How I Caused an Environmental Disaster - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How I Caused an Environmental Disaster

How I Caused an Environmental Disaster

By Steve Ballinger


Because the class war continues over and across all kinds of boundaries.

By Steve Ballinger

Two months after my 16th birthday I got an amazing summer job: driving a forklift at a heavy machinery dealership for $15 an hour. Minimum wage in 1976 was $2.30; the previous summer I had worked at a sawmill for a mere $1.50 an hour. How did I get so lucky? I was a Division I football prospect, and although it was illegal to contact me before my senior year, things were a lot looser in those days. An alumnus from a college that was recruiting me had made an incredible offer.

I took a test on my first day of work, and soon I was moving pallets around the warehouse, unloading semis, and when I wasn’t driving the forklift, I sat around a lot. One of the managers decided that I was a privileged jerk and started finding things for me to do — mostly things like taking inventory in the 110-degree loft and counting out hundreds of air filters or gaskets for hours at a time. I prayed for a shipment to show up so I could get out of my aerie of misery.

One day he took me out to the boneyard where all the old scrap and junk that had not yet found its way to the landfill was stored. There was a stack of about 250 50-gallon barrels, each filled with liquid — old coolant, dirty motor oil and transmission fluid. He instructed me to eliminate the pile.

I was supposed to determine the contents of each barrel, take barrels of oil to the reclamation plant, and dump barrels of water into the sump and then take the empty barrel to the scrapper. He didn’t tell me how I was supposed to know what was in the barrels. They all smelled like oil.

I had accidentally dumped about 100 gallons of waste oil into the sump.

Each barrel had a 4-inch opening with a screw-in plug, so I couldn’t see much. I decided to use a wooden dowel as a dipstick. If there was oil on the dipstick, the barrel contained oil; if not, it was aqueous. I spent a week sorting the barrels into two groups. About 70 of them contained water. I slid those barrels onto pallets and forklifted them to the edge of the sump.

The sump was a 40-by-100-foot trench, about 20 feet deep. There was a concrete driveway where the mechanics would steam clean the muddy equipment that came in for servicing with steam guns that sprayed high-pressure 150-degree water. The sump had a big grate on the far end that drained into the city sewer.

I lined 20 barrels up on the side of the sump, figuring that it would take a while for the contents to run out, and that while they were draining I could go get another couple of pallets and save some time. I removed the plugs, tipped over the barrels and drove the forklift back across the yard.


When I shut off the forklift, I heard one of the mechanics yelling at me. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he sounded pretty frazzled, so I jogged over to the sump to see what the fuss was about. There were a bunch of mechanics and managers on the other side of the sump looking at the pool at the deep end, which was now an enormous oil slick. About half of the barrels appeared to have had waste oil in them, not coolant.

It seems that once you dip a wooden stick into water, oil won’t stick to it anymore and it becomes useless as a dipstick. I had accidentally dumped about 100 gallons of waste oil into the sump, and from there, into the city sewer. The manager was furious and said I was responsible. He said there was going to be a huge fine and that I was going to get fired.

I was freaking out a little. Actually, I was worried sick.

It was 5 pm and time to go home, but I felt like I ought to at least try to fix the mess I had made. I tried scooping the oil out with a shovel, but it just got all over the concrete and turned it into a slippery slide. I was about to panic when I had what I thought was a genius moment: I had $100 in my wallet, so I went to the store and bought five jumbo-size boxes of laundry detergent.

I stood on the edge of the sump and threw detergent all over the oil slick, then sprayed it down with the steam gun. I washed the sides of the sump and the concrete too, and after five or six passes I could see that the oil was getting dissolved by the suds, so I just kept going. Terry told me to lock up when I was done, and I stayed at it until all the detergent was gone and it was too dark to see what I was doing.

The next morning I showed up at work a little early and walked over to the sump. The water looked really dirty, but there was barely a sheen on the surface. No one had reported the problem to the city yet, and when the boss came out to look at it he said there was less oil in the sump than he had ever seen. He dressed down the manager for riding me so hard and wasting his time.

After that, the manager left me alone, and I no longer had to sweat in the loft, do inventory or sweep the warehouse floor. I drove the forklift and read magazines, and made about $6,000 that summer. I ended up playing football at a different college, one that followed recruiting rules, but I never had another summer job like that one.

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