The greater Chicago metroplitan area and Great Lakes region are tremendous breeding grounds for soil and ground water investigations, which is where Mid-America thrives.

Just outside of metro Chicago, Mid-America works at a rock quarry doing mineral exploration.
Mid-America Drilling Services Inc., or "MAD Drilling" as its clients affectionately refer to the Elburn, Ill.-based company, focuses about 90 percent of its business in the environmental market. The greater Chicago metropolitan area and Great Lakes region are tremendous breeding grounds for soil and ground water investigations, which is where Mid-America thrives. The State of Illinois alone provides a myriad of opportunities to work at the following: landfills, chemical plants, factories, gas stations, family-owned dry cleaners and various other sites.

An employee uses the Geoprobe Hand Cart at a dry cleaners.

Premium and Unleaded Work

Gone are the heydays of the 1980s and 1990s where huge Superfund and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act facility investigations were fueled with a seemingly unending pool of federal dollars and regulations. Also simmered down is the full-court press on LUST investigations - that is Leaking Underground Storage Tank investigations for those of you choking on your coffee!

December 1998 was the federal deadline for underground storage tank (UST) owners to upgrade their UST systems. All of the major petroleum companies were able to comply, but many family-owned gas stations did not survive the costly upgrades and had to close their doors. In a twisted sort of way, this scenario has been fortuitous for environmental consulting firms and drillers. Hundreds of gas stations and thousands of tanks have left their mark underground, which still leads to an appreciable amount of work for Mid-America.

On a typical weekday in the summer of 2002, Mid-America had eight to 10 crews out in the field - most likely a combination of five to six drilling jobs and four to five direct-push jobs. Two-man crews usually handle the drill rigs and one operator, or "Prober," runs the direct-push jobs. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to have half of the field jobs at various active or former gas stations alone.

Craig Allen, client services representative for Mid-America, handles much of the daily scheduling for the company. When asked what a normal gas station drilling job looks like, Allen provides this narrative: "The drill crew arrives at the shop around 6:15 a.m., clocks in and leaves for the jobsite in the drill rig and box truck. One-and-a-half- to two-hour morning travel time to the jobsite is normal. Once at the jobsite, the crew first looks over the work area for access of equipment and for the presence of the proper utility markings. If the marks aren't there, then we won't work. As of July 1, the law in Illinois changed, putting 100 percent of the liability on the driller or excavator for any damages to buried utilities if proper procedures are not followed."

Proper procedures dictate that the drilling company contact Illinois' one-call utility locating service dubbed JULIE, the Joint-Utility Locating Information for Excavators.

"Prior to July 1, our clients could call JULIE and give them all the information about the job directly," says Kyle Arney, client services manager for Mid-America. " Because of some problems, mostly with homeowners, the law changed and has put an additional administrative strain on us. We now have to be more involved in a project management roll instead of just showing up ready to drill. All of our field employees recently have been given training in how the law change impacts our business and what role they play. Fortunately for us, we have been doing utility locates regularly since we started in 1998, so we have been able to hit the ground running. Our clients can call us and give us the project details on the phone, send us a fax or provide the information to us at our Web site ( via our utility locate page."

A Mid-America employee works in an alley 1/2 block down from a gas station.
Once the presence of proper utility markings has been verified, safety gear donned and the boring locations identified, work commences at the gas station. Normally, 85 feet to 100 feet of hollow stem auger drilling and 2-inch PVC monitoring well installation can be done on site in one day.

When direct-push equipment is used, the total footage increases to about 140 feet to 170 feet. Mid-America says that this increase is one distinct advantage that direct-push technology has over auger techniques - it allows a greater amount of soil investigation to be performed in the same amount of time. Direct push also produces about 5 percent or less of the drill cuttings, the company says.

"We use Geoprobe Systems equipment for direct-push projects," says Mike Crimaldi, field operations manager for Mid-America. Geoprobe has proven to be the leader in the direct-push market for two reasons: one, their equipment is top quality, reliable and innovative and two, their service and staff are first class. Mid-America has those similar values and therefore we are interested in passing on that type of quality and service to our clients. With this synergistic approach everyone wins."

A well driller has the leeway to make a bit of a mess, especially at new homes or municipal wells where the landscaping hasn't been done. The environmental drilling business does not have that luxury. "A major difference between what we do and a water well driller does involves housekeeping," Arney explains. "All of our environmental work requires us to decontaminate all drilling and sampling equipment between each boring location and all sampling equipment between each sample. All the soil cuttings must be placed in 55-gallon steel drums and left onsite for later disposal by the client. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) won't let you put contaminated soil back into the ground, and they want you to contain all of your wash and rinse water in drums, also."

Crimaldi adds, "Another difference between us and the well driller is that he usually has a much more automated rig with a top-head drive, automatic rod carousel and high-flow pumps, and he can drill wider and deeper holes in half the time. Our longest rod stem is 10 feet, while his is 20 feet. We have to lift 5-foot sections of 4 1?inch ID and 6 1?inch ID augers every day at gas stations. Try picking up a 6 1?inch auger packed with wet sticky contaminated clay and not blow out a disc. There is a ton of lifting, bending and twisting that the well driller misses out on that we get to do. No doubt that well drilling is very hard, but I don't know too many well drillers who think what we do is civilized work."

Workers helped to clean a level C environmental project in Iowa this Spring.
Once the work at the gas station is complete and the property cleaned up, orange cones or barrier horses with flashing lights are left over the new wells to allow the concrete to cure around the flush well boxes. After the long drive back to the shop, the drill crew fuels the vehicles, dumps trash, loads materials for the next day's job, parks the rig and box truck, punches out and heads for home.

"That is one very real similarity to the well driller that we have," Crimaldi acknowledges. "Although our rigs are smaller and tooled differently, we put in the 12- to 15-hour days pretty regularly."

Mid-America's ATV combo machine with a low clearance mast drills for the Chicago Transit Authority beneath the Brown Line.

Four-in-one Machine Hits the Field

A unique innovation that Mid-America has brought to the environmental drilling industry is the modified combo direct-push/drill rig. After Geoprobe came out with their truck- and track-mounted 6600 series of combination auger and probe machines, Crimaldi's mind began ticking. "I checked out the 6600 series equipment and thought that it was a great idea - two services with one machine. But it had some real limitations, torque being the biggest. So, I convinced our main drill rig manufacture (Diedrich Drill Inc. of LaPorte, Ind.) to work with me in making the unique combination-type of machine that I really wanted," he says.

After many discussions, Crimaldi got what he wanted - an ATV track-mounted machine that does hollow stem augering and direct-push sampling with more power. But that's not all it can accomplish. Because it is a bona fide drill rig, this machine also can perform rotary drilling and NQ/HQ rock coring - that is four services from one machine instead of just two. About one year later, Mid-America and Diedrich put together a truck-mounted version of the same thing.

Arney notes, "This piece of equipment really helps our clients because now they can drill eight to 12 soil borings and set a couple of monitoring wells and only have two drums of soil instead of 10 to send to the landfill. This saves everyone money in the long run." The combo rigs are popular at just about every type of environmental site, but they seem to be requested for petroleum LUST sites and small environmental projects the majority of the time.

The Geoprobe Hand Cart that Mike Crimaldi, vice president of Mid-America, assembled fits in a very limited access area between two above ground fuel storage tanks.

Taking 'em to the Cleaners

Although jobs at gas station comprise a great deal of the company's work, spilt unleaded, super-unleaded and diesel alone do not pay all of the bills at Mid-America. Part of the environmental wave is now driven by new state and local government programs along with the constant flow of industrial and commercial real estate transactions. In Illinois, a division of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) runs the state's Site Remediation Program (SRP). This program oversees the cleanup of properties throughout the state with a more common sense approach than historic government environmental programs, looking at the real problems and true risks.

For example, say a large spill of a cleaning chemical containing trichloroethylene (TCE) occurs at a dry cleaner located near a municipal well that supplies a community's main source of drinking water. This instance would require strict soil and ground water cleanup objectives and an aggressive treatment approach to protect public health and clean up the aquifer.

On the other hand, if a large former steel mill in southern Chicago that covers 40 acres to 100 acres had years of plating, pickling and steel making operations, it could leave quite an environmental mess near the surface. But, the cost to clean up the property to pre-steel mill conditions could be in the millions of dollars. With no more steel mill company, the cleanup is left to the state, city and taxpayers. So, the innovative approach that the SRP uses with these brownfield projects is to evaluate what the real risk is to the community and environment. Chicago gets all of its drinking water from Lake Michigan, so there is no immediate threat of anyone drinking contaminated water. The geology in south Chicago tends to have some beach sand near the surface, but a stiff tight blue clay immediately beneath it. So whatever contaminants are in the soil and ground water, they are not going to get very far. Also, since affordable property always is desirable for redevelopment of some sort, private dollars can help pay for part of the cleanup. However, if the steel mill is slated to be a large factory or commercial development, many low-level near surface soil and ground water issues can be left alone if the presence of a building or parking lot will keep little Jane and Jimmy from digging up the dirt and eating it after school is out.

Just a few years ago, the IEPA's SRP program started managing a program specifically for dry cleaner properties in Illinois. The fund is similar in principle to the LUST fund in that owners must meet eligibility criteria and pay a baseline deductible. But the advantage to them is that they become eligible for reimbursement of additional dollars spent cleaning up their properties. Again, risk assessment is involved in determining the level of how clean "clean" really must be.

For Mid-America, the recent challenge brought by environmental consultants working with dry cleaners is to collect soil and ground water samples, and install 1- and 2-inch monitoring wells inside these cramped businesses. Of course, it needs to be done cost-effectively, quickly, neatly and with high quality. Any problems? Not really. "We do the hard and weird jobs that the other environmental drillers don't want to do," Crimaldi explains.

About the time that the request to work in cramped quarters came through, Mid-America had just acquired some equipment from a drilling company in Wisconsin that had closed its doors. One of the pieces of equipment was an early model Geoprobe model 4200. This unit, in its original condition, was of little use since Mid-America had more recent Geoprobe equipment. But the innovation of Crimaldi and his team of mechanics transformed this truck-mounted machine into a 26-inch wide pseudo dolly cart-like dry cleaner delight. Fully extended, the probe arm extends 8-feet, 1-inch tall. It is bolted to the floor in the location where soil borings are needed after a 2- to 4-inch hole is cored for the sampling tools.

Arney states, "There are units similar to this, but they are 2 feet to 2.5 feet taller and have a third wheel and arm that doesn't allow it to get in the tight locations this modified machine can access. Besides, we got this unit at a garage sale price!"

"Have you ever gone into a dry cleaner on a hot and humid summer day?" asks Crimaldi. "When you go in there, you can't believe how hot it is and you are just picking up your shirts. Try working in the back by the steam presses and huge wash machines and boilers for eight hours. It's like lifting weights in a kitchen with five ovens, all of them on broil and the doors open!"

"The dry cleaner jobs are not fun at all when the guys have to work inside," acknowledges Arney, who has a degree in geology and seven years experience in environmental consulting. "I do a lot of site visits before we send our crews to these places. They usually are in strip malls that are extremely small, incredibly hot and parking our vehicles always is a problem."

But with its innovative equipment and dedicated work ethic, even going to the cleaners doesn't scare Mid-America. The company welcomes the challenge and cannot wait to see what tricky project the next customer throws its way.