Environmental Consulting Firm Embraces Unique Work

By Tina Costanza

PGL Environmental Consultants is good at projects “with hair on them.” As Will Gaherty, the company’s President and Senior Environmental Consultant, says, “We tend to be best at work that is a little bit different.”

That work lies in urban centres as well as “very small or non-existent — not even a dot-on-a-map locations outside urban areas,” says Gaherty, and is undertaken by a team of professionals that include experienced scientists and engineers who are capable of planning and sustainability, contaminated site management, environmental impact assessment, air quality and hazardous material management. They also provide technical and regulatory expertise to sectors such as legal, mining, energy, forestry, financial, government, real estate, First Nations, transportation, and manufacturing.

And if the company’s recognition as a 2019 Kincentric Best Employer in Canada is anything to go by, its people like being there, too. It’s the second time PGL has been recognized by Kincentric (the last time was in 2016), whose accolade is based on employee surveys.

“It’s validation of the things we try to be. We call ourselves a village, and there’s recognition in that,” Gaherty says. “It’s a way to attract really good people — that’s how this organization perpetuates. We are a community and we want to have good people in it, and people who want to be part of a community.”

Seventy-three people make up that community. Home base is Vancouver, but the company also has staff in Victoria, B.C., Langley, B.C., and Whitby, Ontario. Fifty-six of them own shares.

PGL has been in business since 1991, established to help clients understand environmental issues affecting their project so they could have more influence on the process and the outcome for best results. The firm has undertaken everything from collecting scientific baseline data, developing and submitting environmental assessment and permit applications, to site remediation, regulatory management, restoration and construction monitoring.

The sizes of the projects PGL works on are varied, as well. They range from a Phase 1 service, which consists of looking at the history of a site to determine its environmental risks and takes about two weeks to complete, to projects that can take anywhere from months to more than a year to finish. One current large project involves the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

“We work for a variety of different First Nations along the alignment of the Trans Mountain expansion project,” Gaherty explains. “We’ve been brought in to basically review the work that’s been done by Trans Mountain’s environmental consultants, to identify whether the First Nations’ interests have been addressed.”

The company is also close to finishing a project in the reporting stage regarding the evaluation of environmental conditions on the new St. Paul’s Hospital location in Vancouver.

It’s also involved in a consortium that is planning at a large wetland and upland area near the junction of the Fraser and Pitt Rivers on the Lower Mainland.

“It’s one of the few undisturbed major marshes and it’s got a very high wildlife value. We’re part of the consortium that’s looking at and programming this park so that we can include interpretive components without adversely affecting the wildlife values,” Gaherty says.

Over in Ontario, PGL is working for a company in Toronto that’s purchasing a warehouse building to be turned into a show room. It had been built on a site next to an old facility that supplied dry-cleaning chemicals.

“There’s a migration that’s contamination onto the property from that, so we’ve been retained by the owners who are buying it to do some work that will make sure it doesn’t affect the use of the site and that satisfies their lenders on the environmental risk,” Gaherty explains.

Also in Ontario is PGL’s work on the refurbishment of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Bowmanville.

“A lot of work had to be done to characterize the soils for the upgrade that were primarily, as I understand it, the result of lessons that were learned from the Fukushima problems,” says Gaherty, referring to the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan, causing a nuclear accident in March 2011.

When it comes time for PGL Environmental Consultants Ltd. to communicate the result of reviews or assessments to a client communication is crucial.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is trying to make sure our clients understand the problem well enough to give us good instruction,” says Gaherty. “We’re in a position a lot of the time where we have to explain something to someone where they don’t understand it and they want to. Some people like to have consultants — where they just hire an expert and they don’t need to know — but we tend to work best with people who actually care about what we’re doing and want to be able to give us instructions and understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. So one of the most difficult things we have to explain is the completely Byzantine regulations that we deal with, as well as some of the technical stuff that we have to deal with, and that’s both verbally and in writing.”

The communication also involves breaking down complex data so a more general audience can understand that information.

In some cases, it may be comparatively rare to have a manager with significant post-graduate training in science, and the issues PGL needs to explain to them are often unusually complex and multifaceted, Gaherty says. “And they want to know the person explaining it.”

While it continues to forge ahead, PGL Environmental Consultants Ltd. would like to remain a relatively modest-sized firm. Gaherty cites an observation from behavioural psychology: the largest group of people you can truly know is somewhere around 200 people.

“One of the key problems in consulting is knowing what you know, so we decided we don’t want to be any bigger than 200 people,” says Gaherty. He mentions W.L. Gore and Associates, the makers of GORE-TEX.

“They have a rule that says no business unit can have more than 200 people. We want to be an independent, employee-owned environmental consulting firm of less than 200 people,” says Gaherty. “We want to run a company that is very much a team sport— that everybody gets recognized for their contribution, that the receptionist, in his or her own way, has as much a contribution to the company’s success as the president.”

The 200–number limit may be working to the company’s advantage.

“One of the things that’s going on in the environmental consulting and consulting industry in general is that there’s been a lot of industry consolidation,” says Gaherty. “The big firms have been swallowing the small firms at a rate that is significantly higher than the formation of new firms. What those large firms need to sustain themselves and what they can provide in terms of a client experience is very different from what smaller firms can do. In many respects we look at that phenomenon and we say our competitors are doing us a favour because they are eliminating the people we truly compete with.”