O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates Finds Cost Efficient Environmental Solutions
Beneath the Surface
The firm known colloquially as OTO has been involved in most of the major building projects that have taken place across the region in the past few decades — everything from the major addition at Baystate Medical Center to construction of a subway-car manufacturing plant in Springfield’s east end. But much of the company’s work goes unnoticed, because it takes place before the heavy machinery arrives. To say their work is important, though, would be to only, well, scratch the surface.
Jim Okun and his partners often joke that no one ever sees their best work.
Indeed, it generally takes place where almost no one goes; although O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates (OTO) has been involved in almost every major building project in Western Mass. for the last 20 years, the bulk of work that the specialty geo-environmental engineering consulting firm does is literally beneath the ground.
“Our work often takes place before the heavy equipment shows up,” Okun said about the Springfield firm. “We deal with the environmental safety of soil and water as well as the engineering properties of soil in or around a new development.”
In other words, they determine not only whether the ground is contaminated by pollutants, but also address whether it can and will remain stable beneath the weight of a new structure.
Founding Partner Mike Talbot used the Leaning Tower of Pisa as a prime example of what can go wrong without a preliminary assessment.
“The tower is a classic case of building on bad soil,” he said, explaining that it was erected on a former river estuary and sank into the ground due to the soft, sand-like texture of the dirt under the south side of the monument.
Today, thanks to geo-engineering research and best practices, things like this can be prevented, but it takes expertise combined with creative thinking to solve problems in a way that saves time and money, qualities that are generally unexpected since issues are fairly common.
For example, OTO was recently called to assess a building site in Holyoke, and although the surface appeared clean, research showed it had been home to a former mill, and hazardous materials were found in the old cellar hole area.
Although some companies would have removed all of the contaminated soil and taken it to a landfill, OTO found a way to improve and compact the dirt so it didn’t present any safety risk to humans and could withstand the weight of a new building, steps that ultimately saved the developers a substantial amount of money.
The firm also addresses issues that come to the surface when contaminants are found in buildings set to be demolished, or environmental issues are uncovered when a business or school starts to make improvements to, or put an addition on, an existing structure.
“We’re not really consultants, we’re problem solvers,” said Partner Bob Kirchherr. “We stay current with changing regulations and by combining our skills and using scientific techniques we are able to find cost-effective solutions that allow new structures to be built.”
OTO’s work involves an equal mix of projects for commercial, institutional, and government clients across New England and includes asbestos consulting, environmental assessments, geotechnical engineering, human health risk assessment, and related practices. They also work with homeowners on issues such as cleanup after an oil tank has leaked.
About 70% of its jobs are in Massachusetts, but over the past few years its reputation has led to work in other states, and the firm has projects underway in Connecticut; it just started two in New Orleans, and is about to begin one in Dallas.
“Clients like our approach to solving problems,” O’Reilly said, noting that the company uses scientific methods and regulatory knowledge to resolve challenging situations in a way that is practical, pragmatic and cost-effective.
For this edition and its focus on Environment & Engneering, BusinessWest looks at some of the “invisible” problems that O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates has uncovered and what they have done to solve them.
The company was founded in 1994 by Kevin O’Reilly, Mike Talbot, and Jim Okun who had worked together at another environmental consulting/engineering firm and wanted to go off on their own.
They set up shop in East Longmeadow, but two years later merged with Enviro Comp in Springfield and moved the business to Springfield.
Kirchherr joined the trio as their fourth partner at the time of the merger.
“It was a good fit because there was a lot of synergy. We had worked on projects together,” O’Reilly said, noting that the merger allowed them to expand the services they offered because Enviro Comp specialized in asbestos remediation, industrial monitoring, and compliance with regulations.
Today the firm has 30 employees, and each partner has a specialty that complements the others and allows the firm to deal with complex projects from start to finish.
O’Reilly focuses on environmental consulting and compliance in Massachusetts, and investigates and plans for the cleanup of waste disposal sites, including brownfields.
Talbot concentrates on geotechnical engineering and Massachusetts Contingency Plan compliance; Okun also focuses on MCP compliance; but his expertise includes PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) assessment and management; risk assessment and brownfields development.
Kirchherr specializes in asbestos management; indoor air quality and industrial hygiene; safety and environmental compliance; and lead inspection and management.
“Most companies don’t have the skills needed to deal with environmental, soil, and building issues so people come to us because we do it all,” Okun said.
Talbot noted that people often drive by sites and wonder why they have remained vacant, but in those instances there is usually a problem because banks require an environmental site assessment before investing in a project because they want to understand the risks and costs associated with building.
The principals at OTO say there are few sites today without problems, because almost every desirable business location has had at least one building on it and when they are demolished, it’s uncommon to find clean soil beneath.
“Today every site has challenges and every project requires all of our skills,” Talbot told Business West.
For example, a few weeks ago a seemingly straightforward job suddenly turned complex. The firm had been hired to investigate the foundation of an existing building that a client wanted to repurpose, but it discovered that it had once served as a gas station and had to be torn down.
Problems also arise due to chemicals called PCBs that were used in building materials in the U.S. between 1950 and 1979.
Kirchherr says the caulk around windows in schools often contains PCB’s, so when a city or town decides to replace single panes with energy efficient glass, the putty has to be tested and toxic ingredients in the caulk can complicate the project.
Projects the firm has undertaken range from work at individual homes and in large buildings and developments, and include the new addition to Baystate Medical Center and the recently built Roger Putnam Vocational Technical High School. OTO also recently completed work for Chinese rail car maker CRRC MA USA which is building a factory in Springfield on the site of the former Westinghouse manufacturing plant. It was a brownfields site, and OTO assisted the former owner with cleanup, including asbestos removal in the old building, but then had to make sure the soil met standards that would allow CRRC to build there.
Talbot said the land contained a lot of loose soil and the firm designed a solution to compact it using a special technique that will allow it to support the weight of the rail cars manufactured inside the building. It then provided engineering services to design a new foundation.
The revitalization of Ludlow Mills was another project that required considerable environmental remediation, and the firm worked closely with Kenneth Delude, recently retired president of WestMass Area Development Corp. on that project; and also helped get Lee Premium Outlets off the ground, assistance needed because a portion of the land near the entrance was once home to a mill that dated back to the Civil War.
Clients include the Diocese of Springfield; Smith College; Amherst College; Springfield College; American International College; and private schools such as Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, and projects include work at Six Flags New England that was necessary before rides such as the Superman Coaster could be built.
And in some instances, the firm has been at a site almost immediately after a problem is discovered. For example, 15 minutes after the 2011 tornado finished wreaking havoc throughout Western Mass, Kirchherr walked down to a family member’s home across the street from the former Cathedral High School and helped efforts to stabilize the building with the Diocese of Springfield’s emergency response team.
“We identified long-term safety related issues with regards to a potential renovation because it was not known at the time if the building would be reused,” Kirchherr said, explaining that their work included litigation with the insurance company because the initial settlement offer was inadequate.
“It was a very complex project that required a lot of interaction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but we provided services throughout the process,” he continued, adding that he serves on the Diocese of Springfield Building Commission and is a member of the board of trustees for St. Michael’s Academy.
O’Reilly Talbot & Okun has also undertaken a lot of preconstruction work for the City of Springfield. A site assessment before the Basketball of Fame was built turned out to be another involved project, because 19 buildings had to be demolished to make room for the new museum.
“We also provided litigation and oversight assistance when the former Union Station in Springfield was taken by eminent domain,” Kirchherr said, adding they worked on that project from start to finish.
The firm’s residential jobs often involve leaking oil tanks, which is difficult work.
“You can only dig so far under a house without undermining the foundation, and you have to meet stringent soil and groundwater standards. Vapors can rise from the ground, get into the house and cause risk to occupants, and the oil can also impact a person’s neighbors as it can migrate into groundwater,” O’Reilly said, explaining that in some cases a ventilation system must be installed to pipe air from below the floor of a home into the atmosphere for years after the leak.
“These are the most stressful projects we do because they affect people personally,” he said.
Ensuring that soil is clean and the ground is stable for new projects, along with assessing old buildings for environmental hazards before they are reused or torn down are services that fall under the umbrella of O’Reilly Talbot & Okun Associates.
“It’s a very dynamic field so we keep on top of all of the regulatory issues,” Talbot said. “New solutions to old problems come up all the time, and we offer the latest and best practices available.”
So even though the work they do is something most people never see or even think about, it has been critical to economic growth in Western Mass. and always begins far below the ground.