Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to describe the work of environmental professionals. I’ve also been enjoying a renewed interest in Star Wars. This comes from my son’s growing interest in Star Wars, the hype of Episode VII and watching Star Wars Rebels. This combination has made me realize that environmental professionals and Jedi have a lot in common. A bit of a stretch? Maybe. But it’s fun. Continue reading
Seeing through the world through the eyes of an environmental professional is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it gives me an appreciate for the natural world and allows me to see and understand the improvements in our environment. The curse is that I can’t miss the environmental pollutants and potential damage in nearly everything.
Control of air quality, management and releases of hazardous chemicals, and other important environmental areas have seen great improvements. But the amount of chemicals in our daily life seems to be increasing and our exposure to them is often unknown. I can’t stop thinking about constant exposure to environmental pollutants, both mine and the people I see being exposed. At work, it’s the exposure to hazardous materials for both me and my coworkers. At home, it’s the countless man-made chemicals in our food and products.
I see coworkers who are exposed to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis and I try to educate them on the effects of exposure. I gas up my car, get a quick whiff of the fuel vapors, and immediately think about what that exposure is doing to me and everyone else. I’ll drive past a construction site and think about the pollutants in the dust being kicked up. I’ll see someone applying a pesticide without any PPE and wonder about their exposure. Although our overall air quality control has improved, I see pollution from refineries and factories and worry about spending too much time around them.
As a recreational triathlete, albeit a slow one, I think about the environment where I’m training. I enjoy open water swimming, but wonder what pollutants are in the water? It could be a beautiful lake and maybe the only nasty thing in it is too much goose poop, but a lake in an urban setting could be filled with stormwater runoff chemicals – fertilizers, pesticides, oils and greases. You probably shouldn’t swim in an urban lake the day after a big storm. This fall I ran a half-marathon through downtown Denver and was thankful that the race was on a Sunday morning. I couldn’t imagine running 13.1 miles through the city on a busy weekday and question people who do or worse, run along a busy road during rush hour.
In my house, I’ll wear my shoes inside and wonder what was on the bottom of them that I just carried through (pesticides, grease from the street). Should I be using this household cleaner? Am I being exposed to the fire-retardant chemicals in my couch or the pesticides I applied to get rid of the ants? Most likely, yes. I bought Halloween makeup to apply a mustache for my son’s costume, Einstein. I read the ingredients, thought better of it and he went as Lil Einstein – no mustache.
One area where some progress is being made to reduce our exposure to small amounts of toxic, man-made chemicals is in our food. Although agribusiness is bigger than ever, finding options for healthier, naturally grown food is becoming more widespread.
Paracelsus said, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” I enjoy seeing the world through my environmental-tinted eyes and use that understanding to balance being environmentally conscious, being realistic, and taking calculated risks. Ignorance is not bliss, so I wear my PPE.
My work in the environmental field has dealt with either technical or compliance issues. I rarely get into the network of policy, legislation, and the non-profit organizations making significant impacts on our environmental community. That is why I was excited to talk with Anna Zawisza, the Interim Executive Director for the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, whose mission is to advance sustainability through collaboration among nonprofits, business, government and education.
Anna and I know each other through our network of friends in Denver and have skied together, but this is the first time we got together to talk specifically about our roles working in the environmental field. We met at the Wynkoop Brewery in Denver to talk about her work with the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, her passion for the work, how she fell into the environmental field, and that sustainability is not just an environmental word. With people like Anna driving for change in our world, I’m confident that we’ll get where we need to.
The National Environmental Professional (TNEP): You make a distinction between “Environmental Professional” and sustainability?
Anna Zawisza (AZ): So many people really focus on environment only. For us, unless we’re looking at what in the sustainability field we call the triple bottom line, which is people and profit or society and economy in addition to environment and the planet, you’re really not having a holistic approach because all those three are intertwined. So the way I look at it or think about it is, if you can’t feed your family or pay your bills you’re never going to be concerned about climate change or even recycling, which is the lead-in for people to get into environmental issues. It’s not even on your radar. So you’ve got to be able to look at the economic factor and how the whole human condition impacts all of it. Without people on this planet, we wouldn’t have the issues we’re having, right?
We talk about all three together. So I don’t consider myself an environmental professional. I consider myself a sustainabiity professional.
TNEP: That’s good to hear you say. When I go to your website or think sustainability, the first thing on my mind is the environment.
AZ: Sustainability is more than an environmental movement. But it is really the way that we are perceived, so we have been pigeonholed into that.
TNEP: Since you aren’t an environmental professional, how do you answer the question, “What do you do?”
AZ: That depends. If I’m trying to be really upfront and direct, I say, “I’m the Programs Director at a sustainability non-profit that works state-wide”, and then I go into what I do. If I’m trying to be a little tounge-in-cheek, I say, “I’m trying to save humanity from themselves.” Ultimately that’s what this is about. The planet’s going to be around long after humans are gone. So what we’re trying to do is actually save the human species from ourselves.
TNEP: That’s much bigger than what I’m doing.
AZ: Well sometimes it’s so big that it gets to be difficult. It’s tongue in cheek, but ultimately what the goal here is to make people aware of how unsustainable we’ve become. Everything is disposable. Everything is immediate. If you look at Wall Street, we report profits on a quarterly basis these days and unless it makes sense to do on a quarterly basis, companies don’t do it. Then there are companies like Unilever that made the decsion, not that long ago, to say we’re not looking quarterly anymore. We’re going to look annually. We’re going to look 5 and 10 years out.
What we’re asking humans to do is look 50 years out, 100 years out. Which is so counterintuitive to how we process that it’s a huge disconnect.
TNEP: Do you find that more of your work is geared more toward environmental issues or is it getting that message out? What do you see as bigger?
AZ: I think they’re weighted equally. We tend to lead with the environment, because the organization I’m involved with was founded on the premise that the habitability of this planet is at risk, largely due to climate change. So what we need to do is pull forces together to address that biggest issue. The issue is only an issue because we have humans that need to feed their families on the planet. We lead with the environmental side, but all three need to be looked at holistically as important as the other.
TNEP: When you interact with people and organizations, are they on your side already or are some resistant? How do those different sides feel about you?
AZ: We are guilty of talking and preaching to the choir. There are organizational tendancies. We know our sustainabiltiy leaning freinds, but we all have to address these issues together. A mission of advancing sustainbiility is about collaboration and bringing in business and government and non-profit and academia into the same conversation to say, “No one organization, no one person, no one leader, no one country is going to be able to solve this.”
It is solveable. We have technologies today that can solve the climate change issue. We’re just not at the point yet where we’re willing to do what’s necessary, i.e. sacrifice short term profits, to make that leap. NREL did an amazing study that shows how we can get to 80% renewables in our country on our grid. It’s a great study, but it shows what it takes is will.
We do have staunch critics. We got Tea Partied at one of our events. There’s such a push back to the term sustainability that we are viewed completely as the enemy because of Agenda 21 and the whole UN conspiracy theory. When people like that come in, there’s no dialog. That’s sad because I’d like to think we could all use critical thinking and be able to say, “Huh, I really believe in this but I’m at least able to listen to what someone who opposed that is thinking.”
TNEP: When I’ve received resistance as an “environmentalist” I turn the conversation to personal health and toxicology and that usually gets their attention.
AZ: Our rational arguments aren’t working. We’re trying to look at other movements that have happened – civil rights or LGBT movement. They’ve started using emotional arguments. Emotional arguments that tend to resinate with people are getting American inovation and leadership back. Let’s regain that. Another that tends to resinate with grandparents or younger people is, let’s leave a healthy planet for our kids and grandkids. And that tugs at the hearstrings. We got to get past the rationale arguments. They haven’t worked. They’ve been out there for 30 years.
TNEP: In your time in this field, is there an area where you’ve seen good progress and conversely something that needs a lot of work or attention?
AZ: I think on the progress side, where I see the biggest sucess is in the local food movement. There are lots of pepole who are fed up with agri-business and Monsanto and genetically modified corn and soybeans and they’re just fed up and they want healthy local food. Community gardens are booming. Denver Urban Gardens has waiting lists. Average people are starting to garden again. We all had Victory Gardens, or our parents did, and all of the sudden that’s coming back. A half a block from me I have an urban farm. Wonderful people are doing CSAs out of their backyard. It’s everywhere. I don’t think Denver is the only community where that’s happening. I know it’s happening in other parts of Colorado. It’s not yet enough to really shift the way that we get our food, but it’s starting to resinate.
The biggest issue where we’re not making progess is our carbon emissions. In Colorado, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are doing a greenhouse gas inventory. There hasn’t been one done in Colorado since 2005. We’re doing all this stuff in state and overall they’re not going down. Now we’ve got more people, so you have to look at per captia too. Globally, nationally, state-wide, we saw a little dip whent the recession hit in 2008, but ultimately we’re not doing what we need to do.
I think that’s why the President finally said, “You know what? I don’t care what Congress is going to do here. I’m coming out with a robust and progressive climate action plan and I’m going to count on some of my agencies to address this.” Ultimately if we see over a 2 degree change in global temperatures, we’re screwed! If we’re really serious about the people and the economy then we got to look at this issue at a very different way that we’ve been. Burrying our head in the sand, we’re screwing ourselves and our kids.
TNEP: I was going to ask you about your passion and it’s clear you’re very passionate about this, which is great.
Now let’s talk a bit more about you. Do your friends and family understand what you do? Do they appreciate what you do?
AZ: My mother is a climate denier. Yes. Although I think she’s coming around. My stepdad, although a staunch Repbulican, he is an NPR-listener, reads Mother Jones, National Goegraphic, Scientific American. So he is starting to change her mind. I’ve sent them many letters, articles. My mother describes me as a “greeny.” That’s her term, not mine.
I think she appreciates the passion that I have, but she feels it is misguided. That the problem isn’t as bad as it. So, no. I don’t think my family appreciates it.
I’ve aligned a lot of my friends, especially here in Colorado, to have similar values. I think most Coloradans do. Whether they are super passionate about it or not, I think they are educated.
TNEP: That’s good to hear. You’re connected to and talk to a lot of people in the state. It’s good to hear that they mostly understand.
AZ: They understand and they see. They see what’s happening to our environment because they love to be out in the mountains and then look at the pine beelte kill. I was just up in Rocky Mountain National Park and I literally had a momement where I had not seen beetle kill as bad as this, since I hadn’t been up there in a couple years. There’s huge ares of dead trees. There’s not one green tree and it hits you. It hits you when you’re working and love the nature. So Coloradans see that.
My friends here are very much aligned and I have lots of friends in the non-profit world who are working on some of these things – Denver Bike Sharing and Denver Urban Gardens, and Conservation Colorado.
TNEP: I ask that question because I feel that my friends and family do not understand what I do, but they appreciate it. At least I think they do. Although I think some of them still think I’m climbing mountains with my rock hammer in hand.
AZ: And that saddens me a little. because that means we haven’t made environmentalism as much as a value as I’d like to think it is.
TNEP: Was there moment or a project when you realized that this was interesting, important work?
AZ: I’ve been in this field for just over 5 years. I kind of fell into it. I started volunteering for the Democratic National Convention, their greening team and got put in touch with our founder who was looking for help on a big even they were doing during the DNC here in Denver called the Big Tent. I don’t know that I had a, “Oh this is cool” moment. I’ve secretly been an environmentalist my whole life. I was very pragmatic. I went to business school and never really thought I could have a career that allowed me to tap into my passion for the outdoors and the environment. I think by studying economics and finance was really important because that is the major driver for humans, for most things. I’m not a social scientist. I didn’t do environmental studies or a science, which is normally the path to this career. So having more people who understand the business side is important becuase it is such a driver.
I had an a-ha moment that said, as much as I thought I was a closet environmentalist my whole life, I didn’t know a tenth of the information that I know right now. I actually had about a 2-month period where i couldn’t sleep. I woud just sweat and wake up at night and just worry about everythat that was happening. My boyfirend at the time was telling me to chill out. Civilizaiton is not collapsing tomorrow, there are lot of smart people who understand the issues and you can’t do this to yourself. And he was right.
I’ve had to step back a little bit and not internalize so much and just say, “I’m a fighter. I’m a hopeful fighter.” I have hope that the human race is loving enough, strong enough, smart enough to figure this out. That’s my stance now, but I did have a crisis moment about 6 months into my career. It was just way to overwhleming.
TNEP: Is there an example of an interesting or fascinating opportunity that was presented to you by working in this field.
AZ: I think the biggest success story of the past year is the passage of Senate Bill 252, which was expansion of our renewable energy standard to rural Colorado. There were lots of opponents to this particular piece of legislation, but it just showed that Coloradans want more renewalbe energy on their grid. That they look at as the future and what we need to do. And we pushed it through. It took everyone working toegether to make that happen, including industry, including government, including non-profits, ranchers. There was pushback about cost incerease and whether rural Coloradans could absorb it, but there was a cap, a 2% rate cap put into the bill to ensure that working families wouldn’t be burdened with additional dollars spent on renewable energy. It increased the renewable energy standard for rural Colorado from 10% to 20% by 2020. We were the first state in the nation to pass a renewable energy standard, back in 2004. This showed that at a time when the politics of renewable energy are just as partisan as you could imagine, in a purple state we were able to do this.
I never looked at legislation as the answer. I still don’t think it’s the way that we should be doing things. But when there’s strong opposition, especially from industry or utilities, to something that makes sense and that people want, legislation is an amazing way to get things done and done quickly. I’m a convert. It’s not the answer I would want but if you don’t give us another option, if the market won’t do it, we have to do what’s right. So we passed some good policy.
TNEP: You come from a finance and background and you made the leap into the environmental field. Was it hard?
AZ: I made the leap. I got laid off in 2008 when Lehman Brothers crashed. I was working for a small mareting company that was doing student loans and Lehman Brothers was one of our biggest partners. Pretty much 80% of the company was let go overnight. That was hard.
Then I volunteered not thinking career path. I had time and I might meet some people, because I didn’t have a network here. It was tough initially because I almost took a half pay cut. It felt like a huge set back. You’re at a point in your career where you think your income is only going to increase. It wasn’t quite a 50% paycut, maybe 40%, but you make it work. It’s amazing. Since then I’ve been able to get my income back to where it was. Non-profits are on the lower level pay, much less than business. but once you get into more senior management roles at non-profits, you can live comfortably.
TNEP: You clearly have a passion for it and enjoy it. That goes such a long way.
AZ: It does. It does. People don’t look at non-profit work seriously becuase they are afraid of the financial consequences. That’s the fallacy I want to break. My important reality is that I do something I love with people I care about who are all passionate about this. If I can do that and get paid for it…I just won the lottery.
TNEP: I think what you just said is very important to what people in the environmental field are doing. It’s good to hear that from someone like yourself who is working so hard in the network and legislation and policy. I don’t see that side everyday.
AZ: I was thinking again about people not understanding what you do. Why don’t you just carry a picture of a water pipe with green sludge coming out of it and go, “See this, I try to prevent this from happening.”
You’ve probably heard of the US Army Corps of Engineers and may have an idea what they do. A long-time friend and former colleague, Ravi Ajodah, is the Senior Program Manager and Team Leader for the North Atlantic Division US Army Corps of Engineers’ Environmental Program. He is responsible for the oversight of all military, civilian, interagency and international environmental and munitions cleanup programs throughout the Northeast US and Europe. He’s had a passion for the environment as long as I’ve known him and it’s great to know that someone with that passion is helping to further the Corps of Engineers’ environmental programs. We caught up over the phone to talk about his influences and his career as an environmental professional.
The National Environmental Professional (TNEP): You’ve spent your entire career in the environmental field, was there person or a project that you worked with or on when you realized that this was good, interesting work?
Ravi Ajodah (RA): That’s a tough one, not because I can’t think of any. There’s just so many people and places and projects that I’ve found interesting and confirmed my choice of going into the environmental field. Every time I meet someone new, another environmental professional or at another project or site, I reaffirm the field I’m in is extremely interesting and evolving.
I think if I had to pick one I have to go back to college. I did this project where we rehabbed this greenhouse and a second one where I was doing this aquatic ecology research at Fort Totten (Queens, NY). The work at Fort Totten is really what started my career. A junior in college at that time, it helped me get my first job, at Fort Totten, and that was an early building block to my career and my education. Every day was interesting; every day in the field; every day in the lab. The environmental field as a whole is evolving and challenging and that’s what makes it interesting. It’s not monotonous. You can be doing the same thing over and over again and it will be different every time.
TNEP: You said that when you work with other environmental professionals, it reaffirms your work. What about your interaction with people who aren’t environmental professionals, both work related and friends and family? How is that relationship?
RA: The easy answer is they have no idea what I do. But that’s not the whole picture. The larger picture is that it’s hard for people who are not working in the environmental field or who don’t have it as a personal interest; it’s hard to get their arms around what it is we do. That’s partially because it’s a very large field, literally as large as the environment. You could be doing environmental compliance, cleanup, munitions response, safety, or training as you do, Rick. It’s a very diverse field. To tell someone I’m an environmental scientist or environmental program manager, really there’s so many possibilities to what that could mean that I wouldn’t expect folks who aren’t part of the field to understand them.
One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that I don’t get the funny looks anymore. You know this as well as I do, Rick. We’d go out to the field and say we’re here for environmental visit and you’d get someone who would absolutely have no clue what that means, or they would look negatively on it, or they would just want to get us out of the way. I don’t see that as much anymore, maybe because it’s a little more main stream. People can associate the environment with something they’ve heard on the news or some other way. It’s not something that’s viewed negatively.
I think where I see things causing the most friction is when we try to integrate environmental processes a little too late in a project or construction. If it’s integrated correctly then really it should be no impact. Let’s use an example of building construction. You have all kinds of permit and NEPA requirements. I remember when I first started, the environmental person was brought in as an afterthought and then it was too late to do anything. I’m seeing more and more environmental professionals are brought in on day one and are fully integrated into the entire design process, say for a construction project or a civil works project and it works really well. That “extra work” that you need to ensure your actions are minimizing impacts to the environment really is done right and integrated into the project are seamless.
TNEP: You’re doing worked related to the Hurricane Sandy relief and recovery. For this and other civil response projects, does the Corps of Engineers try to promote their work to the people and communities they’re supporting? Not the project itself, but the environmental responsible side of the work?
RA: Yes, we do try to promote some of the great things the Corps is doing to reverse past impacts, our contaminated site cleanup program, but we’re integrating it into our civil works project as best we can. The reality is we just don’t do a very good job of that. That’s because we’re really mission focused. Our mission is to perform a civil works project on behalf of the country. How we do that in terms of being as good as we can as environmental stewards. That almost becomes sort of secondary credit. The reality is we’re trying to do our job as best we can in the most responsible manner as possible.
Some of the things I think about are some of the Sandy response actions. The New York district Corps was doing debris removal as part of the response. They ended up diverting most of that waste away from landfills through recycling efforts and wood chipping efforts, recycling concrete. It was a cost savings but it also converted hundreds and thousands of cubic yards of debris out of the waste stream into various recycling programs. That’s something where the team will receive a Corps of Engineers award, but we don’t really promote that outside of the agency.
One of the things that the Corps does do that I think is done well is having these environmental operating principals. It’s basically seven short principles that talk about sustainability and minimizing environmental risk and also promoting response when necessary. That’s integrated throughout the organization. I think the Corps does a good job of promoting environmental processes and the necessity for those well, within the organization. That’s something I noticed right away when I got here.
TNEP: Is there anything you see in the environmental field that is still lacking or not being addressed enough?
RA: That’s a tough one. The environmental field is so wide open. There are so many niches. If I had to pick one thing in the environmental field that we could do better it is breaking down some of the stovepipes within the field. Maybe do more cross sharing of skill sets. One of the things we’re trying to do more of is green remediation. This is where we integrate into our large cleanup projects more sustainable practices, bringing together many parts of the environmental field into one to make our own execution work. I think that brings more to the table for customers and for the public for the best results.
The other thing I’d like to see more of, in terms of projects, is more brownfield-type work where we’re focused on economic growth, and job growth. Taking the next level of an environmental cleanup where we take previously unusable, formerly contaminated land, clean it up and have it be reused for something that would benefit a community. I’d like to see more for a number of reasons. It would then require less new land to be developed and it also returns what may have been unusable back to a community.
RA: I think this is the case with most people who work in the environmental field. We got into because we have a general interest and we just genuinely like what we do. Definitely didn’t get into for the money. We just like what we do. That helps motivate me. My own person interest really carries over to the office. It doesn’t matter how mundane the task I’m working on at the moment. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like it or it’s something I really don’t feel like doing. It’s that personal interest that I have that carries me through.
I think on the other end of work influencing my life – one of the things is when I learn something new at work. I may learn about sustainable energy or alternative energy or park land that the Corps of Engineers manages. I’ll bring this home and maybe look them up or read something, or even visit some of these sites.
Going back to your question about friends and family, they still do give me funny looks, but they understand that it’s an interest of mine and something I’m passionate about. I’ve always been passionate about, long before professional life, long before I went to college for it. I think they understand it’s not what I do; it’s more who I am.
TNEP: That is a great line, “It’s not what I do; it’s who I am.” That’s awesome and a perfect summary of how many environmental professionals feel about their work and life.
RA: Regarding the profiles of environmental professionals: It’s good to see what everyone else is doing and share that knowledge.
Regarding the profile of the LEED AP+ architect: LEED is almost like a future for the environmental field – having environmental attached to traditional disciplines, such as architecture or engineering. You see it more and more in the health professions.
TNEP: Thanks, Ravi. Hopefully next time we can do this in person over a pint.
I’m a regular at Denver International Airport. I come and go through this airport a few times each month, learned it’s ins and outs, and I often view it through my environmental tinted eyes. Recycling and waste management, fuel storage and use, spill response, deicing, aircraft maintenance, compliance, permits, it’s facility environmental compliance on a massive scale and I wanted to know more about the environmental professionals who take care of it.
Reaching out through DIA’s Media Relations Director, I was able to interview the airport’s new Director of Environmental Programs, Scott Morrissey, about what it takes to keep the airport environmentally healthy, his life as an environmental professional, and what’s new with the South Terminal Redevelopment Program
TNEP: I can imagine most of the environmental professional’s work at DIA goes unnoticed to the flying public. At the same time, I’d think it’s important for DIA to outwardly show a commitment to the environment; for example, the placement of the solar array. Is it important for DIA to promote your work to the public?
Scott Morrissey (SM): It’s true that a lot of DIA’s environmental work is behind-the-scenes, but we take great pride in demonstrating our environmental commitment to our passengers and business partners. Rather than only discussing regulatory compliance when something goes wrong, DIA has a created an Environmental Management System that helps to manage our regulatory responsibilities in a systematic and comprehensive way. This gives us the opportunity to proactively communicate our compliance record to all stakeholders and promote how we ensure continuous improvement. Ultimately, that’s a lesson that we want to share, so everyone knows that DIA is a facility that manages our environment in a responsible way. DIA was originally built with sustainability in mind – from the Aircraft Deicing Fluid collection infrastructure to daylight in the terminal – and we go out of our way to provide tours and presentations to other environmental professionals to help tell our story.
TNEP: What are the biggest environmental challenges at DIA? Is it the day-to-day operations (waste management, compliance, permits, etc.), or is it the large one-time projects?
SM: I like to think of DIA as a “city within a city” – with our thousands of employees and 50 million-plus passengers, we tend to have the same types of environmental issues that any large city would. We need to divert waste from the landfill, reduce energy use, conserve water, and improve water quality, and ultimately the large projects are just an opportunity to advance our underlying goals in an efficient way. I wouldn’t say that either large projects or day-to-day operations are more challenging – since all of our work is oriented towards continuous environmental improvement, we try to investigate all cost-effective opportunities that will help achieve our goals.
TNEP: Personally, what part of managing the environment in the airline industry is the most passionate for you and/or the staff?
SM: I really appreciate the opportunities for direct implementation that come from working at the airport. All environmental jobs are rewarding in their own way, but I appreciate the fact that the results of our jobs can be so tangible. DIA is a 53-square mile facility that is Colorado’s largest economic engine – ultimately our role is to protect the environment of those 53 square miles so that we can be good neighbors and ensure that our passengers and the public can continue to benefit from having a world-class airport in Denver.
TNEP: Does the passion for your work come from how you live your life, vice versa, or are your work and life connected?
SM: I think the motivation for most environmental professionals comes from a personal place. I didn’t grow up in Colorado, but moved here for the same reason so many of us did – to have opportunities to enjoy the outdoors that aren’t available in other parts of the country. That attitude helps to frame my work life, by providing a constant reminder of why the work we do at DIA is so important. To play a small part in preserving the environment of the place we call home is an exciting opportunity whether you work in the environmental field or not.
TNEP: Tell me about your interaction with flyers and co-workers who are not environmental professionals. Do they understand and appreciate your work?
SM: One of the benefits of working at an airport is that most people understand and appreciate the basics of the work we do, because they can visualize the scope of the potential environmental impacts. It’s fair to say that non-environmental professionals may not understand all of the regulatory aspects, but we generally get a lot of support on the “why,” even when folks don’t understand the “how.” Aircraft Deicing Fluid collection and recycling is a good example – DIA is an international leader in reducing the amount of fluid that is sent for treatment, which has important environmental and economic implications. We think that’s a message everyone can appreciate, even if they don’t understand the nuances of industrial stormwater regulations.
TNEP: Are there any new or unique environmental projects or opportunities being taken with the light rail/terminal expansion project?
SM: The entire South Terminal Redevelopment Program (STRP) will create exciting environmental opportunities for DIA. In addition to being constructed sustainably, the three projects that make up the STRP – the hotel and conference center, the public transit center, and the public plaza – will independently help support DIA’s environmental goals. The hotel will create on-site meeting space and reduce the need to drive to do business, the public transit center will include a commuter rail station connecting the airport with downtown Denver, and the public plaza will create a new venue for programs and events.
You can learn more about DIA’s environmental management program here.
Is a LEED certified architect an environmental professional? To get some insight on this I met with LEED AP+ certified architect, Charlie Yohe of Yohe Architecture + Design. Charlie lives and works in Lancaster, PA, but was in Denver for the 2013 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Convention, so we went to the Cruise Room in downtown to talk architecture, the environment, and passion about one’s work. Based on the opening sentence of his firm’s About Us page, I was hoping for good conversation. “Yohe Architecture + Design (YAD) provides high value, low impact, sustainable design that reflects each client’s vision, generates conversation and incorporates local and global environmental factors.”
TNEP: As a LEED certified architect, do you consider yourself doing environmental work?
Charlie: I would say that it’s more of a responsibility of an architect to design responsibly. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an environmentalist.
TNEP: You said, “design responsibly.” Do you get requests from your clients to meet LEED standards?
Charlie: It varies across the architect profession. For me personally the only time I’ve seen those requests, unfortunately, is when the project is for a government project or it’s for a marketing edge from a private business. But you’re not seeing as much as I’d like to see from people just looking to do the right thing from a building perspective.
A lot of the problem is what drives the construction industry is the first cost and you have all these people racing to the bottom line and unfortunately that’s all they’re getting, a cheap building. And they’re paying for it in the long run.
It generally comes from the owners. If it comes from the architect, it’s generally deemed an agenda item, that the architect is pushing an agenda. At the risk of sound negative of the community that I live in, I would say that they don’t push for it.
What’s really cool about where I’m from is people are very pragmatic, with the Amish and Mennonites. So their whole livelihood is based on being sustainable. They understand the importance of it without us having to preach to them. It’s more the private side, the private business owners and for-profit developers.
TNEP: You said, “marketing”, and what I think you’re saying is a business is designing a building to say, “Hey come look at our building.”
Charlie: Yeah, it can portray a company in a good light as stewards of the environment to put their money where their mouth is.
TNEP: Do most architects get the LEED certification or feel obligated to get it?
Charlie: It comes down to marketability from a professional standpoint. There is definitely an edge when you’re applying for a job as an architect and a lot of firms are starting to market the LEED accreditation as part of their mission, so they might list the percentage of LEED accredited architects they have on staff.
It’s a little over a year ago that I started my own office and at the time I was one of the only owner LEED accredited professionals in the area.
TNEP: Do some firms or architects solely focus on LEED buildings?
Charlie: Because of the LEED process being as technical as it is, there’s a lot of architects that are specializing in LEED certification. Some firms are just hiring people with LEED experience because it is so specialized.
There’s a lot of documentation and basically the LEED process makes you prove that your building is a green building or a sustainable building. That proof takes a lot of documentation. Even though you go through the process of becoming a LEED accredited professional, until you’ve gone through the process it’s still kind of a mystery how it all gets done.
TNEP: What I’m picking up is that you have that environmental attitude.
Charlie: I do. Even when the owner is not looking for a higher level of design, it’s important for architects and building professionals to take the attitude of, ” It’s my responsibility to provide it whether they’re looking for it or not.” There are simple things you can do when designing a building that can work to save energy.
TNEP: Are you passionate about the LEED process?
Charlie: I wouldn’t say I’m passionate about the LEED process. I’m passionate about my responsibility to improving the efficiency of buildings.
Every 3 years the building codes are becoming more in line with sustainable building practices, so it makes it easier for us to make our argument to owners to step it up.
TNEP: When a building is designed to a LEED standard, it does so much more that what an “environmentalist” might do.
Charlie: It’s huge. When you consider that buildings use 40% of the energy produced and you can prove through the LEED process that your building is saving 40, 50, 60% over baseline building codes. That’s huge! That’s a big movement.
TNEP: Thanks, Charlie. Although you don’t consider yourself an environmental professional, I think architects designing LEED certified buildings are doing significant environmental work. Your work fits right in to this website. Go ahead, call yourself an environmentalist.
From there, our conversation veered off into passion, convention speakers, and cocktails, as any good conversation at the Cruise Room should.
To contact Charlie and Yohe Architecture + Design, go to http://yohearchdesign.com/.
For information about the LEED certification, check out the US Green Building Council.
Environmental Consultant, Environmental Manager, Environmental Specialist, Environmentalist, they’re all titles that don’t really describe the work and life of an environmental professional. Unfortunately those of us working in this field have all probably been called one of them more than once. Eric Johnson is all of those things, but he’s also an Environmental Scientist, which I think is a great title and descriptor for Eric and the work he’s doing.
I’ve worked with Eric for a few years and caught up with him over the phone to talk about his work and life as an environmental professional. He has worked in environmental labs, at a treatment, storage, and disposal facility (TSDF), consulted with the government, and solved a lot of environmental problems for people who needed his help. Eric currently works as an environmental consultant in Chicago, IL as an Area Environmental Protection Specialist, but let’s just say he does environmental science. Eric also writes about Indiana University hoops for Inside Indiana magazine.
TNEP: Tell me what drew you to this field?
Eric: I was thinking of going into more of a wildlife biologist career path, when I took a CERCLA class. One semester just on CERCLA. The instructor for the class was working for the EPA out of Region V, so there was a lot of real world experience, real world stuff. That’s kind of when I got into the hard side of the environmental science; looking at the nastier stuff. Actually identifying these chemicals and cleaning them up. It really drew me in. Especially growing up in northwest Indiana, which environmentally was kind of a pit. It hit me that, “Hey there’s regulations out there that, 1. stop these things from happening, and 2. work on cleaning up these areas that were torn apart by industry over the years.” Seeing that it would apply to stuff that I grew up with, it kind of hooked me.
TNEP: Was there a moment or a person you worked with when you realize this was good, interesting work?
Eric: There’s a couple of points there. The first one is the instructor I mentioned. The stories and lectures were very interesting. This probably makes me sound like a geek, but it was a 3 hour class and I sat on the edge of my seat because it had my attention.
Then getting to work at a TSDF. I moved up to compliance manager of the lab. If we thought there was a better way to treat the materials, environmentally preferred as well as being a cost centered decision, we’d write that into the permit. it was interesting process to see the sausage making of the permit.
Moving forward, working with the US Army Reserve, I certainly don’t work with the environmentally complex problems, but there are so many facilities to manage at once. The nice thing now is that you are given enough space to do what we want to be as environmentally proactive as we want.
TNEP: Tell me about your interaction with people who aren’t environmental professionals.
Eric: First off, it seems people who aren’t environmental professional have no idea what we do. Even my own wife for years didn’t understand what I did. It’s funny, I’ve been doing it so long that we speak our own language. When you talk to other people, the first thing you get is, “Oh, you’re an environmentalist.” I don’t necessarily like the word environmentalist. I’m more of an environmental scientist. I think of the term environmentalist as more like a casual activist. That’s why I always try to clarify that I’m an environmental scientist. My skin crawls anytime someone uses the term, environmentalist. It makes us sound like we’re a toad in the road of progress. Everyone thinks my job is to protect endangered species. Technically speaking it is part of my current duties, but it’s a very small part. The other part is that people think you’re a garbage man. I’ll tell people I handle hazardous waste and their reaction is, “Oh, you’re a garbage man.”
My wife teaches 4th grade and every year I do an environmental talk for the class. Every year they start asking me what I do, but it always ends up the same way. The first year I did it, it was right after Al Gore’s, Inconvenient Truth. There was a girl in class who saw the video and asked a question about the polar bears. I answered with the basics about global warming and ice melts, etc. After one polar bear question, it turned into, “Bear Talk with Eric Johnson.” How long does it take a polar bear to drown? 5 minutes of straight polar bear questions. My wife says to her class, “No more polar bear questions.” One kid raises his hand, “How long does it take a panda bear to drown.” It’s like, “You’re an environmental guy so that makes you a bear expert.”
Maybe it’s because its a relative new field that people don’t understand what we do. That’s what environmental professionals need, a reality show.
TNEP: Following up on that story with your wife. How has a career as an environmental professional influence your life and your lifestyle?
Eric: It’s had a big influence. I remember when my grandmother was still alive, one day she calls me up. She’s reading the back of her tube of toothpaste and wanting to know if any of these chemicals would cause her gums to be sore. If there’s something with environmental borne pollutants that are causing problems, people will ask me about that.
TNEP: I know you’re a big fisherman. I can imagine it’s played a big part in that.
Eric: Sure, practicing catch and release, joining organizations such as Trout Unlimited, I’ve written for magazines, fishing magazines, environmental stuff that affects water quality. (Eric has written for a Tight Loop, an e-zine about fly fishing in the Midwest.)
One thing I’ve been active with is Pebble Mine in Alaska. They want to put the worlds largest gold and copper mine in a very sensitive spot in Alaska in the Bristol Bay region. It’s one of the last strongholds for the wild salmon. I’ve been active in writing my congressman and the EPA to make sure that area is protected. This is one of the last untouched areas. If there was a good enough reason to put the mine in that area, such as money for the state, but commercial fishing in Alaska is huge. If you’re talking money wise, long term it’s gonna be a push. There’s so many outdoor groups that have signed on to this. One of the companies leading the charge right now is Patagonia. Yvon Chouinard is really fighting it. Also companies like Cabela’s, Orvis, and Sage. There’s a lot of people lined up.
TNEP: Is there anything that you’ve seen that has improved and is there anything that you see is still lacking and needs development?
Eric: I came on in the mid-90’s. It was the beginning of consolidation of the companies that were out there. There were so many people who were hanging a shingle up and now they’re the environmental guy. Consolidation was good because it got rid of a lot of the shadier side of environmental companies. The industry grew up and became a little bit more serious, a little bit more professional.
We’ve almost gone too far with consolidation. There’s fewer and fewer companies out there and what’s been sacrificed is there aren’t really too many niche companies. For example, wetlands delineation. There were companies and that’s what they did. Now you have to go to a larger corporation to do that and they’re looking for big jobs. So small jobs don’t get looked at and don’t necessarily get coveted. They don’t want a wetlands delineation job for 2 1/2 acres. They want a massive site or a hundred small sites.
Even in the early 2000’s there were a lot of companies out there that you’d call to do the work and when they’d arrive on site you’d look at them like, “I don’t think you can do this work. I don’t think you understand what it takes to do this work.” You’d get a company show up to do confined space entry work and they’d bring a full-face respirator and a section of rope. Even the mentality. There’s nothing wrong with having a good time, but I think early on the environmental companies out there were more interested in having a good time than they were than actually accomplishing the task.
It was nice to do this because it got me reevaluating the past 20 years. This is really cool, because this is a good way to set up the environmental fraternity. It still is a very specialized field and it’s not like there’s a whole lot of us out there.
TNEP: “Environmental fraternity”? I like that. Thanks, Eric.