An environmentalist at heart, Dr. Robert “Bob” Hedin ’74 didn’t anticipate starting his own business. As a scientist, he was used to studying the environment and enjoyed working for the government. That was until he realized he didn’t want to just study things, he wanted to take action and build things. As one of the leading authorities on the treatment of mine drainage and the restoration of streams polluted by mine drainage, Bob took matters into his own hands and founded Hedin Environmental in 1994.
“I saw when we told people how to do things, they wouldn’t do them correctly. I learned things are much more complicated when you get around to doing it than someone who studies it,” Bob explained. “Environmental projects are very complex and I love that.”
Living in Edgeworth, Bob spent a lot of time playing with friends at Little Sewickley Creek Park (now called Morrow Pontefract Park). He said he grew up outside and learned to love the environmental world, a topic the Academy reinforced was okay. In the early ’70s, the Senior School had a “May program” where students could stay on campus or get approval to go off campus to focus on a special project. Bob spent a month of May living on the family’s farm in Venango County planting corn and gardening. “The environmental roots that led to my education and business were formed in my family and reinforced at Sewickley Academy,” Bob said. “Mr. Cavalier really pushed me to plan my own schooling, as he was a strong advocate of the May program, and it set a path for me.”
Bob matriculated at St. Lawrence University in New York where he majored in environmental studies. He earned his doctorate in ecology at Rutgers University in New Jersey where he also met his wife Beth, a horticulturalist turned garden designer and artist. Right after graduation in 1986, Bob went to work for the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Mines conducting research related to mine drainage issues. “Our program was the early developer of technologies that used biology to treat mine water – now known as ‘passive treatment.’ We were very much on the forefront of that technology development.”
Dr. Hedin worked at the Bureau of Mines for seven years until 1994, when he left to start his own business with two goals in mind – to create clean water and to make the business economically viable and sustainable. “Water treatment is neat because you have a result at the end that is either better or not, and I get a very high reward from seeing clean water at the end,” he said of his passion.
The task of starting his own business was not one he found to be daunting, as his parents owned Hyde Travel on Beaver Street. “Growing up in Sewickley, it seemed like everyone had their own business. I was the first person in my family to work for the government. My parents thought it was just a phase for me,” he reflected. “We had a family meeting to talk about my ideas, and they were 150% behind me starting a business. My parents gave me a spot in the back room of Hyde Travel, which my sister Linda ’76 now runs, to get started.”
In the 20 years since, Hedin Environmental has moved to Mt. Lebanon (where Bob lives) and has field offices in Clarion and Clinton Counties. The company has grown to six employees. “I want to stay small. My rewards are in successful projects and outcomes and aren’t measured in money or people,” he explained. Hedin Environmental specializes in assessing and remediating polluted mine drainage. Projects include watershed assessments, restoration planning, passive treatment design and construction, and the production of an iron oxide product from mine water.
The company utilizes passive treatment processes which involve natural materials, microbes, and plants. Passive systems typically contain several treatment units which include limestone beds, constructed wetlands, and ponds. Compared to chemical alternatives, passive systems have less operation and maintenance requirements and the total long-term treatment costs are typically 50-75% lower.
“We’re very specialized in what we do and we serve a niche market. Some of the most successful stream restoration systems we’ve been involved with are nonhazardous and use natural materials which create ecological benefits. Volunteers can go to the site without the fear of losing a hand or something,” he stated with a laugh. “The most dangerous thing we use are rocks.”
The state of Pennsylvania produced the majority of the coal used in the U.S. during the 20th century. There were no environmental regulations at the time, and as a consequence the state has more abandoned mine lands than any other state in the country. “Pennsylvania has an inexhaustible supply of polluted mine water, and it doesn’t just go away, it has to be fixed,” Dr. Hedin said. “One hundred years ago water pollution wasn’t considered during mine planning. Unfortunately, once it is created it lasts for decades – longer than most mining companies.”
Hedin Environmental serves a diverse group of clients locally, domestically, and even internationally. The company works for the national nonprofit organization Trout Unlimited; regional organizations like the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, Allegheny Land Trust, and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy; large engineering firms; state and federal reclamation agencies; and dozens of coal and metal mining companies in the United States and around the world. Bob said the company has about 60 systems in Pennsylvania, as well as a handful of projects in West Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, and Vermont. Recent projects have installed treatment systems in Brazil, Laos, and Madagascar.
One of Bob’s most recent and successful projects is at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden in Oakdale where a treatment plan was developed for acidic mine water that was affecting a central Garden exhibit. “The system we designed uses limestone to remove acidity and aluminum, which is highly toxic to fish. The discharge is clean water that flows to the Lotus Pond, immediately supporting and sustaining fish and plants that were stocked a few months after construction,” Dr. Hedin explained. “Once a week, the aluminum is cleaned out of the limestone using a solar- and gravity-powered passive mechanism. The aluminum solids are piped to a second pond that has also become a feature of the Botanic Garden because it has such a good message to it.”
Limestone is a natural mineral that occurs in western Pennsylvania and is commonly mined for construction and road-building purposes. Its chemical characteristics make it useful for the treatment of acidic water. At the Botanic Garden system, the acidic water flows through 450 tons of limestone gravel which remediates the toxic chemistry and discharges clean water to the Lotus Pond. “The system is totally unique among treatment systems because the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden turned it into an exhibit. There is a handicap accessible trail across it, and on Saturdays yoga classes are offered on top of the system.”
The whole process happens automatically thanks to advancements in technology. Solar panels and computers open the valves, so no one has to do it manually. Two of Bob’s sons – Ben and Sam – recently developed (under his guidance) their own proprietary device that will monitor the flushing and draining of the systems
powered by solar panels. The device is patent-pending. “We started developing our own technologies driven by the opportunities presented by computercontrolled systems that are powered by solar energy,” Bob explained. “We work on a lot of remote sites, so the solar power computer-controlled element is very important for us.”
Another local project Hedin Environmental has worked on is Wingfield Pines in Upper St. Clair, which is owned by Allegheny Land Trust (ALT). At this location the mine water is polluted with iron which necessitated a different treatment approach. “We designed and installed a big pond and wetland system at Wingfield Pines. ALT developed a trail system that goes through the system to invite the public in to witness the remediation process. It’s very visual because of the orange iron oxide color, and changes in the color provide a natural interpretation of the remediation,” Dr. Hedin said of the eight-year project. Bob has also started a side business with iron oxide collected from passive mine drainage treatment systems. The iron oxide is sold to pigment companies to make earth tone pigments. The pigment is found in most dark wood stains and even in Crayola crayons. “We developed the technology that makes this process feasible and have sold 4,500 tons over the last 10 years,” he proudly stated. “Without a process like this, treatment systems fill with iron sludge and eventually fail.”
Bob and his son Ben, who will likely take over the company one day, continue to think of new ways to improve the environment naturally and continue to grow the types of components the business offers to its clients. “For many people, growing a business in dollars is their measure of success. From the beginning, my goal was to create environmental change by restoring and fixing things,” Dr. Hedin said. “The success of that is more to me than monetary value.”