How GPRS Is Helping The Community Get Back On Track


How GPRS Is Helping The Community Get Back On Track

4:45 AM on a Sunday is not the usual time for a GPRS Project Manager to get a call from a long-time safety partner. Yet one pre-dawn Sunday in early 2023, a bleary Chris Kennedy picked up the phone. 

The Ohio-based Project Manager had done a handful of utility locates in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Norfolk Southern chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio; before anyone really understood the scope and impact of the massive vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, and isobutylene contamination that occurred on February 3, 2023. 

The anatomy of that early morning call was that Arcadis, one of GPRS’ long-time partners in construction safety, and who is leading the assessment, excavation, and clean-up in East Palestine, needed an immediate emergency utility locate directly beside the railroad tracks at “Ground Zero” for the spill. 

“How soon can you get here?” was the ask.

Kennedy’s response was the very essence of the GPRS commitment to Widening The Gap by providing sensational service

“I’m an hour from you. Give me an hour and 15 minutes and I’ll be there.”

What Kennedy could not have guessed at the time was that by answering that call, he would be plunged into the center of one of the Federal and State Environmental Protection Agencies’  most high-profile clean-up efforts

Two images of a CCTV Crawler Video Pipe Inspection Camera being deployed into a pipe near the site of the East Palestine train derailment.
Images taken by Larry Wade of VPI Project Manager Kyle Zenobi deploying the ROVVER X 130 crawler into a pipe near Ground Zero in East Palestine, Ohio. The crawler was outfitted with a special sensor to detect toxic contaminants inside the pipes to minimize exposure for workers on site. Part of the network of million-gallon tank farms, and the top of the subsurface metal sheet tiling are visible along the tracks – two of the many safety precautions utilized as part of the clean-up.


The Entire Town Is The Job Site

That initial call led to a 12-hour day on site, and quickly became a consistent schedule of 12-hour days, seven days per week. Kennedy brought in two fellow Project Managers: David Abdul and Cleveland Area Video Pipe Inspection PM Kyle Zenobi, as the workload increased. This dedicated team of professionals continues to pull 12-hour shifts, seven days a week as the scope of the clean-up and remediation expands through the community, and Kennedy expects their hectic schedule will remain in place through the end of the year. 

“It was a lot like a war zone,” Kennedy shared of his initial work on the environmental hazard clean-up. “High security, check points, and everyone has to wear an RFID tag on site.” 

Gloves are mandatory on the job, and cleaning stations – where at the end of each day workers decontaminate their boots, clothes, trucks, and equipment – are placed throughout the site. 

East Palestine is a small town located near the Ohio and Pennsylvania border just south of Youngstown, Ohio. The train derailment caused one of the largest chemical spills in recent railway history, and the risk of explosion was so high that Norfolk Southern and the EPA determined that a controlled burn of the combination of vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, and isobutylene was necessary. 

The derailment, spill, and clean-up efforts displaced all East Palestine residents within a mile of “Ground Zero” for days. Many now attribute illnesses to their exposure to the contaminants. 

The story grabbed national headlines for weeks, put focus on railroad safety, and on the 286 mainline train derailments throughout the U.S. annually. The clean-up carried on long after the media grew tired of the story, and it will continue for many more months. 

Norfolk Southern’s CEO, Alan Shaw, has committed to long-term remediation to aid East Palestine. He shared some of the company’s plans in a recent National Public Radio interview

“We have committed over $63 million to East Palestine, which includes a $25 million park revitalization project. We're working really closely, under the direction of the EPA and the IEPA on the environmental remediation, and we're investing in the community to help the community thrive. I go back almost every week, and I sit and listen to the community about what we can do to help invest in the community and help it thrive. And I'll keep going back in each – each and every day, we're going to do the next right thing.”
– Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw

GPRS Field Service Director Larry Wade visited the site recently and described areas where groups of Arcadis employees and subcontractors working with the EPA, dressed in hazmat suits, “like something out of E.T.” work in particularly sensitive areas, and how Kennedy’s innovative thinking gave Arcadis new assessment tools they would not have had otherwise. 

Wade described Wade described how Arcadis and their team attach sticker-like sensors to our Envirosight ROVVER X 130 mainline crawlers so the Project Managers can send them into piping to determine if the pipes are intact for relocation, and to determine if the water and soil are contaminated with butyl and other noxious chemicals. He credits Kennedy with the innovation that has allowed for safer exploration of the spill site. 

How Do You Move The Infrastructure Of A Town? One Utility Line At A Time

Safety is always at the forefront of GPRS’ work. Safety is omnipresent in East Palestine, where a 20-acre tank farm made up of million-gallon storage tanks overlooks everything. Those tanks are full of millions of gallons of contaminated water that have been collected from the soil and waterways in the community and must be stored on site until the EPA can safely remove it.

GPRS mapped the 20-acre parcel prior to the tank farm’s installation; to find all utilities buried on site, so that they could be moved if necessary. Then GPRS re-located the utilities in their new positions so that the so that Arcadis can provide the EPA, the railroad, and the community accurate as built infrastructure information. 

Kennedy has been hugely impressed with how Arcadis brought a vast group of companies together to get the job done. He describes it as “competitors, working in tandem,” and further said, “I’ve been extremely impressed by the incredible teamwork I’ve seen between Arcadis, their subs, the EPA, and Norfolk Southern to make an incredibly difficult project run as smoothly as possible.”

The underground utility locating, and re-mapping of the utilities after they’ve been moved out of contaminated areas, has been the biggest part of Kennedy’s job. 

“When the EPA says it’s time to dig, it’s time to dig,” he said. “When I make a mark [showing an underground utility line], there’s a bucket on it almost immediately. Things here just move that fast.” 

This is why Kennedy received that urgent Sunday morning phone call. Along with all the utilities that have to be mapped, moved, and re-mapped, Arcadis, the Ohio EPA, and federal EPA are relocating soil, roads, and even the tracks themselves at “Ground Zero,” where the Norfolk Southern train derailed and spilled poisonous chemicals into the quiet town. 

When the crew tasked with moving the railroad tracks discovered a huge fiber line running alongside them, everything shut down until Kennedy arrived to locate the line through the spill zone and into the community. That enormous communication line is owned by the federal government and runs all the way from Chicago to Washington, D.C., so it was critical to ensure that it stayed intact and could be safely relocated. 

“We had to locate it so it could be day-lighted (excavated to expose the buried lines to the eye for inspection) and moved before the tracks could be removed and re-laid,” said Wade. “They’ve taken hundreds of thousands of soil samples, relocated utilities, roads, and tracks. They literally pull everything out of the ground and move it.”

The contaminated soil is then excavated and stored, much like the contaminated water, until the EPA can safely remove it. 

According to the U.S. EPA’s bi-weekly newsletter on the train derailment emergency response, the agency has as of this writing removed and shipped some 89,158 tons of solid waste, and more than 28 million gallons of liquid waste from the town, while soil and water sampling continue throughout the community to locate as-yet-undiscovered pockets of contamination, and the air is monitored by more than 15 community monitoring stations. 

Another way Arcadis and the EPA are safeguarding against additional contamination is by installing metal sheet tiling 25 feet below the surface, surrounding “Ground Zero,” as an additional barrier against further spread. 

“They’re sheet tiling 25 feet down, vibrating the tiles down below any possible utilities,” said Kennedy, which means that he and his fellow Project Managers are also required to locate any underground utilities anywhere the tile is being installed so that Arcadis can avoid adding a costly and dangerous utility strike to an already high-risk situation. 

Widening The Gap To Make A Community Safer: A 24/7 Commitment

If it sounds like the work is never-ending, it is. As Kennedy succinctly put it, “You call me before you dig here, anywhere on this site.” Because Arcadis, the EPA, and all their subcontractors trust GPRS’ demonstrated expertise and 99.8% accuracy rating in underground utility locating. 

Larry Wade has seen firsthand the effect of Kennedy’s continual work on behalf of the community, calling Kennedy an “unspoken hero” of the clean-up efforts. Wade cites Kennedy’s exceptional communication, relationship-building, and consultation skills as vital links in the chain. 

“We are invaluable to East Palestine and Arcadis thanks to the exceptional, MVP-worthy work of Chris Kennedy,” said Wade of the Project Manager. 

Arcadis agrees. Rick Adams, Arcadis Vice President & Account Leader sent GPRS the following message: 

"I wanted to reach out to you and give you some positive feedback on the responsiveness and professionalism that Chris has shown on this dynamic project. Chris has gone over and above in responsiveness and has been a pleasure to deal with on some very stressful situations. It is awesome to have a partner like Chris and your company.”

Photo of Project Manager Chris Kennedy shortly after his hiring at GPRS.
Project Manager Chris Kennedy joined GPRS two years ago and is spearheading our work in East Palestine, Ohio.

Kennedy responded to this praise in characteristically humble form. 

“I think it had a lot to do with being willing to jump in my truck at 4:45 on a Sunday. If you do a little extra for a client, it can turn into something you never expected.

This place was decimated, but we’re bringing it back. It feels great to help the community get back on track.”

GPRS Intelligently Visualizes The Built World™ for customers throughout the U.S. 

What can we help you visualize?