Nate Beil, President, KCI Technologies
We all want to do our part to improve the Chesapeake Bay – donating to environmental organizations, volunteering to help clean up litter from streams and riverbanks, and urging elected officials to pass laws to protect the bay. The Chesapeake Bay is Maryland’s greatest natural resource, providing world-famous crabs for us to enjoy, picturesque waters for sailing and kayaking, and a prime destination for tourists from all across America. And while our individual efforts are important, perhaps the biggest impact on the livelihood of the bay comes from best practices by local industry and the public sector. KCI Technologies, an engineering, consulting and construction firm with more than 30 offices, seven alone in Maryland, including its national headquarters in Sparks, takes its role in protecting the Chesapeake Bay seriously, and its environmental work has yielded significant revenues for the company.
“Environmental work is 20 percent of what we do at KCI, and with a $250 million budget this year, that translates into $50 million,” says Nate Beil, president of KCI. Beil, who joined KCI in 1988, explains that a large part of KCI’s business is in the transportation industry and “when you work in the built environment, sometimes there is an impact to that environment. For example, when we need to put a linear roadway footprint on the planet, we look at how to site that footprint with the least amount of environmental disturbance, and if there is an impact, how do we mitigate that?”
Beil says that the other half of KCI’s environmental work is not related to a development; instead, it may involve restoring a wetland or a stream restoration project. “We’ve become a leader in this area, and one thing that separates us from other engineering consulting firms is that we have two contracting organizations embedded in KCI, so we can construct our own designs,” he says.
Beyond the Bay
When most of us think of the Chesapeake Bay, we think solely of the 200-mile-long estuary (a body of water containing both freshwater and seawater) that stretches from Havre de Grace, Md., to Norfolk, Va. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), there are 50 major rivers and streams that pour into the bay each day, along with the creeks that feed those rivers and streams. Also to consider is the roughly “64,000-square-mile watershed covered with forests, farms and wildlife habitat that starts as far north as New York and runs through six states and the District of Columbia on its way to the ocean,” according to the CBF.
“When discussing the bay, I use a tree analogy … let’s say the trunk of the tree is the Bay, and the tree branches are all of the streams, catch basins, watersheds and tributaries that drain into the bay. The inputs into the bay go all the way to upstate New York, so how do you manage all of those branches?” Beil says.
When evaluating the health of the Chesapeake Bay, Beil says that the focus today is on the total maximum daily loads (TMDL) – a scientific estimate of the maximum amount of pollution a body of water can absorb while still meeting water quality standards. In the case of the bay, EPA models identified high concentrations of sediment, phosphorous and nitrogen as main causes for poor water quality. Calculations determined that reductions of between 20 and 25 percent of each pollutant would be required for the estuary to be considered fishable and swimmable.
Beil says that one of the challenges KCI faces involves all those streams, watersheds and tributaries feeding into the bay. “We can measure TMDL in the bay, but a portion of the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment is coming from out of state. The State of Maryland sets reduction in loading amount, so our job is to look at what those sources are and work with our clients to see where we can mitigate or eliminate those sources,” he says.
One of the most notable environmental projects KCI has is with the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County, which KCI has been involved with for decades. “The City of Baltimore, who owns and operates the plant, was a top 10 client when I joined the firm 30 years ago and they still are. We try very hard to service our clients for the long haul,” Beil says.
Recently, KCI prepared design plans and is currently providing construction oversight for a new $300 million activated sludge plant, providing biological nutrient removal level of treatment at the 180-million-gallon-per-day capacity Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant with the goal of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay. The construction of the fourth and newest activated sludge plant will help provide the additional level of treatment necessary to achieve Enhanced Nutrient Removal at the facility. “When you have a point discharge into a body of water like we have at Back River, it’s a logical place to measure TMDL impact,” says Beil. KCI’s Back River project won a 2016 Top Project award from Water and Wastes Digest.
Of course, environmental conditions at the Chesapeake Bay change rapidly, an additional challenge for KCI. “The objective is consistent – restore the bay. For us, the constant change is figuring out how to incorporate new technologies and new sciences and how to get information in the hands of decision makers correctly and rapidly … information and analyses that they know they can rely on,” he says.
One key tool KCI utilizes to provide accurate information quickly is geographic information systems (GIS). “A main part of our culture is a focus on innovation. We take technology and science and marry it to solve a problem, such as reducing sediment, nutrients and pollutants to the bay. Geospatial techniques not only use science to accurately measure the removal rate in relation to TMDL but also account for the return on investment to ensure that we are using Best Management Practices,” Beil says.
KCI also utilized GIS when working with the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) to implement a science-based approach to street sweeping. DNREC, the state’s environmental agency, wanted to double street sweeping miles in New Castle County to increase pollutant removal as part of DelDOT’s NPDES permits; however, DelDOT’s budget did not allow for this. By using modeling and GIS to target specific roadways and set sweeping frequencies, KCI was able to demonstrate a greater potential for pollutant removal while sweeping less total road miles than the program currently in place. “Some of the most efficient pollutant control techniques are when they are done closest to the source,” Beil notes.
Of course, it’s inevitable that trash and debris will make its way into the Chesapeake Bay. To clean up the Baltimore Harbor, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore hired a local firm, Clearwater Mills, to develop and install a Waterwheel Powered Trash Interceptor to remove trash from waterways. “Mr. Trash Wheel” is able to collect 25 tons of floating solid waste on a daily basis while being powered exclusively by clean energy sources – hydropower and solar power. A second Trash Wheel was recently installed nearby in Harris Creek, and more are planned in the future. “Today, KCI works in partnership with Clearwater Mills focusing on project feasibility, permit approvals and engineering, essentially as program manager, to promote and implement trash interception technology worldwide,” says Tom Sprehe, senior vice president and director of innovation and technology at KCI. Sprehe says that he was inspired to tackle the issue of waste in waterways during his work in Rio de Janeiro shortly before Brazil hosted the Olympics. “I was astounded by the amount of garbage in Guanabara Bay. For the most part what we are doing about trying to keep plastic and debris out of the water is largely ineffective, and while removing trash via the Trash Wheel is basically triage, it really does help address a very large problem,” he says. This issue is close to Sprehe’s heart, a lifelong sailor who arrived in Maryland in 1986 via a sailboat from the Bahamas.
KCI has also worked with Blue Water Baltimore, and through a grant from the Abell Foundation, conducted a pilot study to evaluate how to increase dissolved oxygen in the harbor. Estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay experience anoxic and hypoxic conditions, or dead zones, leading to algal blooms and fish kills. Low oxygen levels, most often a result of increased nutrient loading, increase mortality rates among many aquatic species. “As engineering consultants, we can and should partner with environmental advocacy groups to address these problems. I am proud of the culture at KCI that encourages active involvement and environmental advocacy,” Sprehe says.
Helping Communities Rebuild
KCI is also called into action when a natural disaster strikes, such as the devastating floods Ellicott City experienced last summer. “First and foremost we focus on how to protect the safety of shop owners and residents. Safety of people has to be the first objective – get residents out of a potentially dangerous situation and allow first responders to reach those in need,” Beil says. “We must also ensure the safety of KCI employees – when we get called, the event is not over.” Once safety is secured, Beil says that KCI aims to determine what were the physical constraints and the environmental conditions that contributed to the event and what can be learned from what happened. “We cannot keep it from raining, but we can look at how we can rebuild in a better way, drain better, grade the site better and what we do to better safeguard the public,” he says.
Beil notes that temporary repairs are as important as the final product, as evidenced by KCI’s work with the Piscataway Hills Landslide Stabilization project in Prince George’s County. In 2014, heavy rains triggered a landslide in the Piscataway Hills neighborhood that led to large pavement cracks along Piscataway Drive, which provides the only access to the community. The road was immediately closed and 28 homes were evacuated. Recognizing the importance to return residents to their homes quickly, KCI identified the cause of the failure and worked with the county to stabilize the area, temporarily repair the roadway and install temporary utilities. Beil says working in concert with residents and community members is paramount.
KCI saw unprecedented growth in the Mid-Atlantic region in 2016 – regional revenues jumped more than 20 percent over 2015, growing from $110 million to $134 million and $169 to $205 million nationally, and the company added more than 100 new employees in the Mid-Atlantic area. When asked what the secret to the company’s success is, Beil doesn’t hesitate.
“It’s all about the people. The culture here is that if it touches the strategic plan, and you want to make it yours, have the knowledge and a business plan, and want to commit to it, I’ve never been told ‘no’ in 30 years,” Beil says. Also unique to KCI is that the company is 100 percent employee owned. “Our employees act like owners because they are. We have a board of directors with outside members, a management team and 1,400 owners,” he says. Employees at KCI also know they have a voice due to the Companywide Employee Committee, which has a representative from each office. KCI’s board includes a full voting member from the Companywide Employee Committee, too.
KCI’s headquarters in Sparks is a 120,000-square-foot structure that has earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification. In conjunction with the LEED designation, KCI encouraged its employees to bike to work by installing bike racks; however, the company recognized that employees may be uncomfortable working after biking to work during warm weather. So, private showers were installed in the men’s and women’s rooms. A wellness committee was also established, and the result was the addition of a full onsite gym for employees.
KCI is invested in the communities it serves by supporting more than 100 community and non-profit organizations each year. Once again, the employees lead the way – each fall, the staff selects an employee-led charity through the Companywide Employee Committee and hosts creative and successful fund-raising events for the selected charity, such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the Ronald McDonald House and Habitat for Humanity. Employees also volunteer their own time for charities, and KCI’s commitment to the environment is seen via company employees volunteering each year to clean and fix up the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, a National Historic Landmark in the Chesapeake Bay.
KCI’s community involvement was one of the major reasons why the Engineering News-Record named KCI as the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Design Firm of the Year.
In addition to being president of KCI, Beil took on additional responsibility in May as the new chairperson of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. In addition to political advocacy to advance business interests in Maryland, Beil says he sees networking and Chamber members supporting each other as his goals for the organization. “At KCI, we use 17 fellow chamber members as vendors for printing, furniture, communication systems, etc., so we want to advance that philosophy at the Chamber. I think we should also look outside of Maryland for ideas. Yes, business is procured and delivered locally, but there is a national and international component to business as well. If there is a best practice being performed outside of Maryland or the United States, I want to bring it to our clients and bring it to the state of Maryland,” he says. I95