The First-Person Project

Brian Fons ’95

Auburn, ME

Founder and President, Environmental Projects, Inc., Auburn

Major: Safety Studies

I’m in the hazardous waste removal business. I got my interest in the field from my mother, who prosecuted hazardous waste and superfund cases as an assistant attorney general for the state of Connecticut. I grew up in Canton, Connecticut, just outside of Hartford. In the eighth grade, I started a science fair project that looked at the ways the residue from hazardous waste incineration can be cleaned up from smokestacks. I worked on it for quite a while until it seemed overly complex. My teacher wanted me to focus on something more fun, so I ended up looking at a geological feature of the region, trap rock ecosystems.

My family moved to New Hampshire before my junior year in high school. I graduated from Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook and came to Keene in the fall of ’90.

I landed at Keene because of the environmental studies program, but decided that geology was more my thing – though it turned out geology wasn’t my thing. By then, I was living off campus in a cabin in Westmoreland with a couple of roommates. A friend recruited us to join the town’s volunteer fire department, and I eventually became an EMT and served as a rescue lieutenant. I also started taking classes in safety. Professors Dave Buck and Larry MacDonald inspired me, and I switched majors to safety and occupational health.

While I was a student, I worked part time for Laidlaw Environmental Services doing household hazardous waste collection events, and became full time when I graduated. I got to travel all over the Northeast US. Laidlaw’s training program was second to none. The coolest thing? We went everywhere. We went into all sorts of facilities that made everything imaginable. I had a pharmaceutical manufacturer account and an explosives manufacturer account, which I serviced once a month. We saw how pesticides and how the Patriot missiles were made. I also got to see a lot of different safety programs, and how different outfits handled different risks.

I started as a field technician doing cleanup. If the client had closed down a product line, we would decontaminate the facility. Then I became a labpack chemist, cleaning out laboratories and chemical inventories. I did that for a while, and then I went to Newington, Connecticut, to help open a new office. And then I realized that I wanted to move back home again. I couldn’t find a job that I liked in New Hampshire, so I ended up in Maine, working at a company called Seacoast Ocean Services. Seacoast did similar work, just on a much smaller scale, plus a lot of marine work. Booming ships and things like that. I did that for three years before starting my own business in 1999.

We have 11 full-time and 14 part-time workers today. EPI is the only full-service hazardous waste contractor in Maine. There are two sides to the business. The first is the project and spill side. We’ve been trained to handle truck spills on the highway, leaking tanks, spills in manufacturing facilities. We just finished a project that involved chemically treating soil at a former tannery site here in Maine to remove high levels of lead. The other thing that would probably interest my former geology professors: we also have three Geoprobe drill rigs for a specific type of drilling called direct push. We install monitoring wells and collect soil and groundwater samples. Sometimes it’s for geotechnical purposes, but mostly it’s for environmental investigation. When commercial property changes hands or if there’s been a spill or a tank leaks, we will install some borings and collect soil and water samples to delineate the contamination.

The other half of the business is the hazardous waste disposal side. We operate a 10-day transfer facility for hazardous waste. And I also have a nonhazardous waste processing facility. We have a tank farm. We take in a lot of materials such as products that aren’t usable anymore and nonhazardous chemicals that we process. We recycle a lot of waste oil – we actually heat our shop with waste oil. So we’re not buying any heating oil. We have a couple of vacuum trucks and several box trucks for picking up wastes.

Depending on the chemical that we’re cleaning up, we sometimes have to do a lot of research, and we bring in other people. Sometimes it’s more a function of having the right equipment. If we don’t know what’s in a container, we use our robot arm unit to punch a hole in it. A lot of these old chemicals, like ether, are a problem if you try to open the container. So if you can remotely puncture it, you can add other chemicals to make it stable.

Most of the hazardous materials we clean up are what you would expect. Paint, oils, gasoline, solvent-type materials. We do get some strange stuff. We get meth labs – we take care of the chemicals from meth labs. Some of them can be very dangerous. Typically the DEA goes in first, and then they call the state Department of Environmental Protection, and then we get called via our contract with the Maine DEP.

These kinds of situations come up about once or twice a month. The most recent one: the police had arrested an individual who was trying to secede, who wasn’t recognizing our government. They called the bomb squad to sweep the place, and then we went in and removed a bunch of bomb-making materials and poisons. We had another job where a woman had a restraining order on a guy who was threatening to kill her. She found a container of cyanide. The sheriff’s department asked us to help remove it, and while we were there we found a trap door in the guy’s barn with 30 pounds of cyanide in it. He had enough to wipe out the town.

Most of the work that we do has a direct impact on the environment. We’ve taken contaminated sites and turned them into parks. New England is full of old industrial properties; they have all kinds of hazards and they’re usually in very beautiful places – along falls, on rivers and lakes. We’re helping clean up a lot of these places.

I’m using everything I studied at Keene State – environmental science and geology and safety. Safety studies majors had to take Intro to Management along with a business class, and both of those have come in very handy. There’s no training manual for starting your own business.

We do some cool stuff. It’s fun. I don’t feel like I have to go to work every day. It’s interesting and most of the time the work that we’re doing has a direct positive impact for someone. When we’re done at a site, the site is clean and usable again. Whatever disaster befell them has been resolved.

I have two daughters. Dasha is 14, and Katya is 17. My wife, Tonya, was a middle-school special ed teacher for 17 years, and now she is helping me out in the office and doing some special ed consulting.

All four of us are hockey players. I started and run an adult co-ed recreational hockey league. I get a kick out of being able to play hockey – we play Sunday nights and most weeks the kids come with us. My wife plays in it as well, and both of the girls played competitive travel hockey. I coached girl’s youth hockey for six years. We were always going places that were two hours away, so as tiring as the travel was, that’s a lot of time to get to spend with your kids just talking about stuff and life. Whenever we went away for a tournament we would always try to find some interesting local restaurant and have a nice family meal. It is great to hear that Keene State College has hockey now.

As a family we like to travel, and as a result of that, our whole family is certified for SCUBA diving. It’s too cold up here for us, so we like to go to Curacao. Diving opens up this whole other world that you can check out. It’s peaceful and relaxing, and you get to see a side of the planet that most people don’t. The water is clear, at 100 feet down you can see perfectly and it is still warm.

I stay busy and I am happy. I work with a great bunch of people, I’ve got a great family, great friends. I have a good job in an interesting industry. I really can’t complain!