Angela Overcash and Robbi Jones couldn’t be more different. One is a chemist; the other an office, accounting and project manager. One loves science; the other business.
“I’ve never had a chemistry class in my life,” says Jones, president and project manager. “But I’ve learned a lot. It all makes sense to me on paper, just don’t put me in the lab.” Overcash also serves as a project manager, but on the science side, and is the liaison between the laboratory and the client.
Together they own and run Charlotte-based Prism Laboratories, Inc., a water and soil analysis company formed in 1992. “We were from different walks of life but each of us had something to bring to the table,” says Overcash.
Overcash is originally from Kannapolis. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in chemistry in 1986 and worked with CompuChem prior to coming to Charlotte. Jones is from Marietta, Ohio, and came to Charlotte at the age of 19. She attended Queens College in Charlotte.
Their paths crossed in 1987 when Overcash joined a water analysis laboratory where Jones was working. Within five years, Jones and Overcash, along with five others, owned the company. A name change to Prism Laboratories, Inc. completed the deal.
Over the years, two of the owners left the company and Jones and Overcash bought out the remaining three. By 2006, it was just the two of them in partnership.
Through the Looking Glass
Prism Laboratories provides analytical services for drinking water, storm water, waste water, soil, hazardous wastes and brown fields. Prism Laboratories staff also test the effectiveness of remedial action and trace problems back to their sources. The company is comprised of an integrated team of environmental and administrative professionals organized to serve the analytical needs of the consulting and industrial communities.
Most clients are permitted through the City of Charlotte and various other cities and counties, for example: builders, engineers, environmental consultants and homeowners. Clients include Duke Energy, Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department, Colonial Pipeline, Zapata Engineering, Ashland Chemical Company and Georgia Pacific.
Prism Laboratories is currently certified throughout the Southeast and is NELAC-accredited through the state of Florida. The laboratory is ISO certified for DoD analysis.
“We frequently get calls from builders saying, ‘We’ve got a hole in the ground and we need to know if there’s anything (bad) in it,’” says Overcash. “It stalls their crews, so it is costly and they want the information fast.”
“People also call with health concerns or feeling sick, worried about the safety of their wells,” adds Jones. “Additionally, we do a lot of work in conjunction with home sales, where bacteria testing is usually required by the bank.”
Typically, Prism Laboratories staff will be looking for coliform bacteria, a group of toxic types of bacteria in water that can make people sick. The lab looks specifically for fecal coliforms. “You don’t want to be drinking water with that in it,” says Jones.
Prism Laboratories educates people how to cleanse their wells through chlorination and with the use of ultra-violet lights and water softeners. Not all substances are harmful to people. The presence of some leads to hard water that limits the lather and suds and effectiveness of soaps. Others may build up in pipes over time.
Overcash says she is often amazed: “The federal regulations on ground water regarding what is allowed are extremely low, measured in parts per billion or even trillion gallons of water. Still, we see ground water where toxins are so concentrated, you can see inches of layers in the water sample with your naked eye.”
An example would be the chemical tetrachloryl used in dry cleaning. Much of the toxic substances are found in landfills or from industries that had pits behind them prior to regulations. Many of them dumped waste into a creek or river which carried it into the groundwater. It is known that ground water flows through aquifers and, over long periods of time, around the world.
Every kind of industry produces wastes that could ultimately end up in the water supply. In the food industry, for example, there are lots of sugar and oils. Concentrated sugar is harmful for people but it also creates an imbalance that may cause algae to grow or prevent sunlight from entering a body of water. Prism Laboratories tests for oil and grease for every industry.
They also typically test for eight RCRA heavy metals: arsenic, selenium, cadmium, barium, chromium, lead, silver and mercury. These are all metals that, if ingested, will forever remain in the human body. PCBs also do not degrade. Some water contains salts that are so heavy that they solidify or solids such as shreds of paper.
In Charlotte, testing of soil is common where there are rusty, leaking home oil tanks.
Prism Laboratories recently completed a large project to clean up a pesticide named dieldrin from a large property site that was up for sale. A lot of pesticides and herbicides are now banned but still remain in the environment. For example, toluene, used in making glues, tape, paint, gasoline and cleaning solvents is a terrible carcinogen that is still seen at significant levels.
The company also screens for conflict metals, those mined only in the Congo using child and slave labor that are used in textiles. The U.S. has banned these metals but has to test to make sure that they are not coming into the country illegally in the form of curtains and upholstery material and the like. It is a similar situation with sulphur in sheetrock coming in from China.
“All industries have some kind of wastewater prior to going to the local wastewater treatment plant. We test water going into (influent) and coming out (effluent) of the wastewater treatment plant,” says Overcash. “Sometimes we are asked to trace the material back to the industry source.”
Prism Laboratories does not have to report their findings to any body of government. “That’s up to the consultants and their clients,” says Overcash They do, however, have to report findings when drinking water is supplied to the public such as in a mobile home park or a school outside of the city limits.
Prism Laboratories also works with brown fields, places such as towns or industrial companies that have gone bankrupt or where the owner has died and there is no direct source of funds to clean up the property. Federal funds exist for this purpose of restoring properties that are meaningful to the community such as public parks.
Prism Laboratories, a $3-plus million dollar company, has reached several benchmarks in the past 21 years. A significant one came in 2006 when the company purchased a second building.
“We outgrew our first building, so when the computer service business next door decided to sell, it was like manna from heaven,” remembers Jones. Having two buildings has allowed the company to separate functions: offices are on the main floor of the more newly acquired building; volatile labs are downstairs, and there is a separate clean room for low-level mercury and other low-level metals.
The analytical laboratory consists of four departments: Metals, Wet Chemistry, Semi-Volatiles and Volatiles. The 15,000-square-foot facility is equipped with the latest instrumentation and technology for environmental analyses. “All we need now is a covered walkway between the two buildings,” jokes Jones.
Then, in 2010, the company switched to a state-of-the-art data handling system known as an ELEMENT Laboratory Management and Information System (LIMS).
“For years, scientists and lab technicians had to key in test results, a very time-consuming task,” says Overcash. “Now, the data system can receive the data directly from the instrumentation. We just had to prove that nothing got transcribed in the process. As soon as a test runs, we can see the status of samples. It has really impacted operations and efficiency.”
Jones also cites the company’s recently redesigned website which allows clients to track samples: “Clients can see their historical data which is extremely useful for them. In the future, we’ll head for the cloud,” says Jones.
Success has been accompanied by some challenges, according to the partners. “The ups and downs of the business—not knowing when business is coming is the main thing,” says Jones.
“Real estate transactions drive a lot of what we do. We were seriously impacted for about a year and a half during the 2008-2011 recession,” says Jones. The company weathered the economic downturn with a line of credit, personal loans, tightening up the budget and taking a hard look at expenses. “There were a few people who left during that time whom we did not replace, but we didn’t actually have any layoffs,” says Jones.
Another challenge for Prism Laboratories is the demand for speed. “Rarely do you have a long lead time to do the samples,” says Overcash. “It used to be a 10-day turnaround; now clients want results in five. It’s a struggle because our competition is bigger and can be quicker but we have, nevertheless, done a good job. So we took a good long look at our production line for ways to tighten it up.”
“Science-minded people don’t like to be rushed, in particular, which is good,” says Overcash. “Sometimes we have to ask clients, ‘Do you want quality or speed?’ We don’t ever overlook something because the client is in a hurry, but we try to understand that they are often in a tough spot, sitting there with equipment and crews costing them by the minute.
“Quality control is extremely tight. Anything can happen to cause us to have to do it over. Being a small business, it’s a high pressure atmosphere. We don’t compete with smaller labs; we compete with large ones,” continues Overcash.
“Many small laboratories get absorbed by large enterprises. It’s a challenge to stay independent. On the other hand, we can offer a better quality of service because we’re small,” adds Jones, citing the ability to make decisions and change directions in-house.
Laboratories are often frustrated with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that are unachievable. “The EPA figures out the level of a chemical or substance that will harm human beings and request tests that reflect those levels. The problem is that there is no technology and instrumentation available to test for that level,” says Jones.
Prism Laboratories’ 34 employees include laboratory technicians, field technicians, project and quality control managers. One of the most important jobs is sample receiving due to short testing times. All laboratory staff have either an associates or bachelors degree in a science.
“We have a mix of employees who were hired at entry level and trained up and those who came in with previous experience,” says Overcash.” On the business side, there is a controller, an IT director and sales staff.
“Employees who handle samples are OSHA trained and put through Prism Laboratories’ own safety training program as well. Samples are treated with worst case scenarios in mind. Lab coats, gloves and leather shoes are standard.”
“It’s a fast-paced culture,” says Jones. “We never know what’s coming through the door.”
On the Prism Laboratories agenda are efforts to increase the company’s work with the U.S. Department of Defense. “With these larger consultant groups, contracts are often awarded for three years, something that would enable us to plan ahead,” says Overcash. The work typically involves cleaning up old military bases.
In response to the constant push for greater sensitivity, Jones and Overcash will soon make a couple of major equipment purchases—an inductively coupled plasma (ICP) mass spectrometer (“a hot fire is what that is,” says Overcash) and an electric conductivity detector (ECD). The ICP mass spectrometer burns metals and puts them in their elemental state.
“It knows the mass of a chemical without us having to figure it out,” says Overcash. The ECD tests for pesticides and PCBs. “Equipment and instrumentation is getting more and more sensitive. It’s like computers and smart phones—there’s always a better one coming out,” says Jones.
Together, the partners plan to maintain a cutting-edge laboratory.