Alligators, Gypsum Roses and Spare Tires─A Geologist’s Day in the Field
January 31, 2019
By Jacob Geesin
Staff Biologist, Environmental Division
This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.
During my first few months of environmental consulting, I was fortunate to have many unique experiences. I began my career as the only field staffer in an office of four project managers. To say I was constantly involved in an administrative tug-of-war was an understatement, but it gave me an opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects all over Texas.
My favorite project involved remediation of injection wells and installation of depressurization wells in a lignite mine. I remember receiving a call from my friend and coworker, Chris, asking if I was available to join him for three to four weeks in a coal mine.
My first thought was, “There’s a coal mine in Texas?” I thought Texas was the bountiful land of oil and gas and that coal was reserved for exotic places like Wyoming. I then began to panic imagining that I would be spending the next month in some sort of dimly lit cave that would be prone to collapsing in or explosions (you know, like you see in the movies). Nevertheless, I accepted the job, met Chris in Christine, Texas, and began my health and safety training followed by a tour of the mine.
My expectations of the mine were shattered when we arrived. I expected to see soot-covered workers with headlamps walking in and out of tunnels. Instead I saw long dirt roads dominated by vehicles that stood 30 feet higher than my pickup truck. The most interesting parts were the reclamation sites: areas that had already been mined for coal then reclaimed with the overburden soil and vegetation to let nature take its course.
Speaking of nature, I am a city boy from Austin, so I had never seen wild hogs, coyotes, turkeys or roadrunners anywhere outside of a museum or zoo. I heard rumors of alligators living in the ponds on the site, but I didn’t believe any of them until I came face-to-face with one.
To reach the wells, we had to drive off-road through equipment and game trails. We arrived at Injection Well 6, ran over something sharp, and quickly lost one of our tires. Fortunately, our truck was equipped with a spare, so we changed the tire and pulled the truck off into the shade to check out the well.
Chris then took me up the hill behind the well, reached into the dirt, and pulled out an almost perfectly formed gypsum rose. The young geologist and rock hound in me was ecstatic. We spent the next half-hour collecting gypsum roses and large gypsum crystals in a 5-gallon bucket.
During our return to the truck, I heard a loud hiss that immediately made all my hair stand on end. I spent a year and a half as an intern (aka field grunt) in the oil fields and I learned that when you hear a hiss, you book it in the other direction. As we approached the truck, the hiss was louder than anything I had heard in the oil fields. We backed up slowly and I bent over to see a 4-foot-long alligator staring back at me. Neither of us had been in a situation like this before, and we didn’t have phone service to access the endless encyclopedia of the internet, so we let instinct take over and started yelling and throwing rocks at the gator to force it to leave. After about 20 minutes, the gator reluctantly, and with lots of hissing, crawled back into its nearby pond.
Unfortunately, our eventful day wasn’t over. Exhausted from the drive down, training and an adrenaline-filled screaming match with an angry alligator, we left the mine. On our way out, we drove over a large piece of chert and popped another tire. With our spare tire already on the truck, we were out of options.
The day shift workers for the mine had left about an hour earlier, and the lighter night crew was nowhere to be found. Chris’s phone had died, and my phone had little to no service. We were stuck in the mine without a vehicle, phone service, or a way to get out. Chris remembered that he was Facebook friends with the geotechnical logger, Richard, so he took my phone and stood on top of the truck to get just enough service to access Facebook. Chris then logged into his account and called Richard repeatedly through the app until he answered and agreed to drive the 40 minutes to the mine to rescue us.
When Richard arrived, we realized space was limited in his equipment-laden truck. We came to the only sensible solution: that I would sit on Chris’s lap for the duration of the ride home. I took a selfie in the car and have had that picture on my refrigerator ever since.
I find it ironic that one of my longest and toughest field days produced some of the fondest memories of my career. I now go into every field job— no matter how difficult it sounds on paper—with optimism and excitement because who knows what memories, experiences and friends I will make.
About the Author:
Jacob is a Geologist and Environmental Specialist and a Certified Erosion, Sediment, and Storm Water Inspector (CESSWI). He has experience in performing Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) for a variety of clients and is a skilled field representative with experience collecting soil samples and installing monitoring wells and piezometers with a variety of drilling techniques. He has experience working on state Superfund and Voluntary Cleanup Program (VCP) sites. He also has experience in the renewal of existing TPDES permits. Questions for Jacob? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org