After 25 years, O'Connor Associates of Calgary is a well-established,
150-member team of environmental engineers and geoscientists
whose activities range from environmental impact assessments
in Kuwait and solar pumping projects in Tibet to more routine
remediation projects closer to home.
As the corporate anniversary draws near, Dr. Mike O'Connor,
P.Eng., P.Geoph., P.Geo., tells intriguing tales about the
early, experimental days of geo-environmental engineering.
He knows what he's talking about. He was there, after all.
A genial and forthcoming 58-year-old, Dr. O'Connor has an
academic background touching virtually every base. Nevertheless,
he did most of his learning on the job. And one of the most
useful skills in his kit is the art of creative improvisation.
The Inglewood Slick
Working as a geotechnical engineer with EBA in Calgary in
1978, he was asked to evaluate the origin of oil which
was seeping into the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.
The slick atop the sanctuary's lagoon was there for all to
see, but there was no obvious nearby source. Dr. O'Connor
and his crew reasoned that hydrocarbons on the surface must
mean hydrocarbons on the groundwater table. Tracking these
hydrocarbons posed a challenge.
We had to invent the science as we went along. There wasn't
really an established technology," for this kind of
By inserting custom-manufactured piezometers in the ground
up-gradient from the lagoon, they were able to measure the
thickness of subsurface hydrocarbons and, ultimately, to
trace the contamination back to its sources in the Gulf Oil
Engineering a Solution
Dr. O’Connor and the others discovered that a smorgasbord
of pollutants --–diesel fuel, gasoline and fuel oil
--– had leached into the soil in staggering amounts
over the long life of the refinery.
(The client) had no idea how big the problem was. At one
point we estimated that there was several million litres
of fuel in the ground," Dr. O'Connor says.
It was one thing to determine the extent of the problem – but
quite another to fix it quickly.
At that time, we couldn't look up the solution in a book," he
says, “and we certainly didn’t have the luxury
of time to study it carefully.”
Improvisation came to the rescue. Dr. O’Connor and
his crew rapidly reclaimed the lagoon by burying a wooden
box culvert made from two-by-12 timbers in a trench between
the lagoon and refinery.
We draped geo-membrane material on one side, put gravel on
the other, left holes in the top so we could suck out the
oil – then we backfilled the whole thing and started
to pump," recalls Dr. O'Connor.
The remainder of this massive project dragged well into the
following decade. Still, the team's remedial measures ultimately
neutralized the contamination and remain in place to this
to invent the science as we went along. There
wasn't really an established technology"
-Dr. Mike O'Connor, P.Eng., P.Geoph.,
The Clean-Up Era Continues
More of this kind of work lay ahead for Dr. O’Connor.
By the mid 1980’s, O'Connor Associates and the countless
other new environmental engineering firms springing up were
coming face to face with a universal legacy of contaminated
soils, rivers and lakes.
It appeared that wherever you “transferred, stored
or manufactured chemicals, you had the opportunity for a
leak," he says.
Clearly, he and his founding partners (John Agar, P.Eng.,
and Doug King, P.Eng., P.Geol.) were in the vanguard of a
As the demands grew, the partners developed other innovative
techniques and shared them with colleagues at large. Dr.
O'Connor has, in fact, authored and collaborated on dozens
of treatises, ranging in subject from The Cost of Being Green
to Remedial Methods for Hydrocarbon Spills.
Time and again, the company's improvisational skills have
come in handy. When several city blocks of residential homes
became contaminated by gasoline from underground storage
tanks in 1980, O'Connor Associates hit on an innovative method
of soil vapour extraction. It has which has since been widely
So, has global industry learned its environmental lessons
at last? Yes and no, says Dr. O'Connor.
"It took corporations quite a while to recognize they
needed to spend money on the environment to keep their images
and their shareholders happy, and to remain within the law," he
"But they began to realize that if they didn't spend money
(on clean-up and preventive maintenance) now, they might
spend even more in the future. That evolution has taken a
"And it's still not finished."