When it comes to contaminated ground, there generally have been two main ways to deal with it — remove the contamination or seal it up.
Seventeen years ago ISOTEC, an environmental engineering firm that recently relocated to 11 Princess Road in Lawrenceville, found a third option — treat the contamination where it lies (in situ), turning the pollution into something harmless.
The idea was the foundation of the company, whose full name is In-Situ Oxidative Technologies Inc. Started in 1995 by Tom Andrews, ISOTEC had been operating on Everett Drive with a sister company, Environmental Waste Management Associates (EWMA), until last summer, when ISOTEC decided that it needed more space and a better deal on an expiring lease.
ISOTEC and EWMA had shared office and warehouse space on Everett Drive and the two companies have moved to Lawrenceville together. Andrews says the Everett Drive space was getting cramped at 4,500 square feet.
The desire to move coincided with the end of the lease, and Andrews says he looked into several properties offered by NAI Fennelly, a commercial real estate brokerage firm in Hamilton. That company’s president, Jerry Fennelly, found ISOTEC a 10,000-square-foot space on Princess Road for what Andrews calls “comparable rent.” ISOTEC occupies about 7,000 square feet of the space.
Andrews also called the move a no-brainer, given the larger space, good rent, and central location. ISOTEC has 20 employees (13 here and 7 in Colorado), and most of the ones here live closer to Lawrenceville than to West Windsor, Andrews says. EWMA employs seven, most of whom come from Pennsylvania, Andrews says, so the move has made little difference in terms of commute.
Andrews himself lives in Hunterdon County and says that the move does not make much difference for his commute either. But he’s happy that the drive is more convenient to most of the people at ISOTEC.
Andrews grew up in Hunterdon County and earned his bachelor’s in civil engineering from Virginia Tech, though he originally had no interest in college and wanted to start a masonry business. His father, a contractor, urged him to go to college, particularly since Andrews collected athletic scholarships from his time as a high school wrestler. In the early 1980s, fresh out of college, he went to work for Roger Bogard Associates, a civil engineering firm, during New Jersey’s construction lull.
Then, in the late ’80s, construction in the state took off, but Andrews found that the industry was not for him. His boss had served on several municipal planning boards, and Andrews got tired of contending with meetings and municipal land use issues.
“I took a job in north Jersey because the guy offered me money,” Andrews says of his next venture with a developer. He didn’t want the job, so when the company’s owner asked him how much he wanted as a salary, Andrews threw out a ridiculously high number, to which the owner answered, “When can you start?”
Andrews worked in development until the bubble popped in the early 1990s, and by then he was ready to find something else anyway “I like the outdoors,” he says. “And all the places I liked were being replaced by houses.” So Andrews went to work for EWMA, which also was in northern New Jersey, and served as the company’s chief engineer, in charge of evaluating new technologies.
The technology that struck him most was a new oxidative process for neutralizing dangerous chemicals in the ground, such as the residue of dry cleaning chemicals. “I took it to my boss and said ‘If it really works, it should be very simple to implement in the field,’” he says.
The division in charge of the new oxidative technology became a spinoff of EWMA that a few years later became ISOTEC. Andrews says the company could never have survived without the entire staff, which he says comprises a series of interrelated strengths that make doing ISOTEC’s work a lot easier. The staff has held together for most of the 17 years ISOTEC has been in business, and throughout all the clean-ups of all the military bases, Superfund sites, gas stations, and industrial complexes, ISOTEC claims to have never had a single accident.
Getting the company off the ground came with its share of external growing pains, however. The traditional ways to remediate contaminated ground have one shared advantage — anyone interested in seeing the progress of a job could walk up and look at what was being done. In-situ treatment, though, is all done underground and, therefore, cannot be seen.
ISOTEC had to convince wary agencies (the ones in charge of making sure that transferred lands and buildings met environmental safety levels) that its not-visible process of neutralizing chlorides and other chemicals in groundwater was viable.
Andrews explains it like a skinned knee. If you fall and skin your knee and put hydrogen peroxide on it, the peroxide eats away at the cut and its contamination. And it stings like hell because it actually is cleaning the wound via oxidation. ISOTEC’s treatment is exactly the same thing, making contaminated groundwater into something benign, or completely oxidizing it.
As those wary agencies turned into believers, ISOTEC’s business grew. The company has patented its process and has been able to lease it to companies around the world, but Andrews says a major turning point came when he noticed something at a conference.
Back in the 1990s, he says, he attended an industry conference and witnessed one, maybe two posters on the in-situ treatment option. Now industry conferences have whole sections dedicated to in-situ treatment.
While Andrews wouldn’t call the business recession-proof, ISOTEC has weathered the ups and downs in the economy because as a contractor, there are always jobs to bid on, he says. Whenever real property trades hands or new construction is to come, environmental tests must be done. So when there is no construction (like right now, for example), there still are property sales. And whenever there is groundwater contamination to contend with, ISOTEC has an opportunity. The company has worked with Fortune 500 companies, manufacturers, strip mall developers, environmental consultants, and the federal Department of Defense.
The rise in posters at industry conferences also indicates a growing competition. But Andrews says that ISOTEC’s history and its position as a pioneer in oxidative in-situ remediation carry a lot of weight. “I’m very upfront with people,” Andrews says. “I’m blatantly truthful. If someone’s looking to sell a magic bullet, I’ll let people know.”
Though more and more companies following the general ISOTEC method are coming along all the time, Andrews is not worried. A lot of the company’s new clients turn out to be the competition’s former, unsatisfied clients, he says.
And even if the competition gets a few customers and keeps them, Andrews says he is content with his chosen career path. “I love what I do,” he says. “When people ask me what we do here, I tell them ‘We clean up the world.’” —Scott Morgan
ISOTEC – In Situ Oxidative Technologies Inc., 11 Princess Road, Suite A, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-275-8500; fax, 609-275-9608. www.insituoxidation.com.
Environmental Waste Management Associates, 11 Princess Road, Suite B, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-799-7300; fax, 609-799-0108. www.ewma.com