It was an event that made headlines all over the world in 1969: the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. A spark ignited an oil slick on the water, which had been polluted by decades of industrial waste dumping. The disaster made the Ohio city the poster child for environmental neglect.
“That made environmental pollution real for people,” said Jeff Taylor ’80, who today is a vice president for Freese Nichols, a multi-disciplinary firm that helps municipalities and other public entities coordinate operations for energy, water and environmental systems. “I was a kid and I thought, ‘The planet is dying.’”
The desire to do something to save the planet spurred Taylor to attend Rice—at the time one of only four universities in the country with an environmental sciences program. Following graduation, he stayed in Texas, working for cities and counties, almost exclusively in environmental infrastructure.
“Rice made that possible,” he said of his career. “Rice opened my eyes to an entire landscape of what environmental initiatives are all about. Rice taught me how to think.”
Over the years, Taylor said he’s come to a couple of realizations—first, that saving the planet is difficult. His second realization is that he’s had a front-row seat to see how environmental legislation works at the ground level. The passage of the Clean Water Act meant that cities and states needed to do things to treat and clean water; Taylor’s work has made an impact on helping them do just that. His work has allowed industry and government entities to work together on processes and systems that improve the environment.
“My focus started on saving bull frogs and trees,” he said. “But over the years, it’s shifted. And now, it’s about helping people improve the environment. So, when I think about whether we’ve accomplished the goal of saving the planet, I see the strides we’ve made and I say that yes, the environment is better today than in 1969. There’s a lot more to do, but we have come a long way.”