The Remediator

By Mat Edelson

Scott Neese ’81 PhD learned early on the power humans have to affect the environment. All it took was a summer dip in Lake Ontario, which in the early 1960s was suffocating from toxic waste.

“Lake Ontario was kind of a dead lake at the time,” recalls Neese, a native of Rochester, N.Y. “Pollution was bad in the area where I lived. There were times you could swim and other times when you couldn’t; you’d get covered with tar or some other type of pollutant, and you’d have to go home and your parents would have to scrub you from top to bottom.” For a kid who grew up loving swimming and hiking and all things outdoors, the lake and its subsequent rehabilitation and restoration were a parable for the work that would eventually become Neese’s passion: industrial mercury remediation.

After earning his undergraduate degree at Washington and Lee University, Neese came to Johns Hopkins to pursue his PhD in chemistry under Craig Townsend, one of the giants in the field. Neese’s doctoral work included looking at some of the same environmental carcinogens that were polluting the Great Lakes, small entities known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Neese says PAHs, once ingested or inhaled, are especially noxious because the body’s natural detoxifying mechanisms activate the molecules “and make them more active carcinogens.”

Before launching his own environmental consulting company focusing on remediation of common laboratory hazards in 2002, Neese would spend nearly 20 years working in the chemical industry. He saw a sea change over the course of that generation, as older managers, “trained that environmental expenses are just lopping money off the bottom line and should be low on the list of priorities,” gave way to younger, more environmentally conscious staff. “Thankfully, the chemical industry has grown and matured, and decided they can be more cost-effective in their production, ensuring they’re not polluting because pollutants are more costly when you have to clean them up.”

Neese should know; his company, Charlottesville, Va.-based 3D EnviroLogics, helps institutions cut costs through remediation prior to and during facility renovations and demolitions. The 3Ds stand for “decommissioning, detection, and decontamination.” And while Neese’s small firm will take on most remediation tasks—lead paint, PCBs, you name it—its specialty is mercury, notably in old labs.

The only liquid metal, mercury can shatter into tiny beads below the threshold of vision—10 microns or less. “These beads make their way into the smallest nooks and crannies, under tile seams and cracks in concrete,” says Neese. When the beads are disturbed—such as during a demolition—their oxidized shells are crushed and release mercury vapor. Enough vapor can literally make you crazy: the term “Mad Hatter” referred to felters who worked with mercury and suffered neurological damage. And mercury that makes it into lakes and streams is just as toxic, transmogrifying into methyl mercury “that gets transferred up the food chain as it gets consumed, notably by salmon and steelhead trout,” says Neese.

Fortunately it’s that same mercury vapor that allows Neese’s team to track and remediate mercury. They use Russian technology that’s so sensitive it can sense 2 nanograms of mercury vapor per cubic meter. “If there’s a broken thermometer in an 80,000-square-foot area, we’ll find it,” says Neese.

3D EnviroLogics has found mercury in old National Institutes of Health labs (some of the mercury was 70 years old), in hydroelectric power plants (mercury was used to convert AC power to DC power and back again, for transfer along power grids), and it’s even discovered mercury on Hopkins’ Bayview Medical Center campus. When the Gerontology Research Center was scheduled for demolition, 3D EnviroLogics got a call. “We were hired so none of the mercury would end up there in the soil or in a landfill. Landfills typically aren’t permitted to handle it,” says Neese.

With clients including the NIH, FDA, National Cancer Institute, U.S. Navy, and Bonneville Power Administration (DOE), business is good these days for Neese.

Ultimately though, for this ardent fly fisherman, his satisfaction comes from making a major contribution toward cleaning up the environment and maintaining a healthy population of fish.

“Personally, I know how insidious mercury is in aquatic ecosystems, and because I love to fish, I feel like I’m perpetuating a recreational endeavor for my grandkids, and for everyone else who loves fishing mountain streams,” says Neese.