Bob Murphy | Common Sense Environmental Engineering


Environmental regulations are a fact of life, says Bob Murphy. You have to deal with them – and they’re important. So why not make the best of it by doing that job well?

That’s always been my thinking, and Bob Murphy, with 30 years as an environmental engineer in manufacturing and heavy industry under his belt, feels the same way. 

We talk about what you must have to create an effective environmental, health and safety program for your facility that people will follow enthusiastically and view as not a “bottleneck” but a set of processes that save time and money – and increasing safety and compliance.

Bob shares his top recommendations for doing just that, as well as…

  • An “automatic” way to make compliance problems virtually disappear in your facility
  • The role of preventative maintenance in managing environmental health and safety issues
  • His number one piece of advice when dealing with environmental challenges
  • An easy way to expand your pool of resources as a facility or plant manager
  • And more

Listen now...

Mentioned in this episode:


Mark Roman: Welcome everyone to the Business of Environment Podcast, where we explore insights on the intersection of business, the environment and regulation. I'm your host, Mark Roman, and today I'm certain that you'll find our guest extremely valuable. Joining us today is Bob Murphy. 

Bob is the Director of Engineering and Environmental for Neenah. Neenah is a market leader in the creation and manufacturing of papers for premium writing text cover digital packaging and label applications. Bob's an engineer with over 30 years of experience in manufacturing in heavy industry as a plant and environmental engineer. His background includes nuclear submarine construction, pretty cool, merchant marine shipping, papermaking and microelectronic materials manufacturing. 

Bob's a graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in marine engineering. I've known Bob for over 20 years and consider him to be one of the best, if not the best process engineers I've ever worked with. Bob's very knowledgeable and detail-oriented, you know, like most engineers are. However, what sets Bob apart and above is his ability to efficiently identify the root cause of an issue and to determine the most cost-effective solution in a very timely manner. In other words, Bob gets things done. 

A fellow colleague once told me it doesn't matter if it's a capital improvement project, a production machine being down, an environmental health and safety issue, or really anything else that needs fixing, you can bank on Bob to get the job done. Bob has been a client, a colleague, and most importantly, a very good friend for many years, even though he is a lifelong New England Patriots fan. I'd like to welcome Bob to the Business of Environment Podcast. 

Bob Murphy: Thanks Mark.

Mark: And welcome, Bob. And beyond the brief bio I just went through, can you let everyone know a little bit more about your background? And really what was the path that eventually led you to managing environmental issues?

Bob’s Path to Environmental Regulations Expertise

Bob: Right. Well, I think, like a lot of environmental engineers that maybe have my tenure, there really wasn't a position for an environmental engineer. And by default, the plant engineer picked up those tasks. And I was like, that was the case for me. I was a plant engineer in a small mill, and these environmental regulations started to roll out and they needed somebody to take care of it. So I did. And that was in the infancy of the regulations really, and it says, a lot of other EH&S programs have come out. And you've got to adapt and learn and income and compliance. So that's really how I got my start.

Mark: I have to ask, what led you to the Merchant Marine Academy?

Bob: Oh, well, growing up, I grew up in Newport Rhode Island so I had access to some watercraft in actually a small private island that a wealthy man owned. And so I kind of fell in love with the sea, fishing. I had a little lobster boat where I caught lobsters. So I thought I'd try to make a career out of it. And went to the Maritime Academy, which was a great experience. 

Mark: And just as a side note, you got to tell our listeners about your brief past with Hollywood, if you will. 

Bob: Oh, right. Well, growing up my father is a policeman in Newport and Hollywood came to town to film The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. And so they went to the police station and asked if, you know, anyone there had kids and they were all Irishman so they had a lot of kids. 

And all the policemen brought their kids to a, you know, a showing, where we would be extras. And so I was an extra in the movie, with actually three or four of my other friends. And the scene was we wrote swear words on a bench with a piece of charcoal. So it's pretty interesting, that whole scene took about three seconds, if that, but took probably four days to shoot. So that was my experience with Hollywood.

Mark: Well, I'm glad it took you in a different path. And I've been, I've enjoyed working with you and environmental fields. One thing is you often stress to clients the importance of really knowing what your facility does and how it does it. And you really need to know that to be able to manage your facilities' environmental health and safety issues. I mean, it sounds like to be, you know, it's common sense. I mean, if you don't know what you do and how you do it, how do you know what regulations apply, what permits you need, so on and so forth. 

And in fact, facility knowledge is one of the core four requirements that we identify that really must be met in order for you to have any success in managing these very diverse environmental health and safety issues. And Bob, you have a unique experience of being involved, you know, on both sides of the coin if you will. Both on the manufacturing side and the EH&S side at facilities. Can you kind of shed some light on the importance of really understanding your facility and its processes in order to get a better handle on environmental health and safety issues?

Understand Your Facility First

Bob: Sure. I actually don't know how you could be good in one field without knowing the other. I don't know how you could be a good plant engineer without understanding environmental regulations and vice versa because they really go hand in hand for facility operations. And so to have an understanding of both is really helpful, not only in coming up with a solution to a problem but also be able to clearly explain the issue to management and then convince them to, you know, appropriate funds to get the job done. 

You know, the example I have is what started out as a cost savings project and a paper mill. So the wastewater machine, you know, how to take money out of that process which is pretty expensive. It was a rotor vacuum filter, and so we dove into the process. And from an engineering side, we've identified all the inputs to the wastewater stream generation. We identified the sources and backed it up, the process map. And then made changes to the system to eliminate crush water inputs or to reuse wastewater in areas that we could. 

As a result, we reduce the volume generated in the mill by about 18% which doesn't sound like a lot, but that's 18% of less diatomaceous earth, 80% less labor. You know, it really had a big impact. today that mill. they still go around looking for ways to reduce the wastewater generation. So that's one example of being on both sides of the aisle so to speak. Knowing the process and understand the regulations at the same time.

Mark: Yeah, and often what we find when we go into facilities that and the facilities are having problems with compliance with EH&S issues is the manufacturing end thinks the EHS programs or people are real pains in the ass if you will. You know, they're a bottleneck, they slow things down. They slow manufacturing down. So that interrelation there, you know, where one side knows exactly what the others doing. 

And your point is perfect that you don't know how the heck that job could get done without the knowledge on both sides, and it can't get done without that knowledge. And there's plenty of examples out there for that. I think I think we can all relate aren't on how important preventive maintenance is for the manufacturing in that facility. But can preventive maintenance also help with managing your environmental health and safety issues?

Bob: Oh, yeah, absolutely. We want to learn from our mistakes, right? And hopefully not repeat them. And one of the things that I don't think many people take advantage of, you know, environmental folks, EH&S folks, is the computerized maintenance management systems that are out there. I think people have the perception that they're only for, you know, the maintenance staff and the engineering staff to make sure that this gets oiled, that coupling gets checked. And in the plants that I operate in, we use that system for EH&S issues as well. 

And an example is we had compliance issues with again, wastewater, and where we would be out of spec for pH. And, you know, you dive into it, we found out that the root cause was that the pH probes would fail after about a year. And so you would, you might tell you something I'm going to remember to do that next year. And you know, things come and go and you forget it. So we put it in the computerized maintenance system to remind us that to change the probes because there might be seven or eight probes in the system. 

So you do it on some rotating basis. Once we implemented that, our noncompliance issues for pH probes disappear. And, you know, so we not only did that in the one plant that had the issue, but we roll it out to the other plants as well to say here's a learning to, you know, consider it for your system as well. We put our environmental calendar, so to speak, into the computerized maintenance management system as well. 

And that would be, you know, tier two is due or, you know, right to know, needs to be, you know, retraining on right to know and SARA 313, all those things that roll out at the beginning of the year. are in the system as reminders. And so it's good because when you put in an environmental PM, you can add text or attach documents that explains the process. So hopefully you're building a system that all the folks can come in and learn and use and it's not just, you know, put on one person's shoulders to complete. There's enough data there that other folks can pick it up or help out if that person is not around. 

Mark: Yeah, that's, not doing that documentation is a big issue we come across. Especially if, like you said, it falls on one person's shoulders and what happens if that person leaves? You know, retires or goes to another facility, all that knowledge is gone and institutional knowledge and to document things goes a long way. And also it, that communication aspect of this is pretty significant and what, you know, we've, communications is also one of the core four requirements we've identified. 

And the one thing that I know about you is you don't have just one facility to worry about. You have multiple facilities to worry about. So can you elaborate on the importance of communications, maybe some obstacles you may have faced along the way? And the advantages that exist if you have sister facilities within the organization.

Juggling Communications Between Facilities

Bob: Sure. This is a big one for us too. And, unfortunately, a lot of mills operate behind walls and there's not a lot of sharing going on. You're going to have to break that down. You're going to open up the lines of communication and share the wealth, or in this case, knowledge. One of the things that we do, not only do I go around and travel to different mills and, you know, hear and see different things, but we also have routine conference calls, like a monthly conference call for everybody. You know, there's a little set agenda. 

And everybody talks about what you know, what they did the previous month. And invariably, someone will bring up, you know, oh, I had to spill a, you know, come to find out as a dire for a bump, but blew a, you know, a diaphragm, and in those calls, everybody hears that, and then somebody might have a solution. That was actually a case. And it happened to me in Pennsylvania. Same thing. And we found a device that you can put on a diaphragm pump to indicate that the diaphragm has indeed failed, which would prevent air from going to the system where you don't want it to go into. 

And so I brought that up on the call and said I would show that to this person and everybody else on the call says can you give it to me, can you give it to me? So it's just once you get through the initial awkwardness of a conference call and getting everybody together, the conversation really starts to take off. And we get to share, you know, our issues or problems and maybe some solutions. A big piece of that is that you expand the pool of resources. I might not have the answer, but I might know of a vendor that could help out. 

And so that's where these conversations come up. There was another example of noise abatement and I've been probably using this one for over 20 years. We spent a fair amount of money designing enclosures on term blowers to reduce, you know, the noise. And brought it from probably, I forget the exact number, but probably say 86 down to 82 DB. And so that's pretty effective. And like I said, spent a fair amount of money, had that binder with all the design details on it. And I've been using that binder for years. 

Don't have, you know, going to another place and we're going to invoice problem, I said what he had to try this. And just reusing the same information and actually saving money because you don't have to go out to a vendor and do that design work over and over and over again. And we've expanded it. My enclosures are fairly small, we put them on some big applications and documented the, you know, the effect of some by reducing the ambient noise level. So it works.

Mark: Yeah, I remember one time, we were working together at one mill and a line went down at another mill and they didn't have the part to get the line up and running. But you happen to have it in an inventory at the mill we were at and you just FedExed it overnight, or even same day and, you know, they were back in business pretty quickly rather than waiting for a vendor to supply that part. So even the exchange of spare parts is helpful here.

Bob: That's right. It's just, you know, reach out to your own plants, your sister plants and see if they can help that happens often. Plant goes down for, you know, they lost a transformer and they only know one vendor to go to to try to source a new one and feel that the call came to me and I should try these folks out in the Midwest. And sure enough, they had the transformer that they needed. And you know, they purchased it and got back up and running sooner than relying on their vendor. And that's just luck,  but it helps to ask for help once in a while.

Mark: Yeah. It's just more mistakes are made by not wanting to say I don't know, rather than saying I don't know, and you get help, you know? We've worked on property and business transactions over the years from both the buying and the selling end. And most folks listening, you know, are going to experience their facility, their business, their organization being bought, or another company or their company buying another facility and integrating that those resources. 

And I know the time I've spent with you during environmental due diligence where you, you know, I, as a consultant, I was looking at it from the compliance and environmental due diligence potential exposures. But you also looked at it from the process end, and I learned so much from that in terms of Okay, this is what they're doing now, and we're going to have to meet certain criteria in the future, such as VOC content and coatings. 

And you started to look at this from the standpoint of, you know, what's the, what improvements do we have to make? How much capital influx is going to be needed to make sure we're, we can meet these criteria in the future? And it just wanted to kind of review that briefly with you to kind of impress upon our listeners, the need to have somebody that understands the process involved when you're going through a due diligence process, due diligence evaluation.

Bob: Yeah, it's very important to give both the buyer and the seller a clear view of what's there and what some of the risks are. But I think in the case that you're mentioning, we were acquiring a mill, and there was solid coatings at the site. And they weren't going to meet the regulations in the future. The VOC content was just too high. And our plans for the mill were to increase volume there. 

And so we knew from other facilities, how to cope with aqueous technology. Equipment was needed. And we contacted vendors, got some quotes on what it would take to put it in the mill we're going to acquire. Got some budget estimates for that. And actually went to the state and entered into a consent agreement to give us time to buy this capital and install it in phase out with the solid equipment. So really, you know, you need somebody that can have that vision and be able to execute it, right? 

And then, in the end, what happened was, you know, the deal was successful. The buyer was happy, the seller was happy. And, you know, just as importantly, the mill had a future that it's still running today as a matter of fact. And all solid cuelinks have been removed from the site. So that was a success story for that particular location.

Mark: It's so important to understand the process, not just the regulations. We all have demanding schedules and limited time on our hands and as a result, is one of the biggest issues we always hear relative to environmental matters is trying to stay up to date on regulations. What do you believe makes some successful in understanding the complex regulatory environment while others struggle to get through that?

Comprehending Complex Regulations

Bob: You know, I think that's networking in you know, certainly you can subscribe to different, you know, services to give you an update, but typically they're pretty tough to read and understand. I've been successful just having good contacts in industry such as yourself and other vendors that keep me aware of things that might impact our different mills. And it's because of their understanding of the mills that they would say, Well, okay, you know, this is going to be a change in the regulation for benzene. 

Let's get nothing to do with our mills. So we're not going to let Bob, you know, we don't need to inform Bob about that. But if it's germane to our mills, who often they'll send me an email saying, hey, Bob, take a look at this. You might be interested in talking about it with us. And that's typically where I get the heads up. Or, like I said, some spotlight subscriptions or, you know, news alerts from the different agencies and other colleagues. 

On this environmental call that I talked about, the monthly call, what happens in one state sooner or later is going to happen in another and, you know, we're learning about in the Midwest, a lot of regulations coming out around the use of fertilizers and how that runoff affects the surface waters. And that's a big deal for us because we have some chemicals that go into the waste stream that to the surface waters as well. So we're part of a study group in the Midwest to make sure that everybody that's contributing to this is heard.

Mark: Based on, you know, your experience and many challenges you faced over the years what's your number one piece of advice you can offer our listeners when dealing with potential environmental challenges?

Bob: I guess what keeps me sane in the game is that I learned a while ago and it was through a factory mutual engineer. I was pretty young to the game, and he came into the mill to do an inspection. And I think everybody listening will appreciate this. I was defensive and guarded with my words and he noticed that and what didn't take login and say, Come on, let's go outside. 

I wasn't sure what that was going to lead to but he went to his car and he pulled out some datasheets from his truck and he says, Can we sit down? And what happened was, he sat down, he explained to me with these datasheets, why he was looking at this particular issue, what the guidance was on it, and what were some of the potential remedies. And it was like a light bulb went off. And so what I'm trying to say is if you understand the reasoning behind the standard, the regulation, the law, it's a whole lot easier to digest it and internalize it and say, okay, that's what it is, I'm going to figure out a way to deal with it. 

Or, you know, minimize our, the impact it has on our mail. So, it's not a lot of people fight it, and you're not going to stand a chance. So understanding is the best advice I could get somebody is find out where they're coming from, you know, try to understand their point of view, and then apply it to your application. 

Mark: That's sound advice. On a personal note, can you share with our audience an interest or hobby that you enjoy doing with your free time?

Bob: Sure. I like to ski. Looking forward to doing that in a few weeks. I swim. That's my quiet time. You know, when you swim there's no cell phone, there's no computer. I really enjoy that. And I take my dog for long walks in the woods. I think he likes that more than I do though.

Mark: You live in a beautiful part of the country up in the northeast where, New England area where, that's a great hobby to have. Hey, Bob, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to join us today. If people want to get in touch with you, how would they do that?

Bob: My email address is Robert Murphy MURPHY at Neenah NEENAH .com.

Mark: And we'll include that link on the podcast page when we're at the bottom of the title for the podcast interview. And thanks again Bob. I really appreciate you taking the time to spend with us today and I want to thank everyone for listening to today's show. And until we share some time together again stay safe and be well. Take care everyone.

Bob: Thanks Mark. 



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