Dr. Kerry Rowe invested into Order of Canada

Kerry Rowe

A NATIONAL HONOUR: Queen’s engineering professor Dr. Kerry Rowe being invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on November 20. (Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall © OSGG, 2018)

By: Matt Mills, FEAS Communications Staff

Queen’s Civil Engineering professor Dr. Kerry Rowe was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette at a ceremony at Rideau Hall, November 20.

“I feel honoured and humbled but it is recognition, not just of me, but of a whole team of people I have worked with here at Queen’s and previously at Western who all contributed to the work,” says Rowe. “I couldn’t have done it on my own, so it’s us, not me.”

Rowe is one of 15 Canadians who were invested at the level of Officer in recognition of their national service and achievements. In Rowe’s case, that service is a career – now spanning more than four decades – of leadership in developing technologies and processes to safely manage and contain the huge quantities of solid waste generated by modern society. It is work that protects the natural environment, ensuring that today’s garbage doesn’t become tomorrow’s environmental disaster.

“Two things really influenced my career path,” says Rowe. “Firstly, I arrived in Canada in 1978, the year U.S. President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York.”

The Love Canal disaster was a turning point in North American environmental regulatory policy. It centred around a residential neighbourhood built adjacent to a 28-hectare landfill formerly operated by a chemical company. The company buried hundreds of tonnes of liquid and solid chemical waste there through the 1940s. By the 1970s, that waste had been leaching into ground water for years. Neighbourhood residents, many of whom were children, were experiencing dangerous health problems caused by chemical contamination. Families were displaced. The neighbourhood was demolished. It took more than 20 years and $400 million USD to clean up the site.

“I started thinking we should be avoiding these issues: hundreds of people being moved from their homes,” says Rowe. “Secondly, I had a colleague at Western, Bob Quigley, who was a specialist in mineralogy and geochemistry. He was monitoring contaminant profiles beneath landfills in Southern Ontario. He asked for some help in analyzing the data. That’s where it really started for me.”

One research project led to another and as governments invested more into understanding and managing waste Rowe, with his students and colleagues, defined the state of the art. In the 1980s they began working at the Keele Valley Landfill and at the time proposed the Halton Regional Landfill. The Keele Valley Landfill was the primary landfill site for the City of Toronto, the largest in Canada, and the Halton Landfill was a very novel hydraulic containment design for its time.

“The Halton Landfill was the first landfill site to actually go through a full approvals process in Ontario under the Consolidated Hearings Act,” says Rowe. “That was quite an interesting experience, being on the witness stand for that. I was involved, and still am today, in the building of that facility and monitoring what’s going on there.”

In the 1990s the province engaged Rowe for research into the best way to build several hazardous waste facilities and three additional large landfills for the City of Toronto.

“A lot of the research I do today flowed from ideas developed at that time,” says Rowe. “We were trying to answer the questions: How long will a leachate collection system last? How long will a clay liner last? How long will a geomembrane last? Those are pretty tough questions and I’m still exploring them 25 years later.”

New materials and manufacturing processes are introduced to consumers every year. Ultimately the things made from those new materials become waste and are either recycled or end up in landfill sites. Rowe says one of the big challenges in the field now is understanding the impact those materials might have on the environment over the long term.

“We as humans keep discovering new chemicals and doing wonderful things with them,” he says. “Then sometime later we discover that they actually do have downsides: nanoparticles, for example. Fire retardants in clothing and furniture have chemicals in them that we haven’t thought about before. Getting funding for research into preventing problems before they become emergencies is one of the eternal challenges.”

The Order of Canada recognizes and celebrates outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. The contributions of its membership are varied, yet they have all enriched the lives of others and made a difference to this country. In this case it is also an acknowledgement that Rowe is an inspiration for engineers, researchers, and teachers at all stages of their careers.

“My prime objective is to do good work that will have an impact,” Rowe says to them. “That’s what I’ve tried to do. When I’ve solved the problem, I move on to a new one, even if it means a big change in direction. So, don’t be afraid to seize opportunities.”