knock down more pins than our teammates) using our knowledge of natural science principles such as force, friction, inertia, gravity and centrifugal force.
Some of the things we learned this time around:

  1. Lighter balls are better because they don’t lose momentum and go off-course as quickly as heavier balls.
  2. Aim for the gap right after the lead pin in the triangle for best resultsrightpocket
  3. Centrifugal force (spin) matters but is much easier said than done.index
  4. Nice and easy does it.
  5. Don’t bowl better than the boss….unless you’re bowling for the boss.

What is an oil?


This might seem like a simple question, but there are many possible answers… and sometimes an oil is not always an oil.

Let’s begin with the dictionary definition (though this is always a bit venturesome when discussing environmental regulations). The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun ‘oil’ as:

  1. A viscous liquid derived from petroleum, especially for use as a fuel or lubricant

            1.1 Petroleum.

           1.2 [with modifier] Any of various thick, viscous, typically flammable liquids that are insoluble in water but soluble in organic solvents and are obtained from animals or plants.

                 ‘potatoes fried in vegetable oil’

            1.3 A liquid preparation used on the hair or skin as a cosmetic.

                 ‘suntan oil’

            1.4 [Chemistry] Any of a group of natural esters of glycerol and various fatty acids that are liquid at room temperature.

                  Compare with fat

  1. Oil paint.

           ‘a portrait in oils’

Even in the OED, then, ‘oil’ has multiple meanings, but we need not concern ourselves with suntan oils or oil paints (unless, arguably, someone has more than 1,320 gallons of above-ground suntan oil storage, but we will leave that question for Florida or perhaps the Jersey Shore).

Unfortunately that’s crude oil from the Exxon Valdez, not tanning oil.

Now let’s look at some of the regulatory definitions of oil that apply in Massachusetts. The narrowest definition is found in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and its state-level analogues such as 310 CMR 30.00:

Oil means petroleum in any form including crude oil, fuel oil, petroleum derived synthetic oil and refined oil products, including petroleum distillates such as mineral spirits and petroleum naphtha composed primarily of aliphatic hydrocarbons. It does not mean petrochemicals or animal or vegetable oils. (310 CMR 30.010)

The same regulations subsequently also define a handful of subcategories of oil, such as “unused waste oil,” “used waste oil” and “used oil fuel”, and the ‘mixture’ rule applies, but basically we have 1) petroleum only (and thereby excluding olive oil, fish oil, lard, and rapeseed “canola” oil), and 2) not petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are separately defined in the same section as “an individual organic chemical compound for which petroleum or natural gas is the ultimate raw material, except that aliphatic hydrocarbon compounds, which maintain, after use, closed cup flashpoints equal to or greater than 140o F (and which are not otherwise a characteristic or listed hazardous waste) are oils.” This would therefore apply to compounds such as white spirits, low-aromatic solvent naphtha, or high-flash mineral spirits, referring back to the aliphatic ‘petroleum distillates’ inclusion in the oil definition.

Although RCRA distinguishes between hazardous waste and waste oil, and has separate and less stringent provisions for waste oil, Massachusetts (like many states) classifies waste oil as a state-listed hazardous waste, and applies most of the same requirements to both categories. When it comes to waste management, materials meeting this definition should be listed on a Uniform Hazardous Waste Manifest as MA-01 waste oil, or if being managed as a regulated recyclable material, as MA-97 specification or MA-98 non-specification used oil fuels. Non-petroleum oils, such as spent machining coolant mixtures containing only, say, vegetable oils or lard, would not be regulated as waste oils under these regulations, but these distinctions must generally be made based on information provided by the products’ manufacturers and knowledge of the process generating the waste. This definition would, for example, exclude waste biodiesel oil, but only if it did not contain a petroleum admixture or contaminant (pure biodiesel fuel is rarely used as a transportation or heating fuel, and most commercial grades of biodiesel are sold as biodiesel/petroleum blends). Significantly, oils that don’t contain petroleum mixtures, such as a cutting fluid that is free of ‘tramp oil,’ do not need to be counted against a hazardous waste or waste oil generator’s generation or accumulation limits.

The definition in MGL c. 21E and the Massachusetts Contingency Plan is broader, as it includes non-petroleum and animal or vegetable oils, for example fryer oils and vegetable-based hydraulic oils or synthetic cutting oils, with the mixture rule applying in some circumstances per 310 CMR 40.0352:

Oil means insoluble or partially soluble oils of any kind or origin or in any form, including, without limitation, crude or fuel oils, lube oil or sludge, asphalt, insoluble or partially soluble derivatives of mineral, animal or vegetable oils and white oil. The term shall not include waste oil, and shall not include those substances which are included in 42 U.S.C. §9601(14). (310 CMR 40.006)

The MCP also has differing Reportable Quantities for petroleum and non-petroleum oils, respectively 10 gallons and 55 gallons.

The MCP in turn separately defines ‘waste oil’ as:

[U]sed and/or reprocessed, but not subsequently re-refined, oil that has served its original intended purpose. Waste oil includes, but is not limited to, used and/or reprocessed fuel oil, engine oil, gear oil, cutting oil, and transmission fluid and dielectric fluid. (310 CMR 40.006)

The 42 USC 9601(14) citation referenced above by the MCP refers to the CERCLA list of hazardous substances (in effect reiterating that a material may either be an oil or a CERCLA substance, but not both at once), and from which petroleum oils are granted certain often-litigated exemptions originally intended to cover crude oil, but which were subsequently extended by litigation to cover refined petroleum products that were not otherwise listed under CERCLA or categorically included through CERCLA’s references to RCRA (e.g. having a flashpoint less than 140oF or failing TCLP for benzene).

This distinction is important in the legal aspects of assessment and remedial matters in Massachusetts (meaning the windy, desolate parts where lawyers predominate rather than LSPs). While the MCP applies essentially the same regulatory framework and remedial requirements for both “oil” and “hazardous material” sites, section 5(a) of the 21E statute limits  liability for releases of oil falls only to current owners and operators and those who have “otherwise caused” such releases or threats of release, while liabilities for releases of hazardous materials are not so limited, and any prior owners and operators could potentially be dragged into the PRP box and dunned for cost recovery.

The definition of “oil’ used in the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 is the broadest, since it includes a broad spectrum of non-petroleum oils, and also the most vague:

Oil means oil of any kind or in any form [and thus including mixtures], including, but not limited to: fats, oils, or greases of animal, fish, or marine mammal origin; vegetable oils, including oils from seeds, nuts, fruits, or kernels; and, other oils and greases, including petroleum, fuel oil, sludge, synthetic oils, mineral oils, oil refuse, or oil mixed with wastes other than dredged spoil. (40 CFR §112.2)

This definition even includes milk and other dairy products, since it contains fats of animal origin. Since a large spill of liquid milk products  (or, for that matter, canola oil, coconut oil, or even tea tree oil if you amassed enough of it) can have a destructive effect on a river or lake easily on par with that from a similarly sized spill of fuel oil, e.g. by rapidly depleting the water’s dissolved oxygen content and thereby annihilating fish and other aquatic life in the spill area, this makes sense from a chemical and ecological perspective. In a rare spasm of regulatory praxis for farmers, however, these and other non-petroleum materials are exempted from certain requirements for containers but are still subject to requirements for contingency plans and notification of releases to water bodies. It also raises the tempting prospect of classifying deep-fat fryers as regulated “oil-filled operational equipment.”

The OPA definition is also sufficiently vague as to create confusion and some apparent contradictions, since it gives very little idea where ‘oil’ stops—if gasoline is considered an oil, what about solvent-grade toluene that is refined from oil? Under other statutes and regulations, toluene would be considered a non-oil petrochemical, but under the OPA it is arguably an oil. Or, consider an oil terminal where large quantities of oil are processed by adding dyes required by motor fuel tax regulations. The oils would be subject to SPCC and FRP requirements, but the status of the dyes themselves could be arguable.

Department of Transportation regulations (49 CFR §130.5) emulate the OPA definition but rather sensibly break it down into three separate components, for petroleum oils, non-petroleum oils, and animal or vegetable oils.

The first result of all these different definitions of a single three-letter word can be somewhat strange, semantically speaking. Hypothetically, a release of non-petroleum oil from an OPA-regulated facility (perhaps the vast strategic reserves of extra-virgin olive oil at Rachel Ray’s house) can be reported to MassDEP as a release of oil, but the recovered product and remediation waste doesn’t have to be identified as an oil on the manifest. A further hiccup is that some waste receiving facilities, such as asphalt batching plants accepting oily soil or oil product batchers and recyclers, are limited by their permits (and likely the material requirements of their end product) to petroleum products, and generally cannot accept materials contaminated by non-petroleum oils. A thermal desorption plant (where the oil is volatilized and combusted in an afterburner) would not necessarily be so limited.

The second result is, of course, that the environmental professional must remember which regulations apply when he uses the word, particul

arly if he primarily works on MCP projects and is occasionally called to assist in hazardous waste or OPA work.


“Volatile organic compounds or VOCs” are defined (310 CMR 40.0006) in the MCP.

Volatile Organic Compounds and VOCs each mean an organic compound with a boiling point equal to or less than 2180C that are targeted analytes in EPA Method 8260B and other purgeable organic methods specified in the Department’s Compendium of Analytical Methods.

 So, what are the “targeted analytes” under: 1) 8260B; and 2) CAM?

 8260B says: It is the intent of EPA that all target analytes for a particular analysis be included in the initial calibration and calibration verification standard(s). These target analytes may not include the entire list of analytes (Sec. 1.1) for which the method has been demonstrated.

Section 1.1 lists 108 individual compounds which would appear to be the universe of 8260B targets. Labs typically target a subset (37) of these, including the common aromatic and aliphatic VOCs, as well as the long list of chlorinated VOCs.

2) CAM – The current purgeable CAM methods are limited to VPH (volatile petroleum hydrocarbon). EPH (extractable petroleum hydrocarbons) is a CAM method, but is NOT a purgeable method. Therefore, EPH target analytes should fall outside the VOC definition (more on this later). Focusing on the VPH Method, “Target VPH Analytes” are narrowly defined in CAM as BTEX plus MTBE and naphthalene.

VPH hydrocarbon fractions are not target VPH analytes, and are therefore not VOCs?  A literal read of the VOC guidance could go further and conclude that only the BTEX plus compounds are VOCs, since they alone are targeted in both 8260 and VPH. Such a literal read is contrary to clear guidance in the Q&A (Question 7) and the Vapor Intrusion Guidance Document. These sources make absolutely clear that DEP considers VPH fractions to be VOCs.

So What? Definition flexibility can be stretched further as illustrated below.

A Not So Hypothetical Case

C9 to C18 aliphatics slightly exceeded GW-2 standards within 30 feet of a residence. The LSP recommended reporting within 72 hours under 310 CMF 40.0313(4)(2), because “volatile organic compounds” exceeded GW-2 Standards. Client requested a second opinion from me (LSP2). With about 8 hours left on the reporting clock. I looked at the definition, talked to another LSP in the office, looked at Guidance Q&A question 7 and the Vapor Intrusion Guidance Document, and felt confident it was not a 72 – hour condition. I based my opinion on:

  • EPH is not a CAM “purgeable CAM Method” and thus falls out of the definition. Further the only target PAH from EPH with a boiling point below 218oC is naphthalene, which was not detected above GW-2 standards.
  • DEP guidance on the question of hydrocarbon fractions being VOCs was specific only to VPH fractions, DEP did not extend the definition in its guidance to EPH fractions.

With two LSP contrary opinions, and the clock running down, Client asked LSP1 to call DEP with the hypothetical to hopefully resolve the conflicting LSP opinions.

A few hours later (and in time), LSP1 reported back that MassDEP considers a portion of the C9-C18 aliphatics to be a VOC with reporting applicability under 310 CMR 40.0313, with the definition applying due to the overlapping VPH Fraction (C9-C12 aliphatics).

Fortunately for my client, DEP concluded the hypothetical was not a 72 – hour condition because the concentrations were relatively low, the suspect source is fuel oil and the presumed age of the release, MassDEP acknowledged that lines of evidence in our hypothetical do not require the presumption that more than 5,000 ug/L of the C9-C18 aliphatics result is in the C9-C12 range, and therefore 72-hour reporting was not required at this time.

Bottom Line and finally getting back to my opening question:

  1. Q. What are Volatile Organic Compounds in Massachusetts?
  2. 8260B targets, VPH Fractions, and sometimes C9-C18 aliphatics depending on concentrations and source.




Mark O’Malley and Paul Tanner, PG, LEP

August 22 is National Honey Bee Day

This post is the first of two concerning insects.  Today’s subject concerns honeybees, the beloved non-native insects that were first brought to North America in colonial times.  About 20% of OTO staff have direct experience with honeybees;  one engineer worked with a commercial beekeeper in high school, two chemists kept bees earlier in life,  two geologists are current backyard beekeepers, and another keeps talking about starting beekeeping, and we know she will one day.  That 20% statistic seems high. Maybe is a coincidence; maybe it’s because we are a smallish company, or maybe it points to the professional earth sciences attracting certain kinds of flowery environmentally-minded people?

This picture is not Kevin O'Reilly circa 1968

Most honeybee media reports nowadays are alarming and negative.  Commercial beekeepers that offer traveling pollination services have experienced unprecedented die-off of honeybee stocks from a combination of stressors (pesticides, transportation stress, monoculture/food non-diversity, internal and external mites and disease).  The upside is that a shift in industrial agricultural practices has started; in fact some growers are opting to secure their crop pollination by having permanent hives and beekeepers on staff and planning for a greater diversity of pollen and nectar sources in hedgerows between monoculture fields.



In a similar vein, we all can adapt and do our part to help out honeybees by: 1) consciously considering bees in our landscaping plans; 2) exercising our purchasing power,  and; 3) perhaps trying to farm this popular social insect ourselves.

Mark and Paul, the two active OTO beekeepers, wish to offer a top ten list of pro-bee considerations for you to contemplate:

  1. Mark: Planting for Bees is Rewarding! See the attached list of honeybee –friendly plants.  Example: you might consider planting asters instead of ho-hum chrysanthemums this fall.  Asters are perennial, and are positively loaded with pollen and nectar in September and October, providing a great source of nectar and pollen for bees preparing for winter.  That said, bees are efficient at focusing on the richest nectar and pollen source available; honeybees forage as much as three miles from their home, and are happy to pass over your beautifully landscaped honeybee-friendly flowerbeds to reach those freshly blossomed white flowers on a thorny brush pile.  A plant that’s producing nectar one day, is devoid of bees three days later.  Another thing, bees really like trees.  The broad root systems of trees produce a strong nectar flow and loads of pollen.  Even trees that a common person might not associate with honeybees are valuable resources.  Red maples produce some of the first early spring buds targeted by bees.  The yellow pollen from pine trees that coats windshields –  bees love it!
  1. Paul: Beekeeping Teaches Energy Conservation: As any good manager knows, delegating tasks to informed, qualified, diligent staff leads to client satisfaction and makes the manager look good.  Honeybees come pre-trained with an established hierarchy, they instinctively know their particular jobs, and they are vivacious, loyal and industrious.  My job is to keep the queen happy, keep up with medicine and feeding, and give the colony ample room to grow. The actual setup, checkups and honey extraction are indeed backbreaking work and intensive for about four weekend days per year.  Much of beekeeping, however, is watching them do the work, with morning coffee in hand, and provides truly some of the best moments in my work week.    While I’m also a fan of planting for honeybees, on the flip-side;  keeping a wild spot, bramble patch or hedgerow on your property takes no effort, will sustain weedy blooms all season long-  helping bees and the environment and saving you effort, giving you more time in August for reading the great American novel or your coworker’s thousand-page book on coal tar sites.

2. Actual setup

  1. Mark: Support your Local Beekeeper: If you would rather not farm a social insect, your purchasing power can help support your local beekeeper. Beekeeping is increasingly popular and chances are, you can find local honey, beeswax-related soap, cosmetics, candles and even furniture polish at your local farmer’s market or neighborhood market.  All this helps your local beekeeper support their operation and keep healthy bee populations thriving.

3. Local beekeeper

  1. Paul: Get Invited to More Social Gatherings: Not that beekeeping types are that good looking or popular, but try bringing a jar of local honey to your next dinner party instead of a bottle of wine or tired bouquet of flowers.  Your social calendar may change for the better!

4. Local Honey

  1. Mark: A Lesson in Foundation Engineering: This spring, with the aid of a bubble level these two hives were set-up perfectly (see photo).  The hive on the left is on a foundation of cinder blocks, with cement pavers which help spreads the load.  The hive to the right is just on cinder blocks with a slightly smaller footprint.  Over time, the hives grew taller from one box to five.  By early July the hives neared 300 pounds each.  The hive on the left with the spread concrete base has remained level.  The soil beneath the “Leaning Hive of Hampden” to the right, dried out and compressed under the hive’s weight.   Note to self, when expanding operations in 2019, seek advice from a Geotechnical Engineer.   

5. Set up perfectly 6. Leaning Hive of Hampden

  1. Paul: Intensive Focus: When I am working my bees, the sights, sounds and smells are so powerful… like all good art or creative practice, moments of time seem to slow down while paradoxically an hour can pass by in a minute.  When working an open beehive, it is not possible to think about anything else – each breath, each movement has true significance.  In an open hive, there’s the intoxicating smell of fresh wax, nectar, pollen, honey and smoke –  and the added bonus of immediate gratification – sucking on a piece of warm honey-filled comb, fresh from the hive. Then there’s the waggle dance, the queen’s distinctive shape, the baby bee emerging from a nursery cell, the selfless kamikaze attack from angry bees falling on thick leather gloves, mesh and protective clothing – protective clothing that is guaranteed 99% effective!

7. Protective clothing

  1. Mark: Beekeeping can Actually Socialize Scientist-Types: Hanging out with a social insect actually rubs off on the introvert.   Beginning beekeepers have a steep learning curve – each year the Worcester County Massachusetts Beekeepers Association puts on an 8-week course for new beekeepers in late winter/early spring.  The classes are typically one night a week for two hours.  Bee school will present you will information for selecting the Site of your first hive (or two). A Location with morning sun,  a clear flight path and space to work around the hive is key.  Over 400 people attend!  Amateur and expert beekeepers, state apiary inspectors, college professors, and even folks that have performed studies with honeybees for NASA and NOAA give presentations and instructions for those just starting out.  It’s a great place to network.

8 Location with morning sun

  1. Paul: Beehives Can be Unobtrusive:  This year I attended a 4th of July block party.  There were bands, there was dancing, it was hot, humid, sweaty and there were many open containers of sugary and malty beverages.  The neighbor’s two beehives were located behind a hedge, about 75 feet from the revelry.  There were no honeybees in sight, they are much too busy performing work;  gathering nectar and pollen or by the brook, gathering water to cool off the hive.  While my hives are in the woods (photo above), I’m intrigued by rooftop hives in urban centers, particularly in NYC. Of course you would want to check your local ordinances before you consider placing a hive at your home.

urban beekeeping

  1. Mark: Beekeeping Increases Your Awareness:  In the springtime, if the driver in front of you slows as they pass an orchard or field of dandelions, you know you’re behind a beekeeper.   I never thought a hobby dealing with insects would lead me to spend so much time looking at plants, which inevitably leads to greater awareness in general.  The variations in rainfall, sunlight and plant cover impart large changes in honey yield and subtle changes in the taste of honey from year to year.   To a beekeeper, evaluating weather patterns and blooming plants can be like gazing into a crystal ball, and it’s fun to guess how the future will taste.
  1. Paul: The Health Effects of Honey: Huh?  If  you think honey will help your allergies, sure I’ll sell you a jar! I’m a skeptic – Honey, being a simple sugar, is readily converted to energy in the human digestive system.  I don’t personally believe that pollen in the honey actually survives in the human gut to the extent that it helps with immunity to allergens.  What’s more, I don’t think my borderline excessive personal consumption of honey is particularly healthy….. but come to think of it… at least I don’t have allergies!

9. PCB Honey. Label created by Tom Speight


Please join us to commemorate National Honeybee Day on August 22.  Each of us can do our part.  We can plant bee-friendly landscapes and gardens, we can use our purchasing power to buy locally produced honey and related products and we can consider looking into beekeeping.

Put some Honey on it!

The second post in this series will concern native bees, an often overlooked class of mostly solitary insects that compete with imported honeybees, and offer important pollination services to most native plants, forest ecosystems and agriculture.   Did you know most native bees don’t sting?

Until then, Bee Well,

Mark and Paul.

I recently had the great pleasure of attending the Society for Industrial Archaeology’s annual conference, held in Richmond, Virginia. The SIA is an interdisciplinary professional organization dedicated to the understanding and preservation of industrial history and artifacts.

While there, I gave a presentation about my recent research topic, the historic manufactured gas industry of Massachusetts, and its environmental legacy. The other conference presentations covered a very wide variety of topics, ranging from the restoration of a historic pumphouse and dancehall in Richmond, to mapping pre-Civil War copper mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (where masses of nearly-pure ‘native copper’ weighing hundreds of tons could be found in rock fissures), to how exactly do you preserve and restore a Cold War era CIA spyplane to use as a monument, when some of the materials used in the plane’s construction remain top secret?

Tom Tar Wars
Just a little environmental consultant humor….

The SIA is a pleasantly diverse organization; I shared a seminar panel with Frederic Quivik, a professor of industrial history who frequently serves as an expert witness in environmental litigation. He spoke on legacy issues associated with contaminated mine tailings used as railroad ballast in Idaho Also on the panel was Simon Litten, a retired forensic chemist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, who spoke about the origins and industrial uses of PCBs and some of their lesser-known cousins, such as polychlorinated naphthalenes (e.g. the old Halowax products).

The conference also included a number of fascinating tours, including: visits to Fort Monroe, the Newport News waterfront (including a view of the now-decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), the archaeological center at Jamestown, and the Virginia Mariners Museum, where parts of the warship USS Monitor of Civil War “Monitor and the Merrimack” fame are being painstakingly restored through a fascinating chemical electrolysis process.

Just a note—alliteration aside, only Yankees still call the Confederate ironclad the Merrimac, even if we usually forget the ‘k’. South of the Mason Dixon line, she is always and forever the CSS Virginia.

2018-06-01 10.14.25
An interior view of one of the gun batteries at Fort Monroe


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An excavation showing part of the footings under an interior wall at Fort Monroe, where specially-made triangular bricks were used to tie two relieving arches together underground.


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The former USS Enterprise, now being dismantled. This photo was taken from over half a mile away, which is about as close as one can get and still fit all of the ship in a photo.


The former Richmond gas works, with one of the few remaining late-period gasholders in the US.


2018-06-01 15.31.30

For me, one of the highlights of these visits involved one of the humblest objects, a four-foot length of wrought iron chain that had been lost down a water well at Jamestown circa 1608, and which through one of those flukes of chemistry and history, landed in a stratum of anaerobic soil, where the lack of oxygen preserved the chain essentially unchanged until it was recovered in the early 21st century. There really is nothing like being able to hold a genuine 410+year old artifact in your hands.

If you are interested in topics such as industrial history and the history of science or technology, consider joining the SIA.