Matthew Burns excels in finding innovative ways WSP USA clients can successfully meet their environmental remediation needs while minimizing the financial burden that can often result.
In recognition of his expertise, Burns was recently honored as a 2017 WSP Technical Fellow for Water and Environment. The Technical Fellow Program recognizes individuals for their outstanding professional accomplishments, including contributions to professional publications and participation in professional associations.
“I work with teams across the U.S. and around the globe to bring world-recognized expertise to the local level,” Burns said. “Lately, I’ve been focusing on optimizing remedial amendment formulations to stimulate degradation along multiple pathways within a single application. Solutions vary from site to site, but typically extend treatment longevity at significantly lower costs.” An application of this technology at a contaminated bedrock site received the 2016 Project Merit Award from the Environmental Business Journal.
Burns, in situ remediation practice leader for the firm’s water & environment sector, joined the Boston office of WSP in 1999. His key responsibility is to provide chemical and microbial process and diagnostic expertise to assist local teams with challenging groundwater investigation and remediation projects in the United States and across the globe.
“I got into the profession to clean-up pollution and provide balance between technological advances and environmental stewardship,” Burns said. “Recognition by the industry and by WSP through being named a Technical Fellow is a milestone that lets me know that I am making a difference.”
For Burns, the Technical Fellow recognition was based on his involvement with the industry evolution of how groundwater contamination is evaluated and cleaned up.
“It was not too long ago that most groundwater contamination was considered recalcitrant and remedial efforts regularly fell short,” Burns said. “Now, with better knowledge of metabolic pathways and advanced diagnostics – such as DNA/RNA-based tools and isotopic analysis – nearly all contaminated groundwater can be cleaned up.”
One of his recent projects, in Michigan, highlights the groundbreaking work his team is doing regarding chlorobenzene, a solvent often found in soil and groundwater at project sites.
“At this site we discovered, by accident, a microaerophilic degradation pathway for the treatment of chlorobenzene using a diagnostic called stable isotope probing,” Burns said. “Basically, we were looking to reproduce degradation along a pathway where microbes that respire materials other than oxygen would be stimulated to consume chlorobenzene.”
His team deployed an in situ microcosm with these stimulants and isotopically (13C) labelled chlorobenzene into a site well. After incubation, they looked for the label within the DNA of microbes that used the chlorobenzene to make more microbes.
“After sequencing the labelled DNA, we were surprised to find an obligate aerobe thriving in conditions absent of measurable oxygen,” Burns said. “A full-scale treatment using this microaerophilic degradation pathway has been implemented at the site and is performing well.”
At another site, in Kansas, a manufacturing company faced a $5 million price tag to clean up hexavalent chromium released from its site – a cost that could have led to permanent closure of the facility.
With the aid of three-dimensional data visualization, Burns and his team devised a minimally intrusive strategy to keep the facility operational during site clean-up activities at the significantly lower cost of $500,000.
“The clean-up involved installing an injected chemical reductant passive treatment horizontal barrier between affected soil and the groundwater, followed by the construction and flooding of infiltration galleries near the ground surface,” he said. “The treatment was successful; a ‘no further action’ determination was issued by the regulating authority and the facility was in operation throughout the project.”
The project received the 2015 Business Achievement Award from the Environmental Business Journal.
While client investments into environmental engineering do not result in assets such as buildings and roads, they help reduce liability expenses that can result in significant deductions from profitability.
“We’re converting managed environmental liabilities into assets by using technology and innovation to resolve liability – not just manage it,” Burns said. “We’re turning the corner using what we call a ‘fail small and succeed big’ approach, which involves the use of small-scale testing of highly site specific innovative solutions using advanced diagnostics to allow the best remedy for the site to emerge.
Clients have been receptive to this successful approach. “Where we’ve ‘failed small’ we’ve also learned techniques that led to succeeding big,” he said. “Identifying the microaerophilic degradation pathway at the Michigan site is an example of a small-scale failure turning into full success.”
Raised in Pepperell, Massachusetts, Burns earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Maryland.
Throughout his career, Burns said he has been positively influenced by many colleagues, including two he considers mentors.
“One was a phenomenal consultant that 20 years ago saw the coming wave of technologic advancements within the industry,” he said. “He encouraged me to dive in and gave me a long leash to explore. My second mentor was a pure innovative thinker who taught me to control risk and not be adverse to it.”
Outside his normal work day, Burns enjoys volunteering as a youth basketball coach, but continues to find ways to advance technology and innovation to clean up pollution, which includes writing journal articles and conference presentations.
He is a frequent workshop and webinar presenter, and serves on the editorial review board for the Remediation journal and on the scientific advisory board for the Association for Environmental Health and Sciences International Conference on Soils, Sediments and Water.
“Presenting and writing on technology and innovation leads to differentiating WSP,” he said. “It can take a while for potential clients to identify true innovation, but a drumbeat of constant activity and success stories leads to results that the marketplace now sees.”
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