Terri-Jane Yuzda


Freelance Columnist

O’Connor Cleans Up

Geo-environmental Engineering Company Boasts 25 Years Of Helping Industry Meet its Environmental Challenges

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 investigation.

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 refinery.

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 day.

"We had to invent the science as we went along. There
wasn't really an established technology"

-Dr. Mike O'Connor, P.Eng., P.Geoph., P. Geo.

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 growth industry.

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 imitated.

Environmental Lessons
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 intact and their shareholders happy, and to remain within the law," he says.

"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 long time.

"And it's still not finished."

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