He Vanquished Poisons from our Waters After Rivers Burned
By Ben Brumfield | Illustrations by Harriss Callahan
Published April 30, 2019
When the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the 13th time, it was 1969, and John Koon was a graduate student preparing to fight the flow of flammable and other toxic chemicals into America’s waterways. Fifty years later, in 2019, the National Academy of Engineers elected Koon, an environmental engineer, into its ranks for his life’s work of remediating water pollution.
John Koon at the Ciba-Geigy chemical plant in Cranston, Rhode Island.
America's messes spurred Koon in his early years to clean our waters.
By the early 1960s, chemical dumps, arsenic-laced factory smoke, leaded car exhaust, roadside litter — all manner of filth — marred swaths of the country. The Cuyahoga, which runs through Ohio, was just one of many rivers dead from industrial waste when Koon and the nation were awakening to pollution.
Wildlife biologist Rachel Carson had jolted Americans in 1962 with her landmark book Silent Spring, which left a lasting impression on Koon, who is now a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The book dealt with the insecticide DDT, which planes sprayed on crops and trucks spread as fog in neighborhoods.
A truck fogs a San Antonio neighborhood with DDT, which was used to fight the spread of insect-borne diseases. For decades, people were unaware that it was also harmful to humans. Photo: National Archives.
The poison killed sea life, contaminated breast milk, and made birds' eggshells so thin they couldn’t survive incubation, reducing eagle populations in particular.
“Our national symbol looked like it might go extinct,” Koon said. “In my first undergraduate environmental course, the instructor handed out copies of President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union Address, in which he issued a call to save America’s environment.”
”Every major river system is now polluted.“
— President Lyndon B. Johnson
“We will seek legal power to prevent pollution of our air and water before it happens,” President Johnson said in the 1965 address. “We will step up our effort to control harmful wastes, giving first priority to the cleanup of our most contaminated rivers.”
Johnson, a Democrat, would announce a month later, “Every major river system is now polluted.” He pumped funding into the research of pollution controls. Koon would enter his career with ample means to do the job and the legal muscle, too.
In 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which made polluters pay for remediation.
“It was the first federal regulation with teeth that required dischargers of waste into rivers to treat that waste, and it had enforcement provisions, which the EPA pursued aggressively,” said Koon, who is a professor of the practice in Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The designation means that he served in his career as a distinguished professional rather than a distinguished academic.
In 1972, Koon’s first professional job was with a startup called Associated Water and Air Resources Engineers, or AWARE — a moniker that raised eyebrows.
“There was so much environmental demonstrating then that industrial clients were initially a bit suspicious of our name,” Koon said. “They would frequently ask us if we were part of the Sierra Club or something.”
Koon’s group used chemical engineering methods akin to those that produced industrial chemicals to engineer treatment processes to remove pollutants from water. For decades he designed chemical and biological reaction systems that broke down pollution, and which have become industry standards. The Academy reflected this in its February 2019 announcement of his selection:
“For contributions to the design of systems to treat chemically complex industrial wastewaters.”
Election into the NAE is a rare and extremely high honor. There are fewer than 2,600 living members. In 2019, the Academy elected 104 new members, including Georgia Tech Regents Professor Krishan Ahuja. Their induction ceremony will be held on October 6 in Washington, D.C.
A television commercial brought the nation to tears and burned an infamous phrase into its collective conscience: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” (The “crying Indian” was played by an Italian-American actor, but the impact sensitized Americans to the destruction of the natural beauty believed to have been well-preserved by Native Americans.)
Koon and his colleagues absorbed toxins, skimmed oils while trapping their volatile gases, fed hydrocarbons to microbes, precipitated out heavy metals. They configured reactors, pipes, valves, pumps, agitators, and filters to do it all. Their catalog of solutions grew with the cacophony of factories lining up to book their services.
“I did this for industrial clients in more than 500 locations around the country and the world. That’s how I got my start,” Koon said. “We adapted solutions from one kind of waste to another. We eventually ended up with the technical designs of every process for the treatment of industrial waste."
Some polluters were in deep denial, especially early in Koon’s career.
“The first project I ever worked on was developing an industrial waste management plant for the Army Corps of Engineers in the Cleveland-Akron, Ohio, area. People complained that the press had gotten it wrong about what sparked the Cuyahoga River fire,” Koon said. “I thought, ‘Well, the point is that the water was so polluted it caught on fire.’”
Despite the legal compulsion to do so, some companies would not treat waste and discharged it into rivers or onto land.
One of the most notorious repeat offenders was the Hooker Chemical Company, which had ignited national outrage with its chemical dump at Love Canal, New York. For decades after, it stood as an ignominious poster child for industrial malfeasance and environmental catastrophe.
An abandoned home near Love Canal in Niagara Falls. Photo: Library of Congress.
Hooker had filled the dump in and sold the land for a dollar, then a subdivision was built on top of it, and eventually chemical waste oozed up from the ground into residents’ back yards and basements. It burned children’s skin, and residents blamed toxins for cancer and birth defects.
The neighborhood was evacuated and razed. Nearby residents complain of health problems even today.
By 1979, the U.S. government was also suing Hooker for $117 million over the Love Canal cleanup, about $415 million in 2018 money.
“I did a lot of work for Hooker late in the 1970s, when the Love Canal incident was still hot,” Koon said. “Hooker had been discharging elemental phosphorous into the water in Tennessee, promising to clean it up but never coming through on that.”
“Every meeting that we had with the EPA or the state, we had government technical people and attorneys and the Department of Justice because none of them trusted Hooker to clean this up,” Koon said. “The manager of Hooker’s phosphorous chemicals division took a keen interest and committed to EPA enforcement that Hooker would stop pollution from getting into the river."
By 1980, hundreds of polluted sites across the country needed detoxifying, and the federal government created the “Superfund” to finance it, 70 percent of which is paid for by the polluters. Koon had his hands full with heavy contamination cases.
“I worked with a nylon intermediates plant that had been deep-welling its waste for years, then the CEO said they would no longer store hazardous waste,” Koon said. “They pumped it back up to the surface, and we treated several million gallons of wastewater per day. That project made people in industry very proud, and it won several environmental awards.”
A trace amount of selenium is part of a good diet, but a tiny bit too much is toxic. Coal mining that blasted the tops off of mountains set tons of it free into nearby waterways, and Koon assisted in a legal push to get states to enforce legal limits to selenium discharge.
A woman holds up a jar of polluted water that came from her well, located near a coal mining company in Jefferson County, Ohio, in 1973. Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. Photo: Erik Calonius/National Archives and Records Administration.
He has also engineered wastewater treatment units for many military bases.
“One military contractor produced RDX, the main explosive of the U.S. military. It’s highly toxic, and a town downstream decided to draw its water supply out of the river, but it was too full of RDX, so the contractor had to clean its wastewater,” Koon said.
“Things have gotten much, much better,” Koon said. “They were blatant then. Discharge of organic chemicals was killing rivers with all the fish floating belly-up. Some river banks were made of sludge from solid pollutants.”
Today we live with scars from those times. The Superfund still lists more than 1,300 sites that need remediation, 16 of which require immediate and intensive care. More sites are being added.
In addition, new challenges are odorless and invisible like carbon dioxide emissions boosting climate change. Or they come in trace amounts.
“Pharmaceutical ingredients and the byproducts of personal care products can interfere with our endocrine system,” Koon said. “We see organisms with serious defects after they have been constantly exposed to water containing very small concentrations of these chemicals, and it makes me wonder what they’re doing to us humans.”
Regulations need updating to cover new dangers, he said, but the political climate is not great for that right now. Today’s problems are also more expensive to solve.
“If new legislation turns out the first go-round to be not exactly what you need, you might not get another shot at it,” Koon said. “And that’s a problem we didn’t have in the 1970s. Some legal protections are being walked back now.”
Ten years ago, Koon left his career in the field for Georgia Tech, where he passes his expertise to new generations of environmental engineers.
“This is such a great place,” he said. “So many innovators and people at the top of their fields. And the students are so eager to learn. I really enjoy working with them.”
Decades of environmental and societal change have given him some perspective on industry.
“We have to be careful how we view it. The same industries that have produced chemicals that were problems in the environment also produce the chlorine we environmental engineers have added to water supplies to virtually eliminate water-borne disease. That has been a major factor in doubling human lifespans,” Koon said.
“We need to take care of pollution but not demonize industrial progress.”
John Koon is a professor of the practice at Georgia Tech.