Sherry Van Duyn: Fated to Clean Up Our Environment
It was a class that determined Sherry Van Duyn's environmental fate. “I’d always wanted to clean up the environment," said Van Duyn (PE, CHMM, BCE 1987), co-founder and president of Landmark Environmental, LLC, a small, women-owned engineering firm that specializes in delivering environmental solutions. "I hadn’t been sure just how that would work out. Then I took a class called Contaminated Soil and Groundwater. I think it was the first time that class was offered in the department. Back in those days, a lot of environmental engineering focused on water and wastewater treatment. This new class talked about contamination at Love Canal, Superfund sites, how groundwater becomes contaminated, and fate and transport of contamination. It was just fascinating to me. After that class I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my career.”
“Walking onto the U campus was a little daunting, yet at the same time, with the beautiful buildings and the grounds—it was awe inspiring. I remember feeling I was just one little piece of this huge campus.”
Van Duyn remembers very large classes for her lower division math and science requirements, but once she got into her major, classes were smaller. The Civil Engineering Building was brand new then. “It was a cool building, underground, a lot of concrete,” she recalls. “Although now the building is much more welcoming with the mural on the wall and the fun furniture in the lounges, and the banners in the atrium.”
“And from what I’ve been hearing from our interns at Landmark and from employees who have children at the U, the University, too, is much more engaging now concerning the welfare of students. Orientations might be a whole week, and there are more programs to connect the students to the school, to other students, and to associations. The U does a lot to help students get connected, which is important at a big university.”
Van Duyn graduated with an emphasis in environmental engineering, but it was not a separate degree program at that time. Students took classes in structures, geomechanics, surveying, environmental, and transportation. Van Duyn values that broad civil engineering preparation and notes that all of those classes have come into play during her environmentally focused career. Van Duyn also sees value in having a separate, accredited Environmental Engineering major, which has been available at UMN since 2014, “Having a named degree program signals the importance of the environment to the program and to the world.”
Another advantage Van Duyn sees is that the Environmental Engineering major allows students to take more classes specialized on air quality, water, brownfields, etc., resulting in well-rounded graduates. However, Landmark does not insist that new employees have an Environmental Engineering degree. Rather they look for engineers and scientists who are passionate about the environment. A passion modeled by her professors at the U.
She remembers Professor Walter Maier, who taught many of the environmental emphasis classes, including water, wastewater, and environmental chemistry.
“Professor Gulliver was one of my favorite professors; he taught hydraulics and hydrology. He was excited about the field, and his class was very engaging. He was just so good at explaining complicated stuff. It was clear that he loved what he did and loved working with students.
“John Gulliver is still a great teacher. He teaches a really good Storm Water Pollution Prevention Designer Course put on by the University. As a qualified Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) designer, I need to go back to that class every three years for my recertification. John has taught different portions of that class multiple times, and I learn something each time. It is always interesting.”
Women in Engineering
The number of women in engineering has been rising, but it was not that long ago that a woman engineer was rather rare. Van Duyn recalls, “There were not many women in engineering when I was in school. In high school, I had women teachers but rarely in math or science. At the U, most of the classes I took were math- and science-related. There was just a handful of female students, maybe 10% or less. It felt competitive, and I was often worried about whether we would make it. But we did! My female classmates have popped up throughout my career, working for other companies or we might meet at a training.”
Professor Catherine French became the first female professor within the department in 1984. Van Duyn does not remember any other female professors or TAs in her technical classes. It was a bonus for those early students that Professor French was an engaging professor who explained things well.
Female professors now make up about one quarter of the CEGE faculty, and Van Duyn appreciates the changes. “It was great for me to see a woman who was technical and teaching technical classes. It is better for young women to have a woman they can talk to or see as a mentor. It is nice, now, to see the diversity in the department. I have met and worked with many women engineers and scientists, starting during my internship at the Met Council, then on my first job with the Navy, at Barr Engineering, and at Landmark. I have enjoyed working with other women engineers and have had many women role models. It has been nice to see the impact of women in engineering grow throughout my career. ”
Van Duyn was one of the founders of Landmark Environmental, LLC, a company that specializes in brownfield remediation and environmental consulting. Environmental engineering has grown as its own discipline, now called upon as are the traditional disciplines of geotechnical, structures, or transportation, to give specific input on design and construction projects.
Landmark conducts environmental assessments and investigations on all types of civil construction projects: civil site design, road projects, utility projects, parking lots, new buildings, bridges, etc. As part of an initial assessment, Landmark identifies the pertinent regulatory and industrial use history, potential contamination or any recognized environmental conditions. Oftentimes, a Phase I assessment is required in order to buy and sell commercial property. On a state or county road project, Landmark might conduct a Phase I environmental assessment for the corridor to determine what hazards could be encountered. Bridge projects might deal with hazardous building materials, lead paint, or contaminated fill, requiring a hazardous materials survey. Companies need to know what environmental issues need to be addressed as part of a project. Landmark helps them plan.
If warranted by the Phase I assessment, Landmark conducts a deeper environmental investigation. If the results of that investigation warrant further action, Landmark’s next step would be to design and help carry out a clean-up or mitigation plan.
A variety of samples can be collected. Depending on the project, these could include groundwater, soil vapor, or occasionally sediment. Shallow samples can be collected via a hand auger. Groundwater or deep samples require drilling. If there is a building on the site, sample collection might require drilling through a slab to collect soil vapor samples. Landmark subcontracts the drilling with various companies. Once the samples are collected, Landmark sends them to analytical laboratories for testing.
Cleanup might be required as part of road-construction, new build, or where contaminated soil was found. In such instances, Landmark oversees the process. They go to the site, collect samples, make sure the cleanup goes as designed, and ensure that contamination is removed according to plan.
It might appear that the best thing to do would be to remove all contaminated soil at a site. However, recent environmental guidance now suggests that filling up landfills with large amounts of contaminated soil may not be the optimal solution. Environmental engineers seek the most sustainable approach.
“We help determine if remediation is necessary as part of a capital improvement project. We might find historical contamination that has not been cleaned up or contamination that has been protected under an asphalt cap that would be disturbed when they dig in that spot. We write plans to be sent to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) describing the project and how we plan to handle any contaminated soil encountered.”
Changes over Time
The goals and guidance for environmental cleanup have developed over time. Van Duyn highlights two of the biggest changes. Over the years, cleanup goals were developed based on human health risk assessments and ecological assessments, to determine the risks to human health and the environment. Now work is based on guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and all states have their own cleanup goals.
Another big change for environmental engineers happened in the early 2000s, when soil vapor became a big issue.
Vapors (or soil gases) can migrate quickly through sandy soils and can be far reaching. Chemicals such as perchloroethylene (PCE) or naturally occurring radon can come into a house or business unknown to the occupants, even blocks away from the origin site of the chemicals. Over years, exposure to these chemicals can be harmful. Thus, vapors became a focus for environmental cleanup. Guidance regarding soil vapors is still developing and has changed multiple times over the last 20 years.
A Diverse Workforce
Landmark was founded by four women and two men. Diversity was a corporate value from the beginning. Landmark still strives to recruit and mentor a diverse workforce.
Ken Haberman, the company’s first president, stepped down in 2015, and Van Duyn took over as president. In 2019, Landmark’s female ownership and leadership met the 51% mark, and the company obtained certification as a small, women-owned business. That certification makes the company eligible for government jobs that require involvement of small or minority-owned businesses.
Landmark has been able to hire some engineers and scientists from underrepresented backgrounds, although they have found it is sometimes harder to recruit those individuals. Recently Landmark started an internal program to broaden their pipeline and hire a more diverse slate of interns. “We want to make sure that we’re getting applicants with diverse backgrounds. We tapped into Michelle Anderson, CEGE’s Industry and Pre-Major Coordinator. We are also trying to figure out what we can do locally.” Landmark is exploring scholarships and internships for underrepresented students and recruiting at the community college and local high schools to keep their pipeline open.
A Great Place to Work
“Landmark is a great place to work. We are a smaller company, but we have done many large, interesting projects. Our work environment is relaxed, and we are concerned with the well-being of our employees. We are focused and know what we need to do, so we can cut to the chase without a lot of the red tape required in larger companies. Having a network of people to tap into is helpful. Landmark is now in its 21st year. It is just amazing how fast the time went!”
Career Satisfaction and Giving Back
“The projects that I have worked on over the years have been a great source of pride for me. Many of them have been complex projects like the South Shore of Lake Bemidji clean-up project. But I take pride in even the little projects. I get a lot of satisfaction from figuring out problems and knowing I am helping the environment.
“Another source of satisfaction has been my connection to the U.” Van Duyn served on the CEGE Professional Advisory Board for 11 years, mentored the last two years in the department’s new summer Career Prep and Mentoring program, and speaks often in the Capstone class. In February, she participated in a panel on business models.
“Another especially thrilling opportunity was a chance to speak at the CEGE graduation last December. I mean, wow! I was glad to have the chance to help that next generation of engineers, maybe they will pick up on some of the things I learned. Everyone I told said, ‘I’ve never known anyone who spoke at a graduation!’ So that felt special. My connection to the U has always been really a big part of my career.
“My involvement in professional associations has been really important over the years—not just being a member, but being actively involved, being on a board or being on committees. Networking with people is so important for us individually and for our companies.
“I’m a board director now for Minnesota Brownfields, which is the main entity locally for keeping up to speed on brownfields. They provide short courses and updates on new guidance from the MPCA, education on brownfield related topics, showcase brownfields sites, and provide networking. Getting a chance to be behind the scenes, to make things happen, to make sure things are going well, and solve problems has been really satisfying.
“The other association I have been active in over the years is the Society of American Military Engineers. I got involved during my first job working for the Navy, and when I moved back to Minnesota from California, I got involved with the local chapter. I was on the board, and I have led the awards committee, helping to recognize people for their hard work as volunteers. I have also been a small business liaison, helping to promote small business and being a voice for small businesses.
“Another association I participate in is the Alliance of Hazardous Material Professionals. For many years, I helped host the Alliance’s environmental compliance class. All of these connections are good for networking, education, and building relationships beyond one’s own company.”
Outlook for the Future of Environmental Engineering
“When I started this career, I thought what’s going to happen if we clean up all these sites and I run out of work to do before I’m ready to retire?”
Van Duyn has discovered that the field of environmental cleanup is not done by any means; in fact, she thinks it might be just getting started. Environmental cleanup seems to be never ending, especially in metropolitan areas. Historical contamination is found as old buildings come down and new buildings go up, previously mitigated or sealed contamination can be disturbed, and over time, new contaminants are identified.
“Years back, we didn’t even think about cleaning up contaminants like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). New environmental engineers will face even more challenges. Some concepts and processes may be similar, but every project is different in some way. There is plenty of work to do, important work! There is a great future for the next generation of engineers and scientists who want to take care of our environment.”
Sherry Van Duyn (PE, CHMM, BCE 1987) is a co-founder and president of Landmark Environmental, LLC, a small, women-owned engineering firm that specializes in delivering environmental solutions. Landmark subcontracts with many engineering companies who may not have that expertise in house. Van Duyn is a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). At Landmark, she manages Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs), Phase II Investigations, response action plans, contingency plans, remediation design, contracting and bidding, remediation cost estimating, and oversight of response action and construction activities for large complicated redevelopment and civil works projects.