Public works professor promotes the importance of sustainability

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“Sustainability” is a catchword in farm, forestry and environmental circles that suggests prudent use of natural resources to prevent depletion and maintain environmental balance.

To some, the word is vague and jargonistic, but to George Crombie it has real and important implications. Over the years he has done his best to apply it to his chosen field: public works.

Crombie is an instructor in Norwich University’s Master of Public Administration program who is helping to create public works curricula that incorporate the values and real-world applications of sustainability.

To do that he has drawn on his experience as undersecretary of environmental affairs for Massachusetts, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Environmental Conservation, and public works director in four New England cities. One was Burlington, Vt., where in the 1980s he guided construction of a $56 million waste-treatment plant to help clean up Lake Champlain.

Crombie’s message to students and fellow public works directors has been that in a world of diminishing resources they will need to show restraint and creativity on the job. Those charged with building and overseeing roads, public buildings, water-treatment facilities, sewer systems and parks must be prepared to do so in a way that reduces energy demand and environmental impact.

“This is hugely important, because we no longer live in a world where resources are unlimited,” said Donal Hartman, director of Norwich’s public administration program.

Crombie has a national profile: This month he will be honored for his work by the American Association of Environmental Engineers (AAEE). In August, he will become president of the American Public Works Association (APWA), a 29,000-member organization.

“George has seen the light,” said Hartman. “He is a visionary, a rarity. He continually sees beyond the horizon.”

Crombie said policy makers and people in public works face thornier challenges than 30 or 40 years ago. Solving or avoiding environmental problems requires a spectrum of adjustments, often involving vested interests.

As an example, he noted that in the 1970s the U.S. began combating water pollution by constructing treatment plants to stop the flow of industrial waste and sewage into rivers and lakes.

That has not been enough.

Water is being harmed by nutrient runoff from lawns and farm fields; and from oil, salt and other grit from roads and parking lots. This “non-point” runoff emanates from myriad sources and is much more difficult to address.

“We have to move forward to find solutions to water pollution and carbon dioxide and other forms of pollution, and our approaches will have to be much more comprehensive,” said Crombie.

His goal as an educator is to encourage public works officials to look beyond their own narrow perspective in solving problems. Increasingly, they will need to look for support from others in the fields of business, government and engineering.

Buildings and infrastructure will have to be designed to operate efficiently.

“In the past we thought that our resources were totally renewable, but they are not. If we are going to survive we have to know how to better manage our energy, water and other resources,” he said.

Crombie teaches two public works and resource management courses. The online nature of classes enables students from across the country to share unique experiences and insights.

“Water issues in California (not enough water) are much different than those in New England (sometimes too much),” he said, adding that diverse perspectives help enrich dialogue.

Crombie, who lives in Plymouth, Mass., says he is enjoying teaching after years in state and local government. “It offers a chance to work with students, with both theoretical and applied points of view. … I enjoy the feedback.”

While not an engineer, Crombie will become an honorary member of AAEE because of the efforts of Howard LaFever, an engineer with GHD, an international environmental engineering company. They met at an environmental conference two decades ago and developed a professional relationship.

“He has been involved in all kinds of solid waste and environmental issues,” said LaFever. “George is a change-maker.”

One of Crombie’s goals when he becomes president of APWA is to boost the profile of the organization’s Center for Sustainability, a resource center with offices in Kansas City that offers technical guidance to those in the public works profession.

He also hopes APWA can establish stronger relationships with colleges and universities, like Norwich. “Colleges bring fresh ideas and thought to an agenda,” he said.