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Spreading the word about geoenvironmental engineering

Opening the eyes of the next generation to the opportunities that exist in geotechnics, as well as geoenvironemntal engineering, is a key aim of newly elected Ciwem president Mike Summersgill

When Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management (Ciwem) president Mike Summergill took up his place at Cambridge University to study civil engineering, he had little idea of where his career would take him. This concept is one he hopes will inspire secondary school children to choose to enter the geoenvironmental profession.

Summersgill was due to start his one year tenure as president of Ciwem as this issue of GE went to press but he has been working on his plans over the summer so he can hit the ground running. “I was approached regarding becoming president about four years ago,” he says, and it is clear that he has long known what his main aims would be.

Mike Summsgill is the new president of Ciwem

Mike Summsgill is the new president of Ciwem

Yorkshire-born Summersgill follows on from four generations of railwaymen but was not tempted to follow in their footsteps. “I was interested in mathematics and was told to go into accountancy or become an actuary but I didn’t want to sit in an office, so I chose civil engineering,” he says.

His first introduction to geotechnics came in the third year of his degree when John Atkinson was his supervisor. Although he was intrigued by critical state soil mechanics, he started his working life in the water industry with Yorkshire Water and worked in the Middle East before coming back to the UK to study for an MSc in soil mechanics at Imperial College.

After completing his course, Summersgill joined Halcrow and worked on the design of reservoirs and embankment dams before being recruited by a former Halcrow colleague Richard Pugh to join Weeks. Although his initial focus at Weeks was on piling, he soon found himself working on projects with an environmental aspect after investigating an old gas works site in Maidstone, Kent.

“It was in 1989 when I worked on the Maidstone scheme where we had to deal with Blue Billy and cyanide contamination,” he says.

Despite the recession of the the early 1990s, Summersgill could see potential for the contaminated land market to grow and it was an industry he has continued to work in throughout his career and will stand him in good stead with his new role at Ciwem.

Ciwem was formed in 1987 when the Institution of Public Health Engineers merged with the Institution of Water Engineers & Scientists (IWES) and the Institute of Water Pollution Control to form the Institution of Water & Environmental Management.

Summersgill became a member through IWES and became involved in Ciwem regional branch activities in the early 1990s, where his focus was on training and evening meetings. He was elected as a fellow of Ciwem in 1999 and became a trustee soon after.

One of Summersgill’s key aims during his presidency is to take the message about the opportunities within the environmental, and engineering worlds, into senior schools. “I intend to visit every branch of Ciwem and try to work with the younger members to get them to go into schools to talk about the choices and opportunities to progress in this sector,” he says.

Summergill has already undertaken some field work in this area after going into schools with his daughter who studied civil engineering at Imperial. He hopes to target 13 to 14 year olds before they make GCSE choices.

“You have to start right from the basics and explain that an engineer isn’t someone who mends a washing machine,” he says.

His other main aim is to internationalise the organisation.

“At the moment we have branches in Singapore and New Zealand and 15% of our members are from overseas,” says Summersgill. “The problems we encounter in the UK are not unique and other countries can learn from the knowledge and experience we have already gained.

“Environmental management is still a fairly new subject in the UK but it is absolutely new to countries like China so I am looking to translate the knowledge that exists.”

Summersgill already has lectures in Dubai, China and Hong Kong booked into his presidential diary and he hopes to take the message further during the next 12 months.

Summersgill believes that UK practitioners need to look outside the UK more as he believes Ciwem’s home market is still in decline.

“Housing is one of the main drivers of the contaminated land market in the UK,” he says. Although new housing starts are increasing, many of the schemes now underway have been on the drawing board for some time.

Summersgill says one of the other drivers for the sector is legislation.

“New guidance on asbestos in soil and the C4SL document will move the goal posts, but there will be minimal net impact,” he says. “C4SL will be less stringent but the asbestos guidance is more stringent. Overall there will need to be more investigation and risk assessment and less remediation as a result.”

What is clear is that Summergill believes that the need for geonvironmental engineering is here to stay and he plans to ensure the next generation of professionals actively choose to work in the sector rather and employers don’t have to rely on them finding it by chance.

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