June 16, 2010

10 minutes with Robert Borden

ROBERT BORDEN is an internationally recognized expert in bioremediation technologies. On May 25 Borden received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Conference on Remediation of Chlorinated and Recalcitrant Compounds in Monterey, Calif.

EOS Remediation

Name: Robert Borden

Title: Professor of engineering, North Carolina State University

Background: Robert is a Professor of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Virginia and his doctorate at Rice University in 1986. Robert's work focuses on development and application of innovative, low-cost methods for treatment of soil and groundwater contaminants. Results from his research have lead to widespread use of Monitored Natural Attenuation for management of groundwater plumes. He recently helped develop a method to remediate contaminated groundwater using emulsified oils, a process that has been used at hundreds of sites around the world to treat a variety of contaminants, including chlorinated solvents, explosives and heavy metals.

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How did you get started in the remediation field?
Robert Borden: Hard to believe, but I am an old-time environmentalist. I was in high school during the first Earth Day and was fired up to save the world. I completed bachelor's and master's degrees in civil and environmental engineering, and then worked for several years on stormwater management/lake restoration projects. I went to Rice University for my Ph.D., intending to study the effect of urbanization on stream channel morphology. However my advisor, Phil Bedient, told me about a ground-breaking project related to biodegradation of creosote contaminants in groundwater. It sounded like a great challenge!  Well, the rest is history.

What have been the most significant changes in your field over the course of your career?
Borden: We have seen a continuous evolution in the types of projects and their objectives. When I started out, there were lots of underground storage tank projects. Many of these were small and relatively straightforward. However, most of these easy sites have been cleaned up and work is now focused on very large, challenging sites.

We have also seen a shift in remediation approaches. Many early remediation technologies just moved contaminants from one location to another (dig and haul, pump and treat). Today, we are much more focused on permanently destroying the contaminant, not just moving it around. This has led to a greater emphasis on biological approaches where we work with nature to destroy the pollutants and restore the resource.

I am most excited about the increased emphasis on sustainable remediation where we look at all the environmental impacts of a site and clean up alternatives. For many years, the only objective was to meet a certain set of regulatory standards. We are beginning to look at the bigger picture:  What is the impact of remediation on energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions? Can we use natural processes to permanently destroy the contaminants? I firmly believe this shift will result in better, more efficient cleanups that really do restore the environment for us and our children.

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your career?
Borden: Number 1 — my students. I have had the privilege of teaching and working with some truly talented students over the years. Many of them are making great contributions toward environmental cleanup, while some have moved on to other areas. However they are all having a positive impact.

In research, I am most proud of the work we did in developing Monitored Natural Attenuation as a reliable, accepted technology. When I started my

Ph.D. research, environmental remediation was completely focused on extraction — either dig it up or pump it out. We were able to show that many contaminants do naturally degrade without any human intervention. This led to a revolution in how contaminated sites were managed and was a forerunner of current approaches that work with nature to clean up sites.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the field of environmental remediation?
Borden: First, figure out what you enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis. Is it working with people, planning and managing projects, or really digging into the technical details? Once you have figured that out, focus on being the best. Don’t worry so much about the technical topic. That will change over the years. Just figure out what you love to do and then excel!

Second, develop a broad range of experience and skills. The hot new technology today may be out of date in 10 years. Be prepared to adapt. Over the course of your career you will work on a wide range of topics and issues.

Third, do something that makes you proud. Obviously, you want be proud of the technical work you do, but you also need to be proud of the way you treat people and what you leave behind.

What does the Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?
Borden: First, I am deeply honored and humbled to receive this award. My primary work is as a university professor — teaching students, doing research and publishing. Receiving this award from one of the top consulting engineering firms in the world says that my research has made a real difference in the day-to-day practice of environmental remediation and led to better, faster, more effective cleanups.

Second, it is an incredible honor to join Dick Raymond Sr., Herb Ward, John Wilson, Perry McCarty and Bob Norris as an award recipient. These guys are the pioneers who have shaped the remediation industry.

What's the one thing you can't live without at work?
Borden: Diet Coke. I never realized it, but my students all knew. Last year, I visited a former student, professor Jimmy Kao, in Taiwan. He had a stockpile of Diet Coke shipped in for me!

What do you like to do in your free time?
Borden: Sailing — it can be both exciting and incredibly relaxing at the same time. I love to be on the water, feeling the wind on the sails with the rudder starting to hum.

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