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Drilling for Liquid Gold. Water, That Is.

A tornado crisis at Tuscaloosa’s largest hospital led Tuscaloosa-based geo-specialist PELA to do what it’s been doing all around the world, beginning over 50 years ago — drilling deep for water solutions.

PELA’s Mike Lee helped Druid City make money-saving financial decisions for its new water supply.

PELA’s Mike Lee helped Druid City make money-saving financial decisions for its new water supply.

Photos by Matthew Wood

Tragedy struck suddenly from the sky in Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011, when an EF-4 tornado ripped through the town with historically deadly force. Moments later, a potential second disaster began brewing from below, as the area’s primary medical facility – Druid City Hospital – lost access to the city’s water supply.

So at the same moment when hundreds of tornado victims were streaming into the hospital needing immediate medical attention, DCH workers found themselves without one of medicine’s most basic infection-fighting tools — clean water. While emergency power generators kept the electricity on throughout the night, the dry pipes meant hospital workers had to rely on bottled water and medical alcohol to sanitize their hands and equipment. Toilets could not be flushed. Air conditioning units no longer produced cool air. Hospital spokesman Brad Fisher said at the time that the scene was “pandemonium.”

The hospital managed to overcome those obstacles until water service could be restored, but DCH officials were determined never again to be put in that situation. So they retained Tuscaloosa-based PELA GeoEnvironmental to examine ways the hospital could develop its own emergency water supply. DCH wound up with much more than that, as PELA was able to tap into an existing well on the hospital’s property and create an on-site source that will significantly reduce the amount of water DCH needs from the city on a daily basis.

Making sure the local hospital always has water was a satisfying project for James LaMoreaux, who often tend to water issues far around the world. 

DCH uses approximately 6 million gallons of water each month (73 million gallons per year). By relying more heavily on its own water source, the hospital expects to reduce its water usage by a third, resulting in a savings of nearly $16,000 per month and approximately $190,000 per year. That means the $548,000 project — which is scheduled to be operational in March — will pay for itself in less than three years.

“They originally just wanted it for emergencies, so they could keep operating without city water for up to 96 hours,” PELA President and Chief Financial Officer Mike Lee says. “But as we moved through the project and they saw the savings, they changed the focus.”

PELA has been providing environmental consulting and engineering services for more than 50 years, since Phillip LaMoreaux founded P.E. LaMoreaux and Associates in 1961. LaMoreaux worked as a geologist and hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1943-1961, and then served as Alabama state geologist and Oil and Gas Board supervisor from 1961-1976.

“The initial basis for our company was water-resources development,” says PELA Board Chairman James LaMoreaux, son of the company’s founder. “We developed water supplies in different parts of the world, and that continues to be a key aspect of our work. But over time, we diversified into many different areas, such as sinkhole terrains. Our work is comprised of about 25 percent legal services, 40 percent working on underground storage tanks — such as service stations with gasoline — and 35 percent industrial projects, water management and supply.”

A reliable water supply was what DCH desperately needed, and the hospital benefited from the fact that it already has a 280-foot well on the grounds that has been used since the 1970s for irrigation. But tapping into that source in order to water the grass is one thing. Using it to provide all the necessary services needed for a 583-bed hospital to function smoothly, especially during the high volume of an emergency situation, requires much more than a few buckets and hoses.

PELA and Tempest Environmental Services, out of Raleigh, N.C., worked together to conduct a chemical and biological analysis of the area and to determine the capacity of the well, which connects to a natural underground water source. The hospital did not have any written information about the well, so PELA had to insert a camera deep into it to examine the water-bearing zones. That was followed by a 96-hour capacity test to see how much water could be pumped from the well.

It was discovered that the well could produce up to 400 gallons of potable (drinkable) water per minute for four consecutive days and could constantly generate 100 to 150 gallons of non-potable water per minute without running dry. This meant that the well not only was capable of providing the hospital with plenty of water during emergency situations, but it also could be used 24 hours a day on a smaller scale, enabling the hospital to cut back on the amount of city-supplied water it must purchase.

Bashir Memon

“It’s like an electrical generator. Within seconds, you are your own source of water,” says PELA Executive Vice President Bashir Memon, who headed up the well examination. “When your need increases, you can throw a valve and supplement the well water with water from the city.”

Additional tests were conducted to determine the water quality and to make sure there was no contamination from a nearby source, such as an underground gasoline storage facility. Once it was determined that the water could provide both the quantity and quality needed for the hospital, a miniature water treatment plant was constructed near the hospital’s steamers and chillers, which are used to heat and cool the building. The treatment system has the capability of recycling some of the non-potable water, further reducing the hospital’s usage and costs.

While saving money is important for DCH, the primary goal was to establish a reliable backup system in case another emergency like the 2011 tornadoes ever strikes again. That also is a concern nationally, as hospitals and other facilities confront the possibilities of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, or man-made disasters, such as the Japan nuclear power-plant meltdown, as well as the basic problems associated with an aging water-supply infrastructure.

“People are really starting to realize the importance of having their own backup water supply,” LaMoreaux says. “This is something that never would have been thought much about a few years ago. But a backup water supply is a very critical need, especially for hospitals.

“All of us in Tuscaloosa were impacted by the tornado, so this is a project that really hits home. We have a very conscientious group of folks working here. It’s a very good feeling to be able to help out in that type of situation. We feel like we’re at the forefront of what’s going on in developing emergency water supplies. This is one of the most exciting and important fields to be working in today, and we feel like we can make a real difference by doing things like this.”

Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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