Mark Gilbertson (BS, CBE ’81) did not set out to play a key role in cleaning up some of the world’s largest environmental disasters, but if you ask him how it all began, he’ll tell you it started with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The UW engineering curriculum prepares you well for tackling tough challenges that face the country,” he says. “One thing that made me successful was reaching across various programs at UW. I took courses in civil, biology, toxicology and limnology. The ability to work with others in other disciplines has served me well over the years.”
Gilbertson is deputy assistant secretary for site restoration in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management. He leads the organization responsible for the remediation of an environmental legacy resulting from five decades of nuclear weapons development and government-sponsored nuclear energy research. Integral to that responsibility is the deactivation and decommissioning of several thousand contaminated facilities and remediation of extensive surface and groundwater contamination.
The summer after graduation, Gilbertson was building a log cabin with his brother and father when a job offer from small environmental firm persuaded him to scrap the job he had secured.
“Being part of a small firm, you get to do just about everything that you are able to do,” he says. “Very soon I was managing projects with a very interdisciplinary group of people. From there we did work for the state of Minnesota and for private industry to help set up worker safety and early environmental management programs.”
Those projects gave him hands on experience with industry and the EPA. His work with clients and modeling and economic analysis for the development of regulations caught the eye of the agency and he was encouraged to apply for a position.
After three years with an environmental consulting firm and three years with the EPA, he joined the department of energy. He was in the right place at the right time, but only because his education and experience had prepared him to meet the challenges of what happened next.
Gilbertson became involved in a number of environmental enforcement cases that were “firsts” from a technical perspective as the nation set the framework for remediating decades of unchecked growth.
“Through all of this, some of it is a little bit of luck, some of it is a little serendipity that allows you to go from one of these opportunities to the next,” he says. “But in order to be successful in each one of those opportunities you need to have a framework or background and obviously that framework for how you tackle problems and the way you think about things and approach things, that process is established through your education as through the engineering program at UW.”
After running a national hazardous-waste groundwater task force that examined all the major commercial disposal sites across the country, he embarked on an assessment of the nation’s nuclear waste production and disposal with the DOE. The department was in the early stages of trying to assess and understand the magnitude of contamination from the creation the nuclear weapons complex.
Then, the FBI raided Rocky Flats.
In 1953, the Rocky Flats plant began production of bomb components, manufacturing plutonium triggers used to assemble nuclear weapons. Years of unsafe practices and disposal went unreported in the highly classified facility.
Insiders at Rocky Flats informed the EPA and FBI about the unsafe conditions in 1987. After gathering evidence, the agencies raided the facility. Dubbed “Operation Desert Glow,” the Department of Justice-sponsored raid began after the FBI moved past the facility’s heavily armed security. The subsequent grand jury investigation to gather evidence of wrongdoing led to a national awakening of the legacy of Cold War weapons production.
“I was one of the people asked to lead a “tiger team” at Rocky Flats. We did these reviews for the Secretary of Energy, Admiral James Watkins,” Gilbertson says. “These reviews changed the culture of the lab system and helped the transition from the cold war mentality. It was an instrument of cultural change that helped prepare us for the future.”
One result is the Environmental Management Cleanup Program, which has been operating for 20 years and will continue for decades to come given estimates for future cleanup efforts are in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Today, national laboratories apply advanced computing and modeling techniques created in developing weapons to find solutions to cleaning high-level waste. In situations where contamination is in the groundwater, Gilbertson says it’s important to have predictive tools that can determine where the plume is moving so that remediation efforts can be focused.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with the national labs and the office of science to design solvents that are tailored toward capturing cesium and have gone from a twinkle in a scientist’s eye at Oakridge to the construction of a full-scale plant using the process to remove cesium from the waste,” he says. “It’s pretty exciting. We have some of the largest nuclear construction projects going on in the world at Savannah River.”