ENVIRONMENTAL TECHNOLOGISTS HELP KEEP CANADA CLEANER AND SAFER
Like many other young Canadians growing up in the ’80s, Marion Houlbrook read Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal work on environmental damage caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
The book influenced Marion so profoundly that she started an environmental group at her high school in the small town of Clarenville on Newfoundland’s east coast. The group organized community clean-ups and campaigned for a boycott of the school cafeteria because it used Styrofoam containers.
It was the start of what Marion says was a passion to make a change in the world and opened the door to what became her career as an environmental technologist.
“As a teenager, I would have been considered an environmentalist,” she says. “I was very concerned about the health and wellbeing of our world and the protection of our environment and our species at risk.”
So deep was her concern that Marion worked for Greenpeace for a while after graduating from college.
But there’s a difference between an environmentalist and an environmental consultant, which is where Marion ended up, and her work today as manager, Environmental Management with Associated Environmental Consultants based in Vernon, BC, puts Marion on the frontline of a different fight for a cleaner and safer environment.
She now manages a team of professionals who work to investigate and help clean up or remediate contaminated sites – anything from former gas stations to leaking domestic heating oil tanks.
“Our purpose is to make sure nobody is going to be exposed to contamination that could be harmful to human health, and the environment is not going to be exposed to contamination that could affect the health and wellbeing of our ecosystem,” says Marion.
While human-caused contamination of the environment has been a problem since the industrial revolution more than 200 years ago, but it was only about 40 years that a greater focus emerged on cleaning it up, says Marion.
“When I entered the industry as a young 20-something working in environmental sciences, I moved into contaminated sites because it was very much on the forefront,” she says. “A lot of contaminated sites firms were becoming established, and people were paying more attention to assessing and cleaning up contamination that had been there and maybe ignored for decades.”
In what she describes as a “counter intuitive” move, Marion’s first job after school was as a process operator at the Come By Chance oil refinery in Newfoundland and Labrador. But she soon realized that she wanted to be part of the solution to contamination rather than part of the source.
Next stop was the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology where she obtained a diploma in environmental science – and she was on the road to environmental consulting.
“I get bored quite easily and what I like about environmental consulting is that I am never bored,” she says. “I constantly have new challenges, new opportunities, and different problems to figure out. It’s the variety and the opportunity to think and learn all the time that I really enjoy.”
Some projects are easier to deal with than others, says Marion. For example, one of the challenges her team sometimes faces even before work can begin on a contaminated site is to do what she describes as the detective work.
It may be a vacant development property that was used for some industrial purpose in the past. The first thing the team needs to do is find out what happened on the property and what contamination there might be, and that takes research, she says.
“I’ve worked on a couple of large oil company portfolios for several years, so I know gas station site remediation like the back of my hand. But we’ve also been faced with the clean-up of sites where explosives were manufactured, and you don’t come across those very often. That’s when we need to do our research,” she adds.
While there is sometimes pushback by property owners who question why the assessment or clean-up is necessary, much of the work Marion’s team does is based on regulatory requirements that must be met before development permits are issued.
Continuous professional development is important for Marion and her team to keep up with industry standards and regulatory changes.
“In fact, my bedtime reading last night was an hour of running through some of the latest and greatest updates the Ministry of Environment posted on their website,” she jokes.
As a manager, Marion is not in the field as much as she once was. Instead, most of her time is spent in her office communicating with clients and her team, delegating specific tasks and project planning.
After work hours she spends time with her family enjoying the environment she is committed to protecting – hiking, horseback riding, getting out onto the water in summer and snowboarding in winter – and knowing that she is helping to make that tiny bit of a difference in the world.