GAIL BRICE : President, Brice Enviro Ventures
Earlier this month, Fluor Corp. in Irvine won a $2.2-billion federal contract for the largest environmental remediation project ever--the cleanup of a closed uranium plant in Fernald, Ohio. Gail Brice, president of Brice Enviro Ventures in Newport Beach, works with environmental companies interested in merging and with non-environmental companies looking to diversify into the environmental industry. She recently discussed Fluor’s record-breaking contract and other environmental issues with Times staff writer Susan Christian.
The Fernald project was the first of 17 huge contracts that the Department of Energy will be awarding over the next few years. Why are so many of these projects coming up right now?
For the past five years, the DOE and the Defense Department have been investigating and identifying problems on the sites. They have collected enough information to determine how much funding will be required for the projects, and to think through how they want to manage the jobs.
Some of the facilities are still active. On those sites, the DOE is looking at what changes can be made to prevent the problems caused by past practices. Putting new controls into place is a strong component of this program.
How is it that, despite the ailing economy, the government is able to fund multibillion-dollar environmental cleanups?
With the downsizing of other defense projects comes the opportunity to spend money on the environment. To implement the cleanup, Fluor is going to be required to hire DOE employees who were laid off at the Fernald site. It will be an opportunity to cross-train scientists and engineers in the DOE so that their talents can be utilized in the environmental industry.
So, ironically, the same pool of talent once used in the creation of some of these problems now will be used to solve the problems?
It’s not really fair to say that these are the people who created the problems. Our knowledge has increased greatly over the past 30 years. It used to be standard industrial practice to put toxic materials into lined ponds with the thought that (the substances) would evaporate. Instead, they leaked into the ground.
What is the possibility of Fluor winning more big DOE contracts?
When it comes to smaller contracts--$100 million and less--there have been many multiple awards (to one company). Obviously, once you get the system into place and you understand how to manage these projects, you have an advantage when bidding on the next one because you can do the job more cost effectively. Clearly, it will help Fluor to have (the Fernald) project under its belt.
How will the health risks be minimized for employees involved in the cleanup of the Fernald uranium fuel plant?
The waste is much less concentrated than were the products these people have been dealing with in the past--these employees have been working with the materials on the site for a long time. And a lot of the work will be done by robotics.
You call your company a “dating service” for the environmental industry. Could you explain what Brice Enviro Ventures does?
We work with companies interested in growing, either through mergers or alliances with larger companies. We also help non-environmental companies that want to diversify into the environmental industry.
We just finished a project with an Australian company that has been doing investigations at contaminated sites and now wants to go into cleanup. We took them on a weeklong tour of 18 environmental companies in the United States. A number of the companies signed joint ventures with the Australian company to do cleanups in Australia.
Have you ever worked with Fluor Corp.?
No, we never have. But now Fluor is on our target list to to see if any of our clients can help on the Fernald site.
You also help environmental companies find financing?
One of the reasons I started my company was that I had become very concerned that investors would decide environmental cleanup was not a good place to put one’s money. If the environment becomes a bad place to invest money, then we’re all in trouble.
But isn’t the environmental market a growth industry?
These companies are holding their own right now, or downsizing. Over the past year, it has not been unusual to see 10% layoffs at environmental companies.
The environmental industry has been hit very hard by the recession. If a (non-environmental) company is having major financial problems, one of the first places that they will look to reduce spending is in the environmental arena.
And often the decisions by industry to delay (cleanup) projects don’t have an immediate impact on the environment. For instance, the contamination in ground water moves at only a few feet a year, so it may take 10 years for the materials to reach well supplies. Therefore, such projects often get put on a back burner these days.
How many environmental companies are there in Orange County?
One hundred-plus. Orange County is a hub of environmental services for Southern California and the Southwest. Orange County tends to be an attractive location for engineers and geologists.
Are Americans beginning to take the environment more seriously?
I’m starting to worry about that. Up until a year and a half ago, the environment always ranked No. 2 or 3 in public opinion polls about Americans’ concerns. But recently, the environment has slipped quite a bit in polls. I think that when the economy is bad, people devote less attention to caring about the environment.
On the environment versus the economy. . .
“Economic growth and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. Implementing sound environmental precautions can save a company millions of dollars.”
On the future of the planet. . .
“I’m optimistic because we understand the risks of chemicals better, and because we are developing the know-how to clean things up.”
On her role in cleaning up the environment. . .
“Eventually, I hope my services no longer will be needed. I hope the United States is cleaned up, and that preventive measures keep these problems from occurring in the future.”
On “environmental extremism”. . .
“There has to be a balance between public safety and expenditures. Every teaspoon of soil cannot be made pristine at these cleanup sites--soil in general is not pristine.”