In his laboratory, Ian Kaplan stands before a maze of high-vacuum glass tubing, adjusting various valves and traps attuned to capture oil compounds. Nearby, his technicians in clean white coats tend vats of liquid nitrogen and take measurements from yard-high manometers.
This team of environmental detectives is sorting out which type of jet fuel has leaked from an underground storage site at a military base. Their findings could spell the difference of $100 million or more in cleanup costs that either the federal government or a commercial airline may be liable to pay.
The analysis is performed by Global Geochemistry in Canoga Park, a firm Kaplan started 16 years ago and which specializes in forensic geochemistry, or the study of oil to determine its age and origin.
Kaplan, a UCLA professor emeritus of geology and geochemistry, has a staff of 25 at Global Geochemistry and does about $2.2 million in revenue a year. The company checks everything from underwater oil spills to acid rain, leaky underground gasoline tanks and soil contamination, and Kaplan’s clients range from environmental agencies and law firms to commercial property owners, utilities and oil companies.
The competition among firms that perform such environmental testing is fierce. Since the California State Department of Health Services consolidated testing agencies in 1989, about 200 agencies a year have been certified through its environmental laboratory accreditation program. There are now about 800 California firms that perform work similar to Global’s, as well as 80 out-of-state firms certified to test in California.
Global, however, has carved a niche through an ability to perform exhaustive fingerprinting of hydrocarbons, the major element found in petroleum products. And the laboratory is one of a handful of U.S. firms that can use atoms as tracer markers to determine, for example, if methane gas originates from a compost pile or from a broken pipe line. Called stable isotope analysis, this procedure is in increasing demand by environmental agencies.
“Companies that use us typically need to know what type of pollutant they’re dealing with, how long it’s been in the environment and whether there are multiple sources for the contamination,” said Kaplan. “These cases involve cleanup costs of several million, or even hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s easy to see why the analysis we do can be so crucial.”
Global is usually employed by a law firm or an environmental remediation firm, such as Pasadena-based Tetra Tech, that assesses the extent of contamination in cases involving several parties.
Larger companies, including Texaco, Occidental Petroleum, Hughes Aircraft, Westinghouse Electric and Chevron Oil, have sought out Global either directly or through contractors.
About 30% of his business involves companies that require analysis of oil from potential drilling sites in Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, South America, Nigeria and the Middle East.
Government agencies and research institutes that require environmental or medical analyses, including study of acid rain and atmospheric pollutants, make up the rest of Global’s business.
Global Geochemistry’s initial contracts, however, were for oil corporations that sought new exploration sites for fossil fuels. Recognizing the oil companies’ demand for such information, Kaplan took $15,000 of his own savings in 1975 and linked up with an existing Duarte-based firm, and a few ex-students from his UCLA classes. The oil boom was on, and with contracts multiplying, Kaplan bought out his partners in 1977.
By 1985, his total annual contracts topped $2.5 million, but a slide in U.S. oil production saw Global’s revenue drop to $1.6 million.
However, in 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency began targeting leaky underground storage tanks found at gas stations and bulk distribution areas, such as truck companies.
“Virtually every underground storage tank leaks, so there’s been more work for testing firms since then,” said Richard Spinner, a public health chemist with the Berkeley-based laboratory accreditation program.
Since Global began targeting companies that require environmental testing, Kaplan’s business has picked up again.
“Global Geochemistry has a very innovative approach to measuring elements in the environment,” said John Holmes, director of research for the California Air Resources Board, which hired Global in the 1980s to analyze atmospheric organic compounds in the Los Angeles Basin. “They’re on the frontier of atmospheric measurements.”
Such expertise is in increasing demand because of “a rising number of federal, state and local environmental statutes,” said Peter Niemiec, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in environmental law. “There may be multiple sources of contamination on one property because of commercial ventures that date back decades. Parties want to shift the cost of cleanup around. With good scientific data, you can target who’s responsible.”
Kaplan said Global’s current contract with Pacific Gas and Electric involves a complex analysis at several California sites to determine whether petroleum contaminants were left behind by manufactured gas plants that operated before the 1920s or by subsequent underground fuel storage tanks of P G & E. Lawyers are sometimes able to pin cleanup costs on insurance companies that represented firms responsible for spilling pollutants decades ago.
Lawyers say Kaplan’s extensive background translates into credibility in complex cases.
“So far his data has been good enough that we haven’t had to go to trial,” said attorney Niemiec, who has retained Kaplan three times.
One liability case Global helped sort out involved British Petroleum’s February, 1990, tanker spill of 400,000 gallons of Alaskan crude oil into the Pacific Ocean off Huntington Beach. Global’s analysis of tar balls found near the beach showed that most of the oil did not come from the tanker spill but originated underwater from the Santa Barbara Channel area where nature spews out about 70 barrels of crude oil each day.
Kaplan’s current government contracts include studies of inorganic pollutants at the Rocky Mountain National Arsenal, a large nuclear storage site. The firm is also analyzing pollution in North American and Siberian lakes for the Bureau of Land Management and is examining atmospheric contaminants for a National Park Service study.
Kaplan, a native of New Zealand, came to the U.S. in 1957 and was graduated from USC’s doctoral programs in bacteriology and marine geology in 1961. In January he retired after 28 years as professor at UCLA, where he studied continental drift and analyzed the chemistry of lunar rocks in the early 1970s. He also consulted for NASA’s Viking Project, which built probes that searched for life on Mars in 1976.
Because of the wide-ranging and sometimes curious cases Kaplan has taken on, Holmes, director of the California Air Resources Board, calls Kaplan a “combination of an absent-minded professor and a hardheaded businessman.”
“My mind is really built to try to understand nature,” said Kaplan, seated in front of a mammoth map of the ocean floor in his office. “I think my research reflects that. Nature is not compartmentalized--it overlaps and interacts with itself. In whatever way I can, I’ve always tried to figure out how and why it does that.”