With contributions from Chip Morris, Community Relations Specialist, TCEQ Water Quality Planning
Microbiologist Jahangir Alam performs an E. coli analysis.
TCEQ photo by Hope Souders.
The exterior of the TCEQ laboratory is deceiving. It’s a nondescript 20-something-year-old building just off the outer beltway in East Houston, closer to Channelview than anywhere else. The 23,000-square-foot facility, housing room after room of laboratory equipment, seems much larger from the inside.
TCEQ Scientists Hard at Work
Almost two dozen TCEQ scientists are busy analyzing samples of water, wastewater, soils, sediments, and sludge. These folks are the backbone of many TCEQ programs. For Surface Water Quality Monitoring (SWQM), Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), and many other programs, the laboratory’s work is essential. In addition, the lab has a state-of-the-art metals-testing area.
Assistant laboratory manager Shirley Best, a chemist who has been with the lab since 1980, estimates that the laboratory processes over 6,000 samples a year.
“Each sample can include as many as 14 different analytical parameters,” she says. “For example, a SWQM sample may need to be tested for total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN), ammonia, total phosphorus, total dissolved solids, total suspended solids, volatile suspended solids, nitrates, nitrites, fluoride, chlorophyll, E. coli, alkalinity, and more. Each one of these tests is run separately.”
Testing that many samples, as well as keeping track of such a large amount of information from the time it enters the door until a final report is generated, is no small task. But the laboratory has this process down to a science.
It All Starts in the Field
Samples are collected by TCEQ employees in the regional offices. Karen Smith, investigator and water quality work leader in the Dallas–Fort Worth regional office, is one of six investigators who collect samples from wastewater treatment plants in 19 counties across the region.
“Once we collect the samples,” says Smith, “we package them carefully in ice to keep them stable and we ship them overnight to the lab.”
“It is a privilege to be able to walk out of my office into a chemistry laboratory full of scientists in white lab coats doing really neat stuff. It’s something most office workers just don’t see every day and it makes the job more fun.”
– Andy Goodridge, TCEQ Laboratory Manager
“We include what type of tests we want conducted on a chain-of-custody form, along with the date and time the sample was collected,” she adds.
A sample collected in the field may also require a chemical additive as a means of preservation.
“Some samples require the field investigator to add sulfuric, hydrochloric, or nitric acid to keep it from degrading,” says Best. “And a sample containing an acid would require a base such as sodium hydroxide or ammonium hydroxide to neutralize it [prior to analysis].”
Once the lab receives the sample, it is checked in by a sample custodian to ensure that it was preserved correctly. The information is logged into the laboratory information management system and the testing begins.
When the analysis is completed and the results are double-checked and validated, a report is generated and sent back to the investigator.
Investigators then compare the results in the report with a facility’s permit limits to see if it’s in compliance with its permit. If the levels are above the levels allowed by the permit, the facility is cited with a violation.
“The lab is performing an extremely important service,” says Smith. “Without the lab, we wouldn’t be able to determine if a facility is discharging wastewater that has been treated adequately to comply with the limits in its discharge permits.”
New Manager at the Helm
Andy Goodridge, who came to the agency in 2000, took over the reins as manager of the laboratory in early 2009.
“It is a privilege to be able to walk out of my office into a chemistry laboratory full of scientists in white lab coats doing really neat stuff,” he says. “It’s something most office workers just don’t see every day and it makes the job more fun.”
Goodridge has a degree in chemistry from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
Lab Provides Service to the EPA
The laboratory is not only indispensible to TCEQ programs, but also performs vital tests for the EPA.
Chemist Susan Johnson prepares an oil and grease sample.
TCEQ photo by Hope Souders.
“Over 20 years ago, the TCEQ and the EPA shared lab space in the same building,” says David Stockton of the EPA’s Region 6 laboratory in Houston. “When we had work that we couldn’t do in our lab, such as wastewater treatment plant samples, the TCEQ would do it and give us the report.”
Stockton says that most of the EPA work provided today by the TCEQ lab is for superfund sites throughout EPA Region 6. In exchange, the EPA purchases equipment for the TCEQ lab.
“Each year, we set aside funds for them in our capital equipment budget,” says Stockton. “Much of the equipment is paid by the superfund and is covered under a revocable license agreement. We buy it. They use it. When the equipment is worn out, it comes back to us and we recycle it or dispose of it.”
“They do a lot of work for us,” he says, “and the quality of their work is superb.”
Planning for the Future
Shirley Best estimates that about 80 percent of the samples processed by the lab are from the TCEQ surface water quality monitoring team. So it seems a natural fit that when the Office of Water was created in late 2009, the laboratory became part of this new TCEQ unit.
Goodridge feels that the organizational change has helped to more effectively integrate the lab into agency operations, helping staff plan for the future.
“I believe the creation of the Office of Water is a sign of the agency’s maturity,” he says, “as well as responsiveness to internal business needs and to the needs of present and future generations of Texans.”
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