Life & Times of Dr Ken Reimer Before, During & Beyond RMCC

E3161 Victoria Edwards (RMC 2003) interviewed Dr Ken Reimer for e-veritas.

e-veritas: Where did you go to school (university)? Degree & qualifications?

Dr Ken Reimer: I went to school all over Canada as my father was in the military (RCEME). I hold a Ph.D. (Chemistry, Organometallic) from the University of Western Ontario (1975), a M.Sc. (Chemistry, Inorganic, 1971) and B.Sc (1969, Chemistry/Mathematics) from the University of Calgary. I have been fortunate to win several awards in my career including the Cowan Award for Excellence in Research, an environment award from the Chemical Institute of Canada, Parks Canada CEO Award of Excellence and a RPIC Award of Excellence in the Field of Contaminated Sites. I am particularly proud, however, of the two Deputy Minister of National Defence Commendations. The first, in 1992, “for the creation of an internationally recognized centre of excellence in environmental research” and the second, in 2006, “for work with Inuit and First Nations…and the restoration of Arctic contaminated sites…”

e-veritas: When were you on the staff at RRMC and RMC? How did you come to found the Environmental Sciences Group (ESG)?

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Dr Ken Reimer: Prior to joining the staff at Roads I held a contract position in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Guelph. I was offered a faculty position at the University of Guelph and at Dalhousie University when I decided to go to RRMC as I thought that the Military College offered more diverse opportunities and I was right.

I was an Assistant, Associate and finally Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Royal Roads in Victoria for 16 years from September 1979 until it closed in 1995. At RRMC I participated in the oceanography program. My interest was in the effect of mine waste containing copper or arsenic on the coastal marine environment so I was able to take research ships to sample sediments, water and biota all along the BC coastline – and I was paid at the same time! Although much of this work was done with full-time research staff, we were also able to include cadets.

As the work became more multidisciplinary and with a greater mix of basic and applied we decided to call my research team the Environmental Sciences Group (ESG). We had full-time chemists, biologists and engineers in the group and we toyed with the idea of calling it the Environmental Sciences and Engineering Group but, ironically (considering how things turned out), we decided to go with ESG as we did not want to be seen to competing with RMC.

We moved to Kingston in 1995 and I was a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at RMC for 19 years until I officially retired in May 2014. I  was the Director of Environmental Sciences Group (ESG) for 25 years (1989-2014).  I have held cross-appointments in the Department of Chemistry and the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s since September 1996 and I have been an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia even longer. On retirement, I was appointed Professor Emeritus at RMC and I am still actively involved in research.

e-veritas: You were the ski club advisor at Royal Roads. Any highlights?

Dr Ken Reimer: When I took the cadets to ski at Whistler in those early days, we could rent a cabin for 5$ a head. Although we crammed cadets into every bedroom and closet, we always left the place spotless and we were welcomed back. A highlight was when the ski team challenged the rugby team to a game of full contact Crud after the athletic awards dinner. A game of crud involves moving around the pool  table and other players, trying to grab the cue ball and launch it from the ends of the table surface with one hand to strike or sink the one object ball (red) into one of the pockets.  After a large rugby player blocked me, a couple skiers caught me on my way down.

Another fond memory was as coach of the RRMC ski team when I was able to get Dave Murray of the original ‘Crazy Canucks’ to help train the team. As a show of appreciation, the team skied down the hill in formation with ski poles substituting for swords; they were led by 15595 Dr. Billy Allan who is now Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at RMC.

e-veritas: You  delivered the Cowan Prize in Research Public Lecture entitled: “Chemicals in the Environment: Are they Harmful?” Did you cover any local research in the Kingston area?

Dr Ken Reimer:  The event, which was sponsored by the RMC Club of Canada Foundation, was held at Currie Hall on December 3rd, 2009. I believe that society suffers unduly from ‘chemophobia’ – an unnatural fear of chemicals and I feel strongly that chemistry professors should provide people with the tools to make their own decisions as to when something is harmful or not. The lecture focused on a number of examples dealing with this public fear, including that of arsenic. Arsenic forms the basis of some of the oldest poisons but not all arsenic compounds are toxic. In fact, arsenobetaine, an arsenic compound found in seafood is completely non-toxic. Students who took first year from me always heard – ‘if you remember one thing from this course it is that every time elements are combined to form compounds those compounds have their own unique set of chemical, physical and toxicological properties’. These are not a mixture of the properties of the elements; hence the fact that something contains arsenic does not mean it is a poison. The lecture described these principles as well as that even for something that is harmful, the dose makes the poison. A key feature was that we should expect to find arsenic in everything because it occurs naturally; direct contrasts to the hype we hear when the media is outraged about finding arsenic in apple juice, rice or wine.

I recall giving a lunchtime lecture to faculty at Roads and asked the mess manager to serve the audience wine and a shrimp cocktail. After discussing this information I told everyone how much arsenic they had consumed. The looks of shock were amazing but I then reminded them that the arsenic in the shrimp was not toxic and there was not enough of the more toxic arsenic compound that was found in the wine to cause harm. I am not certain that they all believed me, even though the information was all covered in the lecture.

At the Cowan Award lecture, I also described some of the work of the Environmental Sciences Group, which had just celebrated its 20 years of existence tackling projects from CFB Alert to Kandahar. Despite these far flung endeavours, ESG also completed the first detailed study of historical chemical contamination of the Inner Harbour between the LaSalle Causeway and the Highway 401.  For the first time the City of Kingston knows what is there (lead, chromium, PCBS) from historical waterfront industries, what is doing and what poses an environmental risk.

e-veritas: Your research began at Royal Roads in a lab studying mine waste in the waters off British Columbia, but quickly moved into other contaminants and scientific fields other than chemistry. Do any students, colleagues, projects or lessons learned stand out?

Dr Ken Reimer:  I started the Environmental Sciences Group because I have always been interested in how chemicals behave and affect the environment. I have studied the chemistry of arsenic for over 40 years and the presence of arsenic contamination at gold mine sites led naturally to questions regarding how such contamination might impact on the ecosystem and on humans. As I already said, the mere presence of a chemical does not necessarily imply a risk, so we added biologists and toxicologists to expand our chemistry core and, when remediation of the contaminated site was deemed necessary, we decided that we also required engineers. ESG became a large multidisciplinary group (60-100 people) fully capable of assessing the environmental issues at industrial and military sites.

10563 Major Ron Harmer, who was my office mate from 1979-1982, suggested our largest project, the assessment and  remediation of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. During the period 1989-1993 Canada assumed operational control of the DEW Line from the United States Air Force and created the North Warning System Office (NWSO). In 1989 we were asked to conduct what I like to term an ‘environmental real estate inspection’ for NWSO. At the time, very little was known about the presence and effect of contaminants on wildlife and on Inuit although there were reports of disturbingly high amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the breast milk of Inuit mothers. PCBs were used at all DEW sites and our work was the first that showed the influence of a local source on Inuit food and potentially health. I was the Scientific Advisor for the DEW Line Cleanup Project which, at the time, was Canada’s largest environmental remediation undertaking. ESG was involved in the design of the cleanup, its implementation and completion in 2014. Of great interest to me was the need to communicate our findings in Inuit communities and I have been personally involved in more than 100 community meetings and stakeholder groups.

A number of former cadets were instrumental to the success of the DEW Line Cleanup. These included, 5244 Mr. Tony Downs, former Director General Environment, 6508 Mr. John Adams, recently featured in e-Veritas, was involved when he was Assistant Deputy Minister Infrastructure and Environment. Most recently, was a former first year student 16598 Mr Scott Stevenson, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) Regional Operations Sector Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada 2010-2014, who served as Assistant Deputy Minister/Infrastructure and Environment (ADM IE) 2007-2010 and Director General of Realty Policy and Plans from 1997-2003 at DND.

I credit our success to the academic freedom at RRMC/RMC, since we were not directed what to find, but rather to find out what the problem was and to develop realistic solutions. This is the reason that Inuit wanted ESG to conduct confirmatory testing to ensure that the agreed upon goals of DEW Line Cleanup were achieved; this despite the fact that we were part of DND. This same approach has been used successfully at numerous CF Bases and other federally contaminated sites, including those found in National Parks.

When CF members became ill after Croatia in the late 1990s a BOI was formed to which I provided scientific advice and ESG gave technical support including sending ESG members to all places where Canadians had been deployed. Although it became clear that factors other than chemical exposure were largely responsible for the health problems, it was also noted that there was a requirement to assess the potential health risks posed by industrial chemicals during deployments. ESG continues to assist such assessments.

I am particularly proud of ESG’s accomplishments. It was the largest research group at RMC with up to 100 technical staff and graduate students. When I retired, we had attracted over $130M in research grants and contracts. I am very pleased to say the ESG is in good hands with Dr. Kela Weber as Director and it continues to support the CF/DND and other federal departments with its unparalleled applied/practical expertise and excellent scholarly core/reputation. I recommend  the group to anyone wanting credible, practical and cost-efficient approaches to contaminated sites.

My greatest privilege was to work alongside my partner and best friend, Deborah, at a fantastic institution. She was recognized by the Commandant, with his coin, in 2013 for her outstanding leadership within the Environmental Services Group, where she developed a system to improve fiscal management.

e-veritas: What did you mainly teach?

Dr Ken Reimer:  At RMC, I designed and taught several environmental courses –   Biochemistry and Microbiology for Environmental Engineering, Waste Treatment Processes – as well as graduate courses – Site Remediation, Environmental Issues. In recent years I volunteered to return to an old love – teaching first year chemistry, something that I had done at Roads. I had a reduced teaching load due to the administrative responsibilities of ESG so I would be teaching first year cadets and graduate students in the same term – a great experience! In my last teaching term (Fall 2013) I developed and delivered a senior year Environmental Chemistry course that linked theory to actual case studies executed by ESG. I believe that the cadets loved the fact that these were real examples. The practical side of ESG also allowed us to provide numerous projects for 4th year chemistry and chemical engineering students over the years.

e-veritas: What memories do you have?

Dr Ken Reimer: A wide variety! They range from the challenges of running a group like ESG, in a federal institution, but those are not unique to me and are known to all of RMC faculty. Although there were frustrations – I keep a picture of the MacKenzie building on the wall above a sword I was given for retirement – but there was also tremendous support from many senior people. ESG was able to accomplish things (and still does) that would not have been possible at either a civilian university or as a government agency.

Some of the most extraordinary experiences came from working with stakeholder groups. Exchanging scientific and traditional knowledge with Inuit and developing practical cleanup solutions that were acceptable to all parties was an incredible experience.

Most important, however, were the people: cadets, faculty colleagues, ESG members and friends. My career was built with the input and support of so many incredible people.

e-veritas: What are you doing these days?

Dr Ken Reimer: I hope to continue my affiliation with RMC for many years to come. As an emeritus professor, I have an office at RMC and I continue to participate in some projects with ESG. Last year I was awarded a fairly substantial five-year Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grant so I still have graduate students who are mainly focused on my first research interest – arsenic. My long term role model is Dr. Bill Cullen at the University of British Columbia. Although he retired and became a UBC Professor Emeritus at the age of 65, he continues his research interests and he is about to turn 82. He and I are co-authoring a book on arsenic called ‘Arsenic Eaters’ for the Royal Society for Chemistry. I am also a snowbird and Deborah and I are currently enjoying our first six month stint at our winter home in Florida where we are improving our golf handicaps; she more successfully than me.

e-veritas: Anything else to add?

Dr Ken Reimer: Just thanks for the opportunity to share my experiences.


4 Comments

  • 13789 Darren Rich

    March 30, 2015 at 11:16 am

    So sorry to hear that Ken (and Deb?) has/have retired. I wish them all the best in their future endeavours!

    Yours aye
    Darren

  • Mike Hache

    March 30, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    Enjoy a very well deserved retirement Ken, you have certainly made a difference in the lives of many Canadians over the years!
    BZ
    Mike Hache
    (RRMC Staff ’81 to ’84)

  • Ted Parkinson

    March 30, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Well Ken, it’s amazing that you’ve swallowed the anchor now and retired! Many very fresh memories of meeting you and as a prof @ RRMC. Funny how time flies…. Hope you enjoy your retirement, and very well deserved after a distinguished career.

    Best to you Deb , Sarah and Steven (if my faulty memory is correct about their names as it has been a while)…

    Ted Parkinson

  • Rod Macintosh

    April 2, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    One of my best memories of Ken was the ‘lets teach the Artsmen to like Chemistry through Alcohol’ approach. Making wine in Chem class and completing all of the various tests was brilliant (I believe brought to RRMC by Col Bob Peacock). Bringing in the Sommelier at the end of the year, after the wine had aged, to test the wine was a great way to cap it off (that is where the crud game was played!)

    Great memories. Thanks for putting up with us!

    Rod Macintosh