30th Anniversary Celebration Event

ISTC Feted for Leadership in Pollution Prevention and Sustainability

anniversary event photos; three photos in total; top photo text: At the 30th Anniversary event, some of the founding leaders of ISTC were hosted by current leaders at the Prairie Research Institute (PRI). Left to right are: Gary Miller, first ISTC assistant director; Mike Barcelona, Illinois State Water Survey administrator who lead the original planning for ISTC; Kevin O'Brien, current ISTC director; Dave Thomas, founding ISTC Director; and Mark Ryan, current PRI executive director.; middle photo: people talking in the gallery and looking at displays; caption for center photo: Special exhibits on current projects and historical achievements were on display both days of the celebration. ; bottom photo: crowd of people at iHotel; caption for bottom photo: A full day of presentations were video recorded and will be made available online.

The 30th Anniversary Celebration of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) on Nov. 9 brought together some significant players that put Illinois at the forefront of pollution prevention and sustainability.

ISTC has changed its name several times as its mission evolved since 1985 from managing toxic hazards and pollutants to helping the state's economy grow in sustainable directions. The state was well ahead of the curve when it established the Center, recognizing the need and the benefits of environmental research and protecting the state's people and natural resources. ISTC helped Illinois become among the first to organize influential hazardous materials databases, work with industry to minimize risks, and join in the long task to clean up contaminated sites.

"In (19)85 through (19)90 those were heady years, challenging years, exciting years," said Gary Miller, who was a long-time assistant director at ISTC. During these years the Center strongly advocated for environmental policies at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Commerce, Energy, and Defense.

Founding Director David Thomas and Miller also were strong supporters and lobbyists for the U.S. Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, which they helped craft. Illinois was the second largest generator of hazardous waste in the nation at that time and that was a period of growing concern about the handling and disposal of industrial compounds, about some of which little was known.

Over the past 30 years, more than 200 research projects have been funded by the Center, including early remediation studies of old industrial and disposal sites in Winnebago County, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Calumet, Waukegan Harbor, and Lake DePue.

Funded on a project during the early years of the Center, Craig Colten, who was with the Illinois State Museum at the time, produced a groundbreaking long-term longitudinal study of industrial waste in urban counties covering more than 100 years. Infamous cases such as Love Canal and Lake Calumet had prompted government-imposed liability for former owners and operators of derelict and abandoned sites.

In addition to water monitoring applications, these methods could be utilized by the energy industry to assess the feasibility of water reuse and assist in troubleshooting leaks in current water recycling systems.

Seed funding for this project was obtained through the Prairie Research Institute Matching Research Awards Program.

presentation videosIn addition to water monitoring applications, these methods could be utilized by the energy industry to assess the feasibility of water reuse and assist in troubleshooting leaks in current water recycling systems.

Colten, now Carl O. Sauer professor of geography at Louisiana State University, pursued historical studies to document and link current contamination to previous land use and disposal sites.

"How do you create a report on hazardous waste when there is no inventory of hazardous waste?" Colten asked rhetorically during his presentation. His work began with a history of what industries existed previously in the area, an examination of the technology and raw materials they used, what waste products were produced, prevailing waste handling practices of the time, all in the context of the changing regulatory framework over the years. That work served as a baseline for studies at the Center for years to come.

The day also illustrated the important collaborations of the Center with the Prairie Research Institute's older sibling surveys - the Illinois State Geology, Water, and Natural History Surveys. Many of the studies on contaminated sites, landfill inventories, and industrial emissions were combined efforts with the other surveys and were funded by the Center to gather needed data.

Michael Barcelona, currently professor at Western Michigan University, served as the first interim director of the Center and helped develop the plan and guide the new Illinois Hazardous Waste Research and Information Center (as it was initially called) while he was head of the water chemistry group at the Illinois State Water Survey in the 1980s.

istc director kevin o'brien appears as Dr. emmett brown; caption: The film 'Back to the Future' was a popular nostalgic twist at the event looking back to 1985. Dr. Kevin O'Brien appeared as Dr. Emmit Brown to make predictions about where ISTC wants to be in the future.

"I contend that we are what we leave behind," said Professor Barcelona. "We leave a mess? We are a mess." As testament to the effectiveness of pollution prevention efforts, Barcelona quoted the Oct. 19 issue of Environmental Science and Technology (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (21), pp 12951-12957) estimating that between 1991 and 2012 five to 14 billion pounds of toxic releases have been prevented by U.S. manufacturers by improving practices.

Barcelona recalled that there were effective ways to neutralize materials (notably organic compounds, solvents, and electroplating wastes). But before the 1970s and 1980s they were seldom employed and the technical assistance staff of the Center helped spread the word on those and tested new methods.

With the passage of the Pollution Prevention Act in 1990, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) found a ready colleague in the Illinois center, said Jerri-Anne Garl, chief of materials management branch at the U.S. EPA's Region 5. "Since the start of EPA's pollution protection program in the early 1990s, ISTC has been one of our effective and innovative partners in this effort," Garl told the crowd at the event.

"ISTC itself has served as a model for other state programs," she added. Garl, herself a veteran of four decades with EPA in the Midwest, cited ISTC programs that leverage both state and EPA funds for helping municipal water and wastewater treatment plants as well as local commercial and industrial facilities to conserve water, reduce the use of hazardous materials, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions, solid wastes, as well as facilities costs.

She added that the Center's programs also harness the expertise of state and federal agencies to improve manufacturing efficiency. "These companies have saved money, and retained and gained jobs," she added. "This is a great example of how a green environment also supports a healthy economy."

"We believe that the ISTC is really well-positioned with the tools, experience, connections, and the innovative spirit [to continue] to be an essential partner in this effort," Garl said.

Then and now, ISTC remains unique for its comprehensive approach (combining research, public information, and technical assistance) and being housed in its own freestanding laboratory complex. "Looking back 30 years later, how many other institutions like that have been created? Zero," said Gary Miller.

"While a lot of states had technical assistance for industry and library/clearing houses we were really the only one, I believe, that had our own research facility and a significant research budget," Founding Director Thomas said. The strength of Illinois' commitment to these efforts has helped seed external projects and has given ISTC national and international influence in the field, he said.

Thomas added that the Center has effectively evolved with the changing times "to meet present demands and lead the way into the future. Energy and water reduction have increased in emphasis and importance in its activities. Life cycle analysis and greener process designs, technologies, and products will remain important areas of investigation." He noted that a newer program at ISTC on zero waste will also enhance ISTC's efforts with helping businesses and other organizations with long-term sustainability.

Emmett Brown Quote: You can make your future whatever you want, so make it a good one. (Dr. Emmett Brown, Back to the Future Part III)

"How we live compatibly with nature though is a major area where changes are needed for us as a society to live sustainability," Thomas closed. "Recognizing the environmental services provided by nature and designing our urban planning, land use practices, and agriculture to minimize non-point sources of pollution and to live more sustainably on our land are challenges that we face now, and which only become more important as time goes on."

Other distinguished speakers at the 30th Anniversary Celebration were:

  • State Sen. Scott Bennett, (52nd District).
  • Kevin Greene, clean air policy advisor, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Jeff Levengood, wildlife and ecological toxicologist, Illinois Natural History Survey.
  • Timothy Lindsey, global director of sustainable development, Caterpillar, Inc.
  • Kevin O'Brien, director, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.
  • Mark Ryan, executive director, Prairie Research Institute.