Specialties: Environmental consulting and remediation; ecological/wetlands services; mine remediation and reclamation; geochemistry; forensic analysis; wastewater and water treatment
Bill Walker has been tracking a culprit on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in Tuba City, Ariz., for seven years.
The senior geochemist with Sovereign Consulting is hunting for the source of uranium that he said has, for the past 10 years, shown up in drinking wells on the reservations at levels far above what’s allowed by national standards, posing a serious health hazard.
“What I am really trying to do is to find out who did it,” he said.
The Navajo Nation hired Sovereign, an environmental consulting and remediation firm, to try to determine if radioactive waste in the area is from uranium processing mills that had closed by the 1970s. Uranium ore was processed at the mills mostly for weapons production.
The U.S. Department of Energy cleaned up contamination from the mills, but the Navajos claim the agency didn’t get it all, Walker said.
“To the DOE’s credit, they’ve been very reasonable in listening to us,” he said. “They would just like us to present more evidence.”
Each mine’s ore has a sightly different chemical and isotope composition, so contamination at existing illegal dump sites can be traced back to particular mines, Walker said. Then through records, one can determine which mill the contamination came from.
Some companies that owned the mills are defunct, but the Navajos want those that still exist and are responsible to be involved in the cleanup, Walker said.
New Seattle office
Over the years, Sovereign has also worked in the Northwest. It opened a Seattle office in May. “We think we can make a go of it here,” Walker said.
That office is working for a law firm to determine how fast cyanide in waste from a now-closed manufacturing facility in Bellingham is degrading before it flushes into the ground and surface water. That will determine what remediation should be used.
Walker said a big trend in the industry is showing clients how to efficiently use and reuse a precious resource — water.
Large aquifers in the United States are showing elevated levels of chemicals from agriculture and manufacturing that never used to be in groundwater, Walker said. “The amount of very clean water is decreasing no doubt.”
In one instance, Sovereign showed owners of a San Diego semiconductor manufacturing plant how to save water by doing certain chemical processes separately rather than together. It also showed them how water used for cleaning could be recycled for manufacturing processes. “It was really pretty slick. (It) saved them a lot of money,” Walker said.
Sovereign has 212 employees and in 2010 was named to the Zweig Letter Hot Firm List.
Its revenues were $45.5 million in 2010, a jump of $5.5 million over the previous year. It expects revenues this year of $47 million.
Walker said business has tapered off industry-wide as the economic downturn has caused some projects to get postponed or canceled.
Sovereign has done “very well in spite of the recession,” he said, and this year was awarded a $25 million contract from the U.S. Navy for environmental cleanup of a former Navy facility.
However, Walker said competition is stiffer in general as more firms vie for fewer jobs. “We kind of always knew who the players were and now all of a sudden you’ve got everybody bidding on (government contracts) whether they can do it or not.”
Walker said environmental companies with 10,000 or 15,000 employees are going after work that used to be the purview of small firms like Sovereign. “In some cases, they’re buying the contracts (and doing the work at or below cost),” he said.
Walker said Sovereign is “competitive price-wise,” but now must educate clients that it’s what you get for your money, not always just cost. “We’ve been very successful, but it’s something you didn’t have to worry about a few years ago.”