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Interviews with Scholarship Committee Chair, Maria Coler

  • 04 May 2022 2:03 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Steve Dwyer 

    As a brownfield redevelopment writer/reporter since late 2008, I don’t profess to hold the power to directly impact brownfield redevelopment tactics and strategies. That’s way above my pay grade. 

    Then again, there’s the power of the pen. And, it can be a powerful tool. Those who write and report for newspapers or B2B vertical media, corporate communications, and authors -- they can’t profess to know the secret sauce to success for the industry they cover. But they can provide some level of impact and persuasion if they become fluent in the process. Often, it’s becoming an expert by osmosis.  

    If you take authors like Jonathan Harr and his book “A Civil Action” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” they were both game-changers in the way they exposed environmental injustice decades ago and helped, in their own way, effect change as legacy influencers. Both authors did tireless homework to understand the ins and outs of their subject matters. 

    Now meet Marilyn Lopez. Ms. Lopez, a student in Professor Angelos Lampousis’ Phase I ESA class at the City College of New York (CCNY), was recognized for writing the winning essay for BCONE's Charlie Bartsch Scholarship Fund (click here to read her essay now). The essay explores various implications of Harr’s book. She wrote her essay with a subjective lens as she looked to the future as a would-be environmental remediation practitioner.  

    Perhaps in a decade, Ms. Lopez will be an environmental engineer who also evangelizes about brownfields in various industry journals, or even a hometown newspaper, where local citizens can read about the “positive impacts” that brownfield redevelopment brings to their community table. 

    Indeed, we all in this industry know that brownfields are a misunderstood animal. And, the industry needs people who can not only walk the walk of practice, but talk it and write it too. The late Charlie Bartsch, who made huge inroads for this industry within his “day job” duties at USEPA and on Capitol Hill was also a terrific writer—and leveraged that skill to effect change within print platforms and those who read them. This would include the former Brownfield Renewal magazine, where I had the privilege to “edit” his columns. (This assignment was easy as Charlie’s drafts were largely pristine and edit-free.)  

    No doubt, we need more practitioners doubling as articulators, such as the legacy Charlie left behind. (See Editor’s Note below). Budding professionals like Marilyn Lopez are a breath of fresh air to perhaps carry the way forward, in practice and in prose. Ms. Lopez, a CCNY scholarship recipient, did this rather deftly last fall while studying in Lampousis’ class. 

    It started when Maria Coler, president of Hydrotechnology Consultants Inc., Jersey City, N.J., served as a guest lecturer in Lampousis’ Phase I ESA class. She based a lecture around “A Civil Action,” and at the end of the semester asked students to write an 800- to 1,200-word essay on their impressions of the book.

    The parameters were: Articulating the book’s impact on them. Lessons learned and—perhaps most importantly—summing up how important it is to recognize our understanding of and how we impact the environment…and who should be held accountable. (Coler appreciates the power of the written word to effect change. She formed the BCONE book club in 2020 as a virtual event during the early parts of the pandemic, when people were stuck at home working remotely. The club has grown in its popularity and participation over that time.)   

    Marilyn Lopez won the essay competition last fall and was awarded a cash prize of $750. The assignment for reading “A Civil Action” over the course of the semester was done to see how the seminal book might have affected students’ understanding of environmental issues and how it impacted their environmental consciousness. 

    Two key questions were to gauge whether the book made students reconsider their field of study or validated their choice, and were asked to select several key topics that Coler provided as they made their analyses, and to include at least three (see list below).

    Marilyn started off by stating that the book “was an interesting read that affected my understanding of environmental issues by illustrating and solidifying some ideas that I had been considering regarding my field of study.

    “Reading it opened my eyes to what kind of timeline these environmental issues can move on but it also validated my career choice. As an aspiring environmental engineer, I have to maintain a fine balance between the communities my work will affect and the environment my work will impact.” 

    In other words, Marilyn isn’t running from the potential challenges inherent within the industry -- she’s running to them, a good sign of inner resiliency and future success. 

    She talks about the ever-lasting “balancing act” in this industry, adding that “these decisions must be informed by the latest scientific information available. This balancing act is well represented throughout the book. The three topics that best illustrate this balancing act are the archetypal characters in the story, the clear distinction between correlation versus causation, and the way the scientific knowledge of the individual versus scientific consensus is weighed.”

    Indeed, this is not a linear, simplistic process as industry stakeholders well know, and Marilyn captured it in that written passage. 

    Archetypes stand for something on a high level. One archetype might be a visionary. Another a consensus-builder who reaches across the aisle. Marilyn wrote about the archetypes in “A Civil Action” that include “the obsessed attorney; the ‘hysterical woman’; the earnest civil servant; the diligent journalist; the intuitive scientist; and the indefatigable citizen activist are all members of the community whose goals and perspective actively contributed to the story's unfolding.”

    Here's Marilyn’s point: “Their tireless work made it possible for justice to eventually prevail, and for the responsible parties to be held accountable,” she wrote.  

    Marilyn found that the “most striking aspect” of the book is how many people were responsible for events to unfold as they did. “It often seemed like fate intervened for things to line up perfectly”—like the stars aligned. 

    “There were many instances where Schlichtmann [the attorney character in the book] was in just the right place and at just the right time to meet someone who would be able to unlock the next step in this years-long venture. Each archetype in the book played their part in this interdisciplinary challenge. Every character has a different time scale associated with their contribution. Nonetheless, every contribution was vital for things to unfold as they did,” Marilyn wrote.

    No doubt, this industry is unwieldy, with many moving parts and cross-functional tasks, putting an emphasis on cohesion and teamwork for projects to see the light of day. 

    Marilyn drew from a personal-professional experience for this observation: “This was very familiar to me, considering that many of the environmental projects that tackle environmental issues that lead me to pursue environmental engineering were instigated, led, and maintained by a multitude of people from different backgrounds. It's a challenge that needs to be addressed on many fronts.”

    She also wanted to impart in her narrative the “clear distinction between correlation and causation. A big problem with determining whether the pollution led to children getting leukemia was the small sample size. Throughout the book you see many scientists of many different fields tackle this issue and eventually they generate enough lines of evidence to say that there is a correlation between them. Unfortunately, that was not enough. It is never enough to say that something is correlated. That is something that I have learned many times over during my time as a student.”

    The beauty of Marilyn’s essay was that it was not a “siloed” perspective. It was two dimensional and open, as she weaved the book in with some of her own experiences along the academic journey.  

    She goes on to write that “correlation is not something to ignore, especially if you have an understanding of the subject and a well-established scientific basis. However, if you are good enough with numbers you could very easily make almost anything correlated. Although the events in this book took place throughout many years, there was not enough time for causation to be established in time for the trial.

    “The third topic that was very important when reading this book was how the scientific knowledge of the individual versus scientific consensus is weighed. It is very important to have rigorous standards concerning scientific consensus. It takes many people many years of hard work to come to a scientific consensus.” 

    Surely, many in the BCONE organization can take heart knowing that the future of the industry is in good hands with those who can practice and preach, and Marilyn Lopez has an inside track on such a distinction.  So do all of the other scholarship winners, including the recent UCONN students and Stevens Institute of Technology students. 

    In closing, Marilyn added: “Reading this book while taking my Phase I class really stressed how important it is to recognize that our understanding of how we impact the environment and who should be held accountable for environmental concerns, will inevitably be updated as time passes.” 

    She offered a case in point: The recent update made to the ASTM E1527 standard. The book showed “how it took a group of dedicated people from all walks of life to make meaningful change. It was very much a community effort.” It validated her career choice because it showed her “that I can make meaningful change as long as I am steadfast and steady in my pursuits.”

    To BCONE and to Maria Coler, this essay contest was a well-spent $750, no doubt! 

    Topics listed in generating student analysis for “A Civil Action” 

    • Correlation v. Causation
    • Accidental Discovery
    • Synchronicity
    • Intuitive Link Between Environment and Public Health
    • Lack of Government Oversight & Regulations
    • Profit Motive
    • Corporate Deception
    • Scientific Knowledge (Individual) v. Scientific Consensus
    • Tipping Point in Environmental Awareness
    • Seismic Event to Raise Consciousness-Cancer Cluster
    • Role of Gender, Class
    • Race Bias, Labor Rights
    • Citizen Activists and Citizen Scientists

    EDITOR’S NOTE:  If you want to honor Charlie Bartsch and assist creating the future leaders in the environmental profession, please go here https://www.brownfieldcoalitionne.org/charlie-bartsch-brownfield-scholarship to contribute to the BCONE scholarship fund, named to honor former BCONE Board Member, Charlie Bartsch.

    Posted May 4, 2022

  • 20 Jan 2022 1:04 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Peter Meyer continues his conversation with Maria Coler about all things Brownfields in a second installment.

    By Steve Dwyer 

    Everyone remembers the “Occupy Wall Street” movement of a decade ago. Peter Meyer certainly does. And he has a story and T-shirt to give it some interesting context. 

    Meyer, Professor Emeritus at University of Louisville (UL) and president of The E.P. Systems Group Inc., recently spoke via a Zoom call with Maria Coler about a host of brownfield-related themes, including memories of his friend Charlie Bartsch, who passed in 2017.


    One of the aside questions Coler posed to Meyer was the motivation behind his “Occupy Brownfields” T-shirt, which he was wearing during their conference call. So what’s the significance of the shirt? 

    The T-shirt was inspired by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that began in Zuccotti Park in New York City’s Wall Street financial district in September 2011—giving rise to the wider Occupy movement for social and economic changes in the United States and other countries.

    “I attended a brownfield conference with Charlie years ago … it would have been when “Occupy Wall Street” was occurring,” says Meyer, who served as director of the Dept. of Urban and Public Affairs at UL. With a PhD in economics, Meyer had been director for the Center for Environmental Policy and Management at the university from 1988 to 2008. “Charlie ran up to me saying that they were handing out these T-shirts, so I guess I owe this T-shirt directly to the influence of one Charles Bartsch.”  (Editor’s Note:  Dan French of Brownfield Listings conceived of the slogan and sold the T-shirts at the aforementioned conference.).

    When you think about it, Meyer mused, the thread that connects the two “movements” are the economic and social aspects that serve as underpinnings -- but in far different contexts. To “occupy brownfields” can be taken literally -- such as, “someone please develop and execute a new and compelling end-use for this pre-existing parcel in some urban infill.” 

    Meyer explained further, without wanting to get too political: “The significance of the Occupy Brownfield concept is that we don’t want to abandon any of our assets, one of which happens to be brownfields, and I can leave it at that.”

    Read ahead to get inside the extended conversation between Meyer and Coler, President of HCI Hydrotechnology Consultants Inc., located in Jersey City, N.J., and chair of the BCONE Scholarship Committee.

    MC: The intersection of your background with brownfields seems to be in the environmental justice (EJ) and social justice arenas, where you have these depressed area which were once highly productive, industrial centers. The export of jobs overseas resulted in towns/regions no longer being economically viable. The brownfields industry tries to answer this question: What do we do with the hulking masses of our industrial past that have been leftlying fallow?  

    PM: That is accurate -- my motivation is what you just said. Charlie and I were extremely concerned with the issue of "economic regeneration," if you will, of these abandoned areas. And that's what motivated him at The Northeast-Midwest Institute, where that was the biggest priority. Certainly, it was a major one of mine. I think that was the essence of it. And that was sort of where the pieces came together ... to focus specifically on contamination. Surely he was unquestionably one of the very first, if not the first, professionals who had an innate concern about brownfields and supported the whole EJ initiatives at the EPA.

    MC:  Can a constituency around the intersection of environmental, economic and social issues be formed? Looking at Charlie, you had indicated he had the personality and expertise to bring people to the table. So, in looking at the lack of integration to form a constituency around the Biden administration's physical and social infrastructure pieces of legislation, Charlie seemed to have a deep understanding of all the different parts and could inform that desire to integrate these pieces better. Can you elaborate further? 

    PM: Assuming that he was given access, let’s start with the basic question. With regard to recent legislation, I think that the way it came together is that there was an advocate for this piece that was not good for that piece. There was an advocate for the advocates. Each of those pieces needs … to get sufficient political lift, to be part of it. 

    Charlie would be acutely aware of the fact that there were no such constituents. Because that was one of the things he kept talking to me about with regard to this manufacturing initiative: "Who the heck is going to back this thing if we ever write it?" That’s true. And he was very concerned with that. But that didn't mean that he could, or anybody could, successfully get them adequately integrated. 

    It’s part of the reason that we have all of these unintended consequences of legislation. You know, long before I got into brownfields with Charlie I ran across the younger brother of a friend of mine who was working in the water department in the City of New York. And CERCLA had just passed when he turned and said to me, "Peter, you’re an economist. Look into this. I have no idea. You really need to look into this. Will the just-passed legislation disadvantage cities in terms of getting investment in a large-scale economic development versus any development outside?" 

    MC: I wrote a long email to Senator Cory Booker’s staff about brownfields -- how to use big data and how to integrate [all of the moving pieces]. I said, "I have the answer for you, a path forward." The takeaway is how to get beyond this old language, this old way of thinking about it, this "silo-ing" of information, how you bring these pieces together to effect real and lasting change. It hasn’t worked yet. And there’s a reason it hasn’t worked: I think in this conversation we have stumbled upon that reason of why it hasn’t worked. And the reason is that it’s lacking this magic—a sustained, integrated, enthusiastic passion. 

    PM: I think that you’re completely correct. 

    MC: I think the key is to almost channel Charlie’s spirit and to ask, "What would he think about this question? Would this question excite him?" With this question in mind, would he sit down with a beer or a glass of wine and talk about it -- for a few hours? What do you think?

    PM: I think I can answer that. I think about the issue of climate change, brownfields and land reuse and redevelopment. The incredible migrations that are likely to happen as a result of climate change: These were all topics of concern that I was already talking about with Charlie. There’s no question that we were already kicking some of that stuff around.

    MC: I mean, this very specific problem of "rebranding" this whole effort -- it’s really a rebranding exercise.

    PM:  If Charlie had participated in the conversation we’ve had for the last hour and a half, he’d be sitting there right now interested, engaged -- 100%. He desperately needed and wanted to sell the brownfield investment. There were periods in which there were brownfields conferences, going back where Charlie spoke eight to 10 times ... because he was so good. You go back to the earlier brownfield conferences, look at an agenda and type in the word, "Bartsch" and you'll find incredible numbers. He was able to speak on whatever it was over and over and over again. He thought he failed when he only had three slots at a conference. 

    Now he’d be very, very happy. He’d be going places where other people would be afraid to go. Or, he’d even see some ways of moving forward that the rest of us wouldn’t even notice were there. I miss him personally, but boy do I miss him from a policy standpoint. We need him so badly or the equivalent of him right now in this country. Like nothing I can imagine. It’s a rare, rare human being -- that’s all I can say. Boy do we need somebody like that. 

    Posted January 3, 2022

  • 01 Jan 2022 1:05 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Peter Meyer chats with Maria Coler about his fondest memories about his friend and colleague, Charlie Bartsch 

    By Steve Dwyer 

    Peter Meyer is recently making a point of showing Maria Coler his “Occupy Brownfields” T-shirt—and informing her about what he thinks the T-shirt means. 

    Recently, Coler conducted an extended conversation with Meyer about the evolution and future of the brownfield redevelopment industry, as well as his fond recollections on his long-time friendship with Charlie Bartsch, the dynamic and well-loved brownfields industry advocate who died in 2017.

    Meyer, Professor Emeritus at University of Louisville (UL) and president of The E.P. Systems Group Inc., has had a long and distinguished career. He served as director of the Department of Urban and Public Affairs at UL. With a PhD in economics, Meyer had been director for the Center for Environmental Policy and Management at the university from 1988 to 2008. Prior to that he worked 19 years at Pennsylvania State University (Penn St.) in the Department of Community Development, State College. As Asst/Assoc Professor of Economic Planning, Meyer founded the first undergraduate degree in Economic Development at Penn St., and also taught in programs in Law Enforcement and Corrections. Peter has been a regular panelist in BCONE and  the NYC Brownfield Partnership’s collaborative series on the impacts of Covid on the real estate regions represented by both organizations.  The next panel in the series is being held on November 18, 2021 at 4 p.m.; register here https://www.nycbrownfieldpartnership.org/event-4450339  to meet Peter. 

    Coler, president of HCI Hydrotechnology Consultants Inc., Jersey City, N.J., has accumulated more than 15 years of experience in the environmental consulting field, and is a New Jersey Licensed Site Remediation Professional (LSRP). In her role as Chair of BCONE’s Scholarship Committee, she spoke with Meyer in great detail about such topics as:

    • His educational and professional background and why he selected an interdisciplinary focus; 
    • How and when he met Bartsch, which traces to 1980 as both CERCLA and RCRA were ratified as law, but prior to brownfields becoming a working concept;
    • Bartsch’s work at the Northeast-Midwest Institute and how it dovetailed with Meyer’s work on economic development—plus how Meyer was “dragged into” the brownfields movement by Bartsch;
    • How Charlie influenced his evolution to focusing on economic,  social,  and environmental justice issues—as opposed to economic development;
    • The pitfalls of progress as Meyer says “we don’t always know what’s hazardous…and this is one of the blind spots of RCRA”;
    • Meyer and Bartsch’s focus on brownfield redevelopment areas as opposed to a piecemeal, site-by-site approach and how it was influenced by data and GIS mapping; and 
    • The Biden Infrastructure Plan and what Charlie might have thought about it—plus how Meyer speculated how Bartsch would’ve attempted to improve it.

    Speaking of data, Coler says in regards to data technology that crunching all of this information…and finding out the missing pieces…actually can help us understand how we can remediate these brownfield sites, clean up the environment, impact environmental justice issues, create a social and economic benefit. Doing it in the dark, one by one in silos, is really not the smart way to go. Coler believes that  letting the data tell the story is the way to go. Meyere agrees:  “This is one of the big issues that has always confounded economics. We don’t necessarily measure the logical things or the right things. And if you’re not measuring them, then guess what? You are not going to get the big data to work with. And that would have been certainly one of Charlie’s concerns, because I think that was something he was well aware of." 

    Coler spoke in great length to Meyer about a raft of key topics within the brownfield realm. Here are some of the areas that she addressed: 

    MC: I'd like to know more about Charlie’s appointment to that USEPA post? 

    PM: Interesting assignment. President Obama was trying to create a task force that was designed to promote manufacturing, and help figure out what it would take to bring more of it back to the United States. We’re initiating more of it again in the U.S., and from the EPA point of view, the question was reusing brownfields at manufacturing sites. The administration created this multi-agency Task Force, and at one point the U.S. Commerce Dept. wasn't particularly interested in having any EPA representative…they thought it  would just ‘get in the way.’ Next thing you know Charlie’s the co-chair of the task force. The thing that was so interesting about it was that he was able to convince all these people that perceived EPA as ‘a problem’ to see EPA as an asset in addressing how to reuse sites. He had a whole different angle on how to approach redeeming and remediating large-size brownfields. 

    MC: Wasn’t there an interesting anecdote about the concept known as "brightfields?"

    PM: Yes, reusing brownfield sites for solar and so on. But if you’re stomping in the solar space, brownfields may not be a territory in which you work. We don’t think about it much in the East Coast region, but the definition of brownfields includes all these abandoned mines that have high power electrical lines. Guess what? You have the transmission lines to take the electrical power out and position a bunch of windows on the top of that mountain. And this was something that absolutely fascinated Charlie in terms of something else we could do to stimulate the economy. 

    MC: About the Biden Infrastructure Plan, and the fact that the bill writers seem to have failed to form a constituency around the intersection of environmental, economic and social issues—do you think Charlie Bartsch would’ve been all over this issue and tried to address it?

    PM: I believe that Charlie had the personality and expertise to bring people to the table. It's something that the bill is sorely lacking.

    MC: What about Opportunity Zones?

    PM: I don’t think Charlie would’ve been a fan, as the OZs offer incentives to owners of capital, rather than supporting underserved communities from within. Having said that, Charlie would’ve found a novel way to make them work.

    MC: Charlie almost seems to be on another level: he had some sort of trait that made him a very compelling personality.

    PM: My wife Chris once said that the big thing about Charlie is that he exuded positive energy at a level that nobody else did. He was ridiculously hard working. He could dive incredibly deep into the details and what he thought was important. But at the same time he was just an incredibly outgoing social being. And you don’t normally think of a scholar as being that outgoing. And his enthusiasm for advocacy, which is really the positive energy. He combined all of that in a way that I don’t think anyone else I know does. 

    MC: What was Charlie’s educational background, what did he study?

    PM: He earned a degree in planning from the University of Illinois-Chicago. I think he came originally to the Northeast Midwest Institute as an economic planner. And that was his basic function. This was a man who could discuss something as arcane as petroleum brownfields at the brownfields conference and ended up receiving a standing ovation—routinely get standing ovations when he was done speaking. How does somebody talk about a technical problem to get a standing ovation? 

    MC: On the origins of the term "brownfields" — I heard Charlie's coined the term.

    PM: Charlie turned it into meaning sites with special kinds of problems that needed special attention. One of the things that my wife Chris and I did in the late 1990s, is we had a book with a British colleague comparing land policy in the United States vs. European Union. One of the things that becomes extremely obvious is how far ahead we were than the rest of the world in confronting the contamination. Even though arguably, for example, the steel mills and the coal mines are far more ubiquitous in much smaller countries. I really believe that we, in the U.S., were able to sort things out sooner, and this was due to Charlie’s brownfield label. 

    MC: Charlie was an incredibly outgoing social being who remembered everybody by name and what they did. And could integrate pieces by getting people to talk to each other. Can you elaborate on that skill of establishing a label where you can get all focused on accomplishing things? 

    PM: Contamination has a particular meaning that differs  in an engineering sense from a s social sense. Pull out a word like brownfield: The engineer doesn’t know what that means, it’s an alien term where you wonder if you could get everybody to coalesce around that meaning. We have to break all that down to teach each other, instruct developers who work in the real world outside of academia—we need one word cracking through it to help us overcome barriers.

    Part 2 of Maria Coler’s chat with Peter Meyer will be published in the near future, and a revelation about the term “Occupy Brownfields.”

    Posted November 15, 2021


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