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New approaches, technologies, and innovation in remediation

Meet Mark Harkness

Mark Harkness

Mark Harkness joined OBG in March, bringing leadership in remediation project design and management with extensive experience implementing a wide range of innovative, pragmatic, and cost-effective remedial technologies to address petroleum and chlorinated solvents in soil and groundwater. 

Mark joins OBG from GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, where his research focused on developing innovative remedial solutions for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), petroleum hydrocarbon oils, and chlorinated solvents for soil and groundwater remediation projects worldwide. He is widely published in bioremediation and frequently presents his work at environmental conferences. 

Q: You have worked in the remediation industry for 28 years as a site owner and researcher on projects across the world. What strikes you as the more pressing challenges facing site owners or responsible parties today? 

A: Corporate site owners are always looking for ways to limit their long-term liabilities and control remedial costs. Many have responded to internal and external cost-cutting pressures by outsourcing more and more of their remediation management responsibilities to consultants. This places the consultants in the interesting position of balancing income generation with providing the most economic and sustainable remedial solutions for their clients.

The model is not yet fully formed, but a key challenge for site owners will be to find consultants who have the requisite technical depth and experience and who will consistently act in the best interest of the client. Consultants who find the right balance and best understand and meet the needs of the client are likely to be the ones who grow and thrive in this new world.  

Q: What emerging issues related to cleaning up land and water do you see that will challenge the remediation industry and are in need of research and development?

A: Emerging contaminants are an obvious answer here, but beyond these I believe the whole remedial community (site owners, stakeholders, consultants, and regulators) is slowly coming to grips with the limitations of current remedial options in a resource constrained world.

Pump & treat is a good example. Twenty years ago, pump & treat was the default remedial option at many sites. Today, we understand that pump & treat rarely leads to groundwater cleanup and carries a significant carrying cost in terms of energy usage and greenhouse gas production. Hence many site owners and regulators are seeking ways to move away from pump & treat. The challenge is to optimize remedial approaches from efficacy and cost standpoints to produce truly efficient and sustainable remedial solutions. This often involves combining remedial solutions that are compatible with natural processes already operative at the site. 

Q:  As a thought leader in remedial decision-making, how do you navigate the myriad of approaches, technologies, and products available to site owners?

A: The remediation industry continues to evolve. At GE Global Research, we constantly evaluated new technologies and approaches to remediation. We tried to rigorously evaluate each new idea from a technical and economic standpoint and found that most suffered from some fatal flaw or limitation (often due to cost or ability to implement), so that they did not pan out in reality. However, a few turned out to be the real deal. 

Therefore, it is good to have some healthy skepticism, but not cynicism, toward innovative technologies and new products. Cost is usually the most neglected aspect of any technology evaluation. Many technology providers do not address cost explicitly or provide only rudimentary estimates. Yet no remedial technology will succeed for long in the marketplace if it is not cost effective.

Finally, some humility also helps. Twenty years ago, we interviewed a vendor of a biological technology who said bacteria communicated with one another. We were skeptical at the time. Today, however, we know from our experience in wastewater treatment that bacteria do have relatively sophisticated means of communicating, often through chemical signals. We are only now starting to scratch the surface of understanding the true nature and complexity of these communication methods. Who would have thought?

Q: What are your initial thoughts about helping to foster a culture of innovation at OBG? 

A: To me, innovation is a mindset. It involves thinking about what we are doing and constantly asking ourselves how can we do it better, less expensively or more efficiently. It can be in the design of a remedial solution, a task performed in the field, or a process used in the office. The core behavior is one of continuously evaluating and learning from our experiences, combined with a belief that we can make a difference and do things better. This requires freedom to try new things and even to fail from time to time. We are all in this together, and we need to be thinking about what we do each day to move our profession forward and make the world a better place. 

Q: On a personal note, why did you decide to join OBG? 

A: OBG is a great fit for me. I’ve known several people at OBG’s Albany, New York office for many years as we’ve worked together on GE projects. These projects have been some of the most interesting and technically challenging for me and have produced some highly innovative solutions. I see OBG as a place where these kinds of things can happen on a regular basis. I look forward to continuing this work and helping to bring this same passion for challenging problems and technical innovation to all of OBG.