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Software Gives Scientists 3-D View of Pollutants : Toxic waste: State-of-the-art computer technology allows company engineers to re-create site and find possible solutions before calling out the bulldozers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the press of a button, the large computer terminal’s dark screen flickered to life with a three-dimensional image of a rural town nestled among hills. A kaleidoscope of colors streamed from beneath a computer-generated building like ostrich plumes from a gaudy hat.

The colorful plumes represented deadly chemicals buried deep underground.

“This model helps us understand the insult we have done on the environment,” said Charles C. Little, senior project director for the environmental services division of Fluor Daniel, the main subsidiary of Irvine-based Fluor Corp.

With a few more strokes of the computer keyboard, environmental engineers can call up a plan for cleaning the polluted site, one of several actual projects in which Fluor is using a new computer system that it calls EnviroCAD.

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As the engineering and construction giant tries to capture a larger share of the lucrative environmental cleanup industry, it is wedding state-of-the-art computer technology to proven methods that it has used for years.

“This is a very useful tool,” Little said about the computer system, which includes specially designed software and a computer-aided design workstation. “It really helps us come up with a solution.”

Fluor and some other large companies in the environmental services business are using 3-D modeling and other high-tech techniques to gain an edge in the already highly competitive field. In Fluor’s case, engineers use their EnviroCAD system as a new application to decades-old procedures used in the company’s mining division.

Fluor, for instance, has long used core sampling to map out underground veins of mineral ore, Little said. And the excavation methods used in mining can easily be converted to environmental cleanup work.

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“In our case, we come to this (industry) with a totally different approach,” Little said. “Only now, we’re no longer looking for gold. We’re looking for contaminants such as chromiums and jet fuel or any other poison. We can do a better job because we have all the resources and know-how.”

Until recently, determining the extent and the source of pollution at a site has been an inexact process--more guesswork than science, Little said.

But with a three-dimensional model, engineers save thousands of dollars from their ability to study the site and pinpoint the cause before moving in with the bulldozers, he said. A process that used to take up to several years now takes months.

“We can even tell you how long it will take and how to solve the problem,” Little said.

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Fluor is discovering that there is plenty of room in the environmental field.

“It’s by far the fastest-growing business; it’s better than computers (were in the ‘80s),” said Thomas Merrick, marketing vice president. Sales for Fluor’s new division jumped 30% last year and might have grown 50% if not for the recession, he estimated.

To cope with its growing workload, Fluor has doubled to 200 its staff of environmental engineers, toxicologists, hydrologists and other environmental specialists, and will hire another 200 people next year, company officials said.

Little said the industry will continue to change as environmental laws become stricter and public pressure for faster and more efficient cleanups of polluted sites grows.

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“We’re looking at the evolution of the industry,” Little said. “We’re moving into a whole new phase.”

Tracing the Flow of Underground Toxins

Fluor’s 2-year-old environmental services division has developed its own computer software system to help environmental engineers more accurately pinpoint underground contamination. The EnviroCAD system creates three-dimensional models, showing the location and the extent of toxic chemicals. The model serves as a road map for engineers who are assigned to excavate the pollution.

1. Scientists and engineers bore into the ground to collect samples of dirt in an area suspected of being contaminated.

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2. The core samples are taken to laboratories for analysis. Contamination in the dirt are identified and catalogued by type and depth in the ground.

3. A technician takes the raw data from the core samples and enters the data bit by bit into the EnviroCAD system. The data is transformed into a three-dimensional model, with each contaminant displayed in a separate color. The model is then analyzed to help engineers locate the extent and the sources of the contamination and to create a clean up plan.

4. Using decades-old mining techniques, the workers excavate the contaminants, knowing beforehand the exact location where to dig by using the three-dimensional model as a guide.


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