One-Man Global Operation
Growing up just outside Chicago, Dave Russell was surrounded by industrial plants. His father worked in the water treatment business for many years doing things like building swimming pools and rebuilding boilers. As a result, he recalls, “I had a very comfortable feel for industrial processes. A lot of that was half buried in my psyche, but I knew what these things were and didn’t have to learn them. I had seen them from inside and out.”
This goes a long way in explaining why Russell, 60, went on to become first a chemical engineer and then an environmental engineer specializing in the industrial sector. In Lilburn, Georgia, he serves as president of Global Environmental Operations. He took a roundabout way to get to his station in life, but it has paid off, as he finds himself in demand and doing environmental jobs in far-flung foreign countries. Along the way, he has cultivated a network of other engineers that assist him on projects, so an individual like him can bring resources to bear in large complex projects.
Russell started down the road to environmental engineering by first getting a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois in 1966. A master’s degree in civil engineering from West Virginia University followed a year later.
In his first job out of school, he worked as an environmental engineer for Meridian Engineering, a consulting firm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He designed municipal water and wastewater treatment plants and worked in industrial wastewater treatment as well. “I had always had a love for water treatment,” he says, hearkening to his days growing up.
On the municipal side, Russell’s stint at Meridian involved some of the typical civil engineering work consulting firms do for government entities. “But I found out industrial is my love because it’s somehow a lot cleaner, a lot less politics. And there’s a better appreciation, better understanding,” he relates. “If you deal with someone who has their hands on the process, and you can make that process work the way they could not, they appreciate that. That’s a far cry from a politician or municipal officials who have a theoretical knowledge, or less, of the machines they rule.” Besides, he adds, “The sewage treatment business is old, old business, and there are not as many people who have a good understanding of industrial processes and industrial wastes. So partially it was a business opportunity.”
After leaving Meridian, Russell went on to work as an environmental engineer first for IMC Chemical Company in Terre Haute, Indiana and then for Allied Chemical Company in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. Then he became an environmental manager for Hooker Chemicals in Niagara Falls, New York with corporate responsibility for all water pollution control programs.
Russell started working at Hooker Chemicals shortly after the press brought the infamous Love Canal episode to light. He took a major role in supervising cleanup at the Love Canal West in Lathrop, California, which involved massive contamination of groundwater in an agricultural area by phosphate and pesticide manufacturing facilities. The company sent chemicals to huge ponds in an arid area assuming they would evaporate. It didn’t work that way, and calcium sulfate and radium leached into the groundwater.
After that, Russell began his foray into the world of independent consulting, becoming a self-employed consulting environmental engineer in Williamsville, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. He specialized in consulting to the chemical process, wire and cable, rubber, and other manufacturing industries.
The next move had Russell jumping back to working for consulting firms. First came Lockwood Greene Engineers in Atlanta, Georgia, where he served as a project manager for solid and hazardous waste business development. Then at Law Environmental Services in Marietta, Georgia, he served as a process engineer and designed remedial solutions for a number of contaminated sites, including heavy-metal-laden buildings, petroleum leakage areas, wood preserving facilities, and boxboard paper manufacturing plants.
After a separation from a job, Russell would then start Global Environmental Operations (GEO) in 1986. “I was looking around for something to do. My wife was getting tired of me getting in her way around the house, so she said ‘go to work,’” as he tells it. For an office, he took over the bedroom of one of his kids who had gone off to college. Clients consist of industrial companies of all sizes and other consulting engineering firms all over the United States. Services include environmental site assessments, solid and hazardous waste control and remediation, water pollution regulatory conformance, spill control, process engineering, and water and wastewater facility design.
GEO has provided services to a wide variety of industries, including chemicals, petroleum refining, petroleum marketing and distribution, transformer manufacturing, automobile assembly, pulp and paper, and nuclear. In the petroleum industry, jobs on Russell’s resume include preparation of remediation, spill control, and contingency plans for bulk petroleum terminals and specialty remediation projects on petroleum-contaminated sites. In the automobile industry, he consulted on PCB cleanup and equipment rehabilitation at a General Motors Fisher Body Plant in Syracuse, New York. In the nuclear industry, he designed a subsurface barrier and groundwater protection system for cleanup of leaking radioactive underground storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Center in Richland, Washington. In the food processing industry, he has done process consulting and spill control planning for the Cryovac Division of W.R. Grace. At another job, he developed a electrolytic flotation system to remove oil and grease from wastewater.
Perhaps the key to Russell’s success has been the network of associates he has surrounded himself with. ”I'm just a small one-man shop, but I do have a remarkable collection of friends, and we help each other out and network and share projects when the occasion arises,” he explains. Most of his cohorts have come from past jobs. He typically works with experts in areas he doesn’t cover. “For example, I don’t do AutoCAD. I can barely run an AutoCAD station. I don’t have one in my office. I have people I get to do that for me. I’ll sit down and prepare a sketch in five minutes and let them spend five hours filling in the blanks, just because it’s more cost-effective.” He also works with a group of six to twelve other consultants in areas such as asbestos, safety, OSHA, and combustion matters. “I tell people I’m a little shop with a pretentious name. With the company charter, I can do all kinds of things.”
Russell’s exploits with GEO have taken him around the world to exotic locales. “I'm lucky I've had some unique opportunities that have taken me into a number of interesting and unusual areas,” he says. For example, “I've managed to do a few projects for the Trade and Development Agency, and those took me to Eastern Europe.” He has prepared comprehensive environmental evaluations for two refineries in Hungary on a subcontract as part of an Agency for International Development Trade Definition Program team. He has also prepared studies of portions of the organic chemical industry in Romania, and he is currently advising Romanian companies about environmental compliance and cleanup.
“Over the course of the years, I’ve seen an awful lot of stuff,” he reveals about his travels. He says the worst he has seen was a plant near Bucharest, Romania that made chlorine chemicals such as DDT using 1940s technology, which had been outlawed in the U.S. 10 to 15 years before. Such experiences have given him a unique worldly perspective, both in terms of a philosophy toward the environment and the difficulties other cultures have in dealing with problems. He has seen where “people in developing countries get beaten down by their government and have no money for environmental cleanup.”
Russell cites Abraham Maslow’s ladder of psychological needs in describing the short shrift often given to environmental problems. “The environment is one of the higher order needs,” he says, meaning problems get fixed only when people see the damage they cause. But at the same time, when it comes to an overall environmental approach, “It’s got to be a balance because every human activity has some environmental impact.” He cites jobs as a concern in applying environmental measures, saying you can’t always just shut a plant down. “You have to get creative about how you sell environmental controls and services. It takes a different approach from other businesses. We’re looking for better and more creative solutions.”
A recent job has taken Russell to Ecuador on a project that typifies his overseas work. It involves a large number of pits drilled in rain forests by Texaco to separate the water that comes up with the oil they pump from the ground. These are left over from the 1970s through the mid 1990s, at which time the company pulled out and sold its interest to Petro Ecuador. Russell says Texaco didn’t follow then-current environmental laws and used technologies outlawed in the United States with little regard for the environment or human health. The water has heavy metals and toxins in it, and people live next to the black seeping holes. The people are suing Texaco to get them to clean up the mess, and Russell is working for an attorney on the case.
With Russell’s track record of success, work like this comes regularly from a variety of sources. “Sometimes I get referrals from commercial advisory services. Sometimes the phone just rings out of the blue,” he says. It all comes as part of the intrigue and rewards of being a consultant in demand. “When things are working well in the consulting business, they work very well. It has a sense of freedom and creativity, and it can be a nice living.”