Shawn Gagné - Environmental Specialist

Name: Shawn Gagné

Age: 31

Born: Ottawa, Ontario

Profession: Environmental Consulting

Al Gore's documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth' brought global warming to the forefront of the media, but climate change is actually one of many existing environmental issues, including soil contamination, species extinction, and loss of natural resources. Environmental specialists are the frontline caretakers of our planet: they help to make sure the Earth stays clean, and try to keep its inhabitants (plants, insects, fish, and animals: you name it!) happy and healthy for years and years to come. We talk to Shawn Gagné, an expert on water remediation, to find out more about this exciting career.

What is an Environmental Specialist?

An environmental specialist is a general title for a scientist or engineer working in the environmental field.

We each have our specialty and work together to analyze problems and find solutions for our clients.

I have specialized in an area called contaminant hydrogeology.

What this means is that I find ways to clean up groundwater. Each time a chemical, like gasoline, is spilled on the ground, some of it (sometimes a lot of it!) infiltrates into the ground.

Now, let's take gasoline as our example. It floats on water, and so, a gasoline spill will continue to sink into the ground until it finds the groundwater table.

Once it's on the groundwater table, gasoline will tend to spread out (because groundwater flows like a river, just a really, really slow one, gasoline will flow with it).

Now, a lot of people in Ontario still use groundwater to drink (the City of Guelph, for example), so any chemicals, like gasoline, in the groundwater could end up being used by people for drinking.

That's where I come in.

I find groundwater contamination, how far it has spread, and then try to clean it up. This often takes a long time because once a chemical has entered the ground, it's often very hard to find it all and to clean it all up.

What is the last movie you saw? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

The Breakfast Club — thumbs way up

What was the last book you read? Jam it or can it?

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler — Jam it

What is a typical day like for you?

Each day and week can change rapidly. I can expect to be out in the "field" (usually somewhere in Southwestern Ontario) to clean up a chemical spill or in the office writing reports on any given day of any month of the year.

I remember going into work on a Monday morning last December expecting to work on some reports that week only to find out that I was needed in Seattle

that Wednesday morning. Talk about a change in plans!

What music do you have in your CD player right now?

A little bit of the Barenaked Ladies Christmas album.

Tattoos: cool or uncool?

Can be cool, if done right.

How do you find groundwater contamination?

Let's take a real-estate transaction where a buyer wants to purchase an old gas station. For banks to offer financing to the buyer, they first want to make sure they won't be adopting environmental liability (due to the inherent historical use of the site). We get hired on by the buyer to check out the history of the site (this step is called a "Phase I Environmental Site Assessment" a.k.a. ESA) and find that, yes indeed, it operated as a gas station and there is no public record ofthe gas tanks (usually located underground) being removed.

We then move onto a Phase II ESA. In this part of the investigation, we would locate the tanks (through various means like ground penetrating radar, etc.) and then excavate and remove them. To keep with this example, let's say that the underground gasoline tanks were riddled with holes (a very likely situation) and that there were strong petroleum odors detected, and maybe a sheen on the water table. Note that we always dig down to the water table because that's where we'll find signs of contamination.

Now comes the fun part. Now we install monitoring wells throughout the site. We would normally install at least three situated around the site in order to calculate groundwater flow direction. Where the groundwater flows is where we'll find the contamination. Once we know where the contamination is heading, we try to "head" it off. Laws in Ontario

forbid us to drill/install monitoring wells off of the property, so in this case, our investigation is limited to the site (i.e., the old gas station). So, we install monitoring wells around the original excavation and "downgradient" of the excavation.

Now that we have a network of monitoring wells, we can sample them for known parameters (chemicals). For this site, we'll collect water samples and send them to a laboratory to test for volatile organic compounds like vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene, as well as petroleum hydrocarbons (the full ranges - gasoline, diesel and heavy oils). Once we have theresults back from the laboratory, we compare them to Ministry of theEnvironment (MOE) Standards to see where we stand. If all of thes amples show chemicals below the MOE Standards, then the job is complete. If, however, the samples show chemicals above the MOE Standards, then things can get even more interesting.

You just won a million dollars. What's the first thing you'd do?

Travel the world with my wife and son

How much traveling do you do as an Environmental Specialist?

There is a lot of opportunity to travel in this business. I started working as an Environmental Specialist in 2003 for a small business in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

While working for that business, I traveled throughout the United States on almost a monthly basis.

When I came to Canada, my travel experiences only got better. I have traveled to Seattle Washington, throughout Ontario and to Guyana, South America. Working for a global company (founded in Toronto!) allows me to look for opportunities everywhere we have projects.

Literally — that's everywhere in the world!

What country would you most like to visit?


What do you think's really at the end of a rainbow?

Whatever your heart desires

Did you always want to be an Environmental Specialist?


I wanted to be an engineer when I was in high school and actually started taking engineering courses when I started in University.

After a few years of University, though, I found that my interests lied in other disciplines — like Environmental Geology.

It was after taking this leap from Engineering into Environmental Geology when I found that I truly 'fit' in.

It'sreally hard to know what you want to do with your life when in High School, and it took me a few years of looking around at the different faculties at University before I found a name (and degree) for what I wanted to do with my life.

What is the coolest part of your job?

Traveling, and feeling like my work means something (i.e. cleaning up the environment).

What's the worst part of your job?

Working outside in the winter (brrrrr)

Meat. Yes or no?


Chocolate or Vanilla?


What is a typical salary range for an Environmental Specialist?

In Canada, 40 - 55k

What's your favorite holiday?


What courses in high school prepared you for this field?

As is pretty standard for science careers, the maths (finite, calculus and algebra) and sciences (particularly chemistry and biology) really helped me figure out what I wanted to do. Don't forget about writing skills, though. A big part of my job involves writing reports. You could be the smartest guy/girl in the company, but if you can't communicate, then you won't be able to advance in your career.

Where did you go to university/college?

I went to McMaster University in Hamilton.

How did you decide where to go?

At the time, I wanted to go to a University which offered degrees well regarded in industry. Now that I'm out, though, I see that the name on the degree does not meanas much as what you do with your degree following University.

Was there extra training required for this career after you finished college/university?

No, although I'm always learning new ways to do things at work. I am starting my Masters degree in January. Although it's not needed to do my work, in an increasingly competitive market, more school cannot hurt.

Choose a sandwich: Peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and banana?

PB and banana — toasted for breakfast is really really yummy.

Ooooops! Everyone makes mistakes so what was the dumbest thing you've ever done at work?

Good question! I've done some silly things over the years but none of them seem to be coming to mind :)

What's the best thing about Canada?

The wide-open spaces

What's your biggest pet peeve?


Any advice that you would give others seeking a similar career?

Find someone doing what you think is cool and ask them what they do, specifically, and how they got to where they are.

What are some great web links or references for someone interesting in reading up more about this career?

Golder Associates

Sydney Tar Ponds

Association of Professional Geoscientists

Canadian Environmental Certification Approvals Board


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