Thursday, February 27, 2014

state of the industry

A month or so after I started working in environmental consulting, someone told me that the industry was dying and that I should find something else to do.

I'm still here, still looking at an upward career trajectory. I'm not particularly worried about running out of work. But he had a point.

I missed out on the environmental boom in the mid-80s and early 90s. Back then, there was a backlog of drum farms and massively contaminated drinking water and uncontrolled industrial waste dumps to be investigated, argued over, and cleaned up. Many of those sites were well known and had a viable potentially responsible party (PRP), and the Superfund was available to pay for investigations that didn't have a viable PRP. This activity can be seen in the number of sites that were added to the National Priority List (NPL) in the 80s and 90s - you can browse the list here. But the chemical industry tax that paid for the Superfund program ended in 1995 and the program has been funded out of the general EPA budget since then. Big hazardous waste sites aren't politically popular and the funding levels for traditional large scale cleanups have been dropping ever since. Enforcement and state-led cleanups depend on highly-variable state funds, which were almost all cut in the recession.

The industry has been going on a consolidation tear in the US for the last several years. I poked around the ENR top environmental firms, and the top 20 or so (probably more, but there's only so many corporate websites I can dig through at once) environmental consulting firms have bought multiple mid- or large-sized environmental firms in the last 5 years. Most of the regional consulting firms I was familiar with from before grad school have since been bought out by or merged with one of the giants - one of the reasons nobody was hiring when I graduated.

My little corner of the environmental field, studying dirt+water+rocks to investigate and clean up complicated messes, has shrunk noticeably since I started. It's not quite as hard to get established in as the wetland/ecology world (because who wouldn't like to be paid to count flora and fauna?), but it's becoming a niche instead of The Future of Science I had thought it would be.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

parental per diem

I've occasionally traveled for work and found myself close enough to parents (and other close relatives who I know don't mind the imposition) that I've stayed at their place rather than a hotel. It saves my employer a bunch of money, my folks are happy to see me - win/win.

When I'm staying with relatives, I do expense meals/per diem. Although they're happy to host me, they are essentially subsidizing my business travel. So if I stay over, I'm going to take them out to a nice dinner (or more) as a thank-you for keeping me in cereal, lunches, and homemade whatever for dinner.

I could see a particularly bureaucratically-minded organization take offense to this arrangement. If that were the case, I'd just stay at the hotel the next time, but I haven't had a problem.

Friday, February 21, 2014

environmental secrets

So there was a question regarding corporate secrets and the environment in a comment on the last post.

These days, environmental contamination is just another risk to be managed. The big firms that are likely to be publicly traded have all that stuff in their risk portfolio. GE is still in business even with some epic environmental liability. Dow's still arguing over how much responsibility it has for its subsidiary, which caused the worst industrial accident in the modern era. Regardless of how much liability it escapes in India, it still has other sites like this one. The sorts of firms that get bankrupted by environmental issues these days tend to be tiny and not terribly sophisticated (or they've been spun off to intentionally remove liability) and don't have public shareholders to worry about.

The other thing about the environmental biz is that unless there's some sort of disaster or emergency situation (in that case, you can't keep it out of the news anyway), information comes out slowly. Even if I find some pure product in a place we didn't anticipate, it takes time to get lab results, see how far contamination has spread, put in new sentinel wells, etc. If I or my subcontractors wanted to send out a press release that we found something exciting, we wouldn't have any solid information and we'd just piss off the client.

And that information will come out eventually - environmental results are subject to regulatory review (no matter how cursory) and if you want to get rid of your environmental liability, you're going to have to show someone that you've cleaned up your mess. So eventually, there are no real secrets in the environmental biz.

Monday, February 17, 2014

field names

One of my big pet peeves when starting work at a site that's been around for a while is erratic/random nomenclature. I start looking at figures and old reports, and they're just a big mess of different names with no rhyme or reason. So it takes ages (and keeping some cheat sheets close at hand) to figure out which wells are located where and at what depths - critical data to figure out what the heck is going on out there.

Here's what often happens. Contractor #1 calls the monitoring wells BCS-1, BCS-2, BCS-3 ("Big Complicated Site", first well, second well, third well installed). Meanwhile, a local government agency or institution gets a grant and adds a few more for scientific purposes and those wells get labelled as GA-1, GA-2, GA-3 (government agency 1, 2, 3). Time passes and a couple of the wells get destroyed by local roadwork or are filled with something unspeakable by the locals and are decommissioned. Depending on the budget and the needs of the project, a well may be replaced (add R1, R2 etc to the designation, depending on how many times you replace the bugger) or may not, leaving a gap in the names. Then someone else does a study of the bedrock, specifically, and now you have BR-1, BR-2, BR-3 in addition to the other wells, which may or may not be bedrock.

Worse, perhaps there are a couple of properties that have been investigated separately and the contamination has been determined to be from one source. All those parcels get grouped together as one site. So you have multiple MW-1s, and so they get an additional ID: MW-1-AS (for place Across the Street) and MW-1-OT (for place Over There).

Then it gets more complicated. We often have well clusters or nested wells, so that each designated location has different depths associated with it. So Contractor #1 has BCS-1S for the shallow well in the cluster and BCS-1D for the deep well. But the government agency always uses A/B designations, so you also have GA-1A, GA-1B, GA-1C going from shallowest to deepest. And then someone else comes around and in addition to BR-1, BR-2 and BR-3, they also add some other bedrock wells to existing locations, so at BCS-1, you have the original well (BCS-1) and then you have BCS-1BR. I am being generous by assuming that each organization is using depth as a descriptor, and not calling the first well installed in a cluster, say, MW-1A and the second one MW-1B so that you have a mass of well IDs that make no sense whatsoever a month after the wells were installed.

You can't just go through and reorganize and rename all the wells at your convenience. Once those wells have an ID, they're in a database (likely filed with the state) and you lose continuity with previous reports at your peril. But you can try to pick IDs going forward that are consistent and follow whatever convention appears to be the most common at your site.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

PG test advice

I discussed professional geologist (PG) license application issues a while back, but I never got into detail regarding the piece that I think intimidates applicants the most: the ASBOG test that is used in most US states.

I found a long exchange here regarding exam preparation, but here's my take, as someone who passed both parts on the first try (yay!):

You can often find a local workshop/weekend course that will give a good overview of the exam contents and testing strategies. In my case, my schedule didn't match with the review course offered locally and I just went with a study manual and practice test book.

I used the study manual more as a check to make sure that I knew the topics covered and to note gaps in my knowledge. For those subjects that I had missed in undergrad/grad school, I borrowed a couple of textbooks from coworkers. However, I had zero experience, academic or otherwise, in resource geology, and nobody else seemed to have a textbook I could borrow. So I ended up getting a laughably old textbook out of the library.

The practice test book only has two of each practice exam, so I used the first two as an assessment and the last two after I'd done a bunch of studying and felt like I'd filled some gaps in my knowledge. In both cases, I tried to follow exam protocol (no distractions, timed, etc) so that I had a representative experience. In my experience, the practice test questions were harder than the actual exam, so even though I narrowly missed passing one of the "post study" practice exams I passed the actual exams handily.

I am a good test taker, but not a memorizer. So I spent a lot of time going back to some basic stuff that I just don't work with on a regular basis, like the geologic time scale and rock QAP diagrams. I also thumbed through a geological dictionary to make sure my geological vocab was up to snuff, and pulled together a long list of equations (and symbol explanation list) for last-minute review. I tried to spend at least an hour every night on problem sets for the month before the exam.

For the actual tests, I went through and did all the easy questions (those with no diagrams/calculations) first. I noted the answers that didn't take any time but which I was unsure of. Then I went to the calculations I was reasonably sure of, checking to make sure that I had my units straight and that I knew what, exactly, they were looking for. Then I did the calculations I was less sure of, and then I went back to those complicated "look at this puzzle of a geologic map and tell me what happened when" questions. I finished the practice of geology exam with time to spare, but didn't have time to re-check any questionable answers for the fundamentals of geology exam.

It can be lonely preparing for the exams, especially if you're in a small organization or one in which everyone else has been grandfathered in. But it is gratifying to actually sit for the exam and meet all sorts of other geologists who are in the same boat - and remember, most people pass eventually!

Monday, February 10, 2014

per diem $$$

I've been reimbursed for meals both by payment for services rendered and by per diem. I think everybody likes the latter - you can hide in your hotel and eat sandwiches, or cook something actually healthy (if you have some sort of facilities for it), or have a big blowout dinner one night. Bonus if you can score a hotel with a happy hour that you can scrounge a full meal from. Also, you don't need to keep track of every frickin' receipt. The other advantage of a per diem is that it makes dining out a whole lot easier if you have a crowd - 1 person picks up the tab the first night, and someone else picks it up the next, so you don't have to give the waitstaff grief by separating out 8 separate checks.

So I was pretty psyched when I was working in an area with an exceptionally high per diem (we were following the GSA schedule) and found a hotel with an acceptable rate that also provided a free dinner to guests Monday through Thursday night.

I was bragging about my per diem bonanza to a financially-minded person, and he said, "that's great, but are you declaring that on your taxes?" Taxes? He meant the part of the per diem that went unspent on food and was therefore additional income. I am a generally law-abiding, tax-paying type person, but I never considered the unspent per diem to be taxable. Anybody run into this issue before?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

winter colors

This has been a trying winter here on the east coast for working outside. I got spoiled by the last couple of winters, which were generally mild.

Here's what has worked to keep me warm when the temperatures have hovered around zero (F), starting from the inside and working outside:

1. single-layer longjohns (I have a pair of the two-layer wool pants, but frankly, I can only wear so many bulky layers on my legs)
2. field cargo pants
3. ratty t-shirt
4. two-layer wool/cotton thermal top (my old river driver shirt finally disintegrated)
5. quilted coveralls, bib/suspender style, which I eventually bought not long after this post
6. cotton hoodie
7. wind-blocking fleece balaclava, pulled up over my nose so that once I put on the safety glasses, I had essentially no skin exposed
8. marine-grade jacket with all the bells and whistles (lots of pockets, including ones that are fleece-lined for hands, multiple high-tech layers, detachable hood, reflectors everywhere)
9. fingerless glove/mitten combo so I can use my fingertips when needed and then retract them into the mittens in an instant

So that's a lot of layers. And the other day, I'd managed to accidentally wear a different color of everything. Since I was looking pretty, um, distinctive, here's the list of colors without naming what item they went with:

1. royal blue
2. light blue
3. kelly green
4. slate gray/blue
5. yellow
6. purple
7. dark brown
8. camoflauge
9. off-white

I'm not sure if I look festive or like a bag lady...

Monday, February 3, 2014

hotel internet follies

I have used this particular computer to add posts to blogspot with no problem. I've also used the wireless network at the hotel I stayed at to add posts, but not this particular computer. The combination, however, appears to be a problem. I could not open my account at all last week - I kept getting a cascade of errors that appeared to be specific to blogspot.

Now I have a workaround and should be able to post normally. Has anyone else had trouble with blogspot recently?