Backstory: Business partners at environmental firm cleaning up after being laid off

vbridges@newsobserver.comMarch 17, 2014 

Chris Hamblet, co-founder of Cape Lookout Environmental Sciences, on the former site of Piedmont Air Conditioning Services on March 10.


  • Advice from David Wells and Chris Hamblet

    • Strong relationships and trust are built with good and frequent communication with clients.

    • Keep up with new technologies in your field and specialize in the ones you believe in.

    • When starting a business, be vigilant about cash flow and understand your client’s payment terms.

— Despite the rain, snow and ice, Chris Hamblet and David Wells have been pumping 25-year-old gas from contaminated soil and a water aquifer in the Raleigh parking lot of a former air conditioning company.

Wells and Hamblet started talking about building their company, Cape Lookout Environmental Sciences, in May 2013, about 10 days after they learned Raleigh-based environmental engineering firm S&ME was laying them off.

“We found out on a Monday,” said Hamblet, 47. “On Tuesday I went over and sat down in David’s office.”

Wells, 50, who worked for S&ME for nearly 10 years, was a senior geologist whose often yearslong projects involved assessing and designing plans to improve or manage property with contaminants such as petroleum, coal ash and dry-cleaning solvents. Hamblet, who worked for S&ME for 16 years, was an environmental scientist who oversaw projects such as environmental studies required before commercial property transactions or construction.

They now spend much of their time using an innovative process to clean up old petroleum underneath that parking lot of the former Piedmont Air Conditioning facility on Nowell Road. In 1978, the air-conditioning company installed two, 2,000-gallon underground fuel tanks. The tanks were removed in 1987, but the gas that had leaked from them wasn’t documented until a property transfer in 1999.

Over the years, the gas soaked the soil and formed a layer on groundwater 30 feet below ground.

In 2011, while still working for S&ME, Wells started cleaning up the site for the former owners of Piedmont Air Conditioning. He drafted an aggressive remediation plan, which included a process for pulling out the gasoline, and shepherded it through the state approval process. After Wells was laid off, the client contacted Wells and asked him to stay on the project, which received its final approval in December 2013.

The process includes injecting a mainly water-based solution with small amounts of an industrial soap and salt into the ground to wash the gasoline off the soil.

“Just like washing dishes,” Hamblet said. “If you rinse a greasy pot off with water it only does so much damage.”

Eight underground wells were used to inject 7,200 gallons of the mixture in February. Nine wells will continue pumping the solution and its spoils into a tanker truck likely through this week, while others monitor the site’s perimeter.

A second phase of the treatment could include an oxidation treatment to speed up natural bacterial activity to breakdown the remaining gas, if necessary. Monitoring will continue once petroleum levels reach a certain benchmark.

The company completed two other projects in which no further action was required by the state, and is currently working on the former Piedmont Air Conditioning site along with three others. The owners have sent out email blasts to their network and are exploring a state database of contaminated sites to find situations similar to the former Piedmont Air Conditioning site.

“We want to get those off the books,” Hamblet said.

Meanwhile, Hamblet and Wells have also founded Granite Harbor Docks, a company that sells iStones, an iPad holder made out of leather and repurposed granite. Hamblet invented the dock after running across some discarded granite at a demolition landfill.

Their iStone has received a patent and is being sold at North Carolina Crafts Gallery.

“Cape Lookout is definitely something that we can survive with,” Wells said. iStone, a hobby-turned-business, “will be lucrative, it’s just going to take a little bit of time and a different flair.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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