This article was written by Richard Webner, Contributor, San Antonio Express-News
Tom Burr doesn’t keep much of an office. As leader of the environmental division of Raba Kistner, a San Antonio-based engineering firm, he spends much of his time on the road, traveling between the firm’s offices sprawled across Texas or visiting clients at project sites.
Though he’s based in Austin, his work might take him to a petrochemical facility in Houston that requires environmental permits or to an adaptive reuse project such as Pearl in San Antonio, where soil assessments are needed to determine whether pollution from past land uses is present.
Locally, his division has performed archaeological work at the Alamo and in conjunction with the construction of San Pedro Creek Culture Park, where it helped identify and preserve the remains of the late-1860s St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church.
At the start of last year, Gary Raba stepped down as president to be replaced by Chris Schultz, marking the first time the firm has been led by someone outside the Raba family. Schultz is looking to expand through further acquisitions, Burr said.
Meanwhile, the firm has had ownership changes of its own: In 2019, it was bought by an Australian engineering firm, only to be bought again last year by Kiwa, a company based in the Netherlands.
“We’ve been bought a couple times because these guys recognize that we’re a great company with a great suite of services and we’re growing like crazy,” Burr said. “A lot of people want access to that North American market, and where in the market do they want to go first? Typically, it’s Texas.”
After growing up in Seattle, Burr earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Oregon and a master’s in environmental science from Baylor University. Before joining Raba Kistner, he worked for the Angelina & Neches River Authority in Lufkin and at the engineering firm Chicago Bridge & Iron.
He recently sat to discuss Raba Kistner’s expansion, San Antonio’s cultural regulations and the environmental threat posed by Texas’ rapid population growth. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You majored in biology as an undergraduate. How did you become interested in that field?
A: I’ve always been interested in the sciences, even when I was a kid. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and my parents had a trailer and we always camped. I grew up just camping all over — Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, all over the place. I just love being outdoors, love the natural resources.
Q: What are your favorite places to camp in Texas?
A: We went to Inks Lake quite a bit. Our kids just love that area; we can canoe, and then they’ve got the cliffs you can jump off, the rope swings. I spent a few years in East Texas, and we would camp along the shores of Lake Sam Rayburn. You get more of the piney woods, which is nice. We don’t have a lot a lot of pines here, but if you grew up the Pacific Northwest, there’s all these pine trees.
Q: Is environmental cleanup work typically for urban development projects, where there used to be something different there?
A: Yeah, like an auto shop, gas station, dry cleaner. Could have been a former manufacturing site they’ve decided to repurpose. The greenfield sites, where nothing’s been built before, not so much. We’ll do what we call the phase one environmental site assessment on all of them, but with the greenfield sites, we’ll get photos back to the 1940s. We can look at aerial photos and kind of understand what it’s been, if there’s ever been any underground storage tanks or above-ground storage tanks and fuels, those types of things.
Q: I would imagine you help your clients with federal and state environmental regulations.
A: Yeah — federal, state and local as well. You know, San Antonio has got its own requirements. San Antonio is kind of unique in terms of how it really, really goes out of its way to help protect and preserve the cultural resources. San Antonio does a lot to protect their historical property.
Q: Beyond the historic aspect, there are regulations regarding the Edwards Aquifer, right?
A: Right, protecting the groundwater. But really, in San Antonio, what’s unique is (that Raba Kistner has) a full-service cultural resources department, archaeology. They’re based in San Antonio, but we do work throughout the Texas triangle. San Antonio has got its own ordinance that basically dictates that with any kind of city- or county-funded project down there, you’ve got to do cultural resources reviews. You can do a phase one where you assess the property through kind of a document literature review, to see if there might be any cultural deposits there. If not, then you can go to the next phase, and you can start to do some trenching and digging in select locations to see if you find cultural deposits. And then we go so far as, if there are cultural deposits, we’ll go down with the fine brushes and we’ll pull them out, we’ll date them, and we’ll curate them and save them for future reference.
Q: As Texas grows so fast, does that pose a big threat to the environment? Is the state adequately addressing that?
A: The state’s (population is) going to potentially double by 2050. That’s going to put a strain on a lot of things, natural resources being one. But with that population growth, we’ve got to have infrastructure. You have to figure out where to put all that, how to expand roadways. We’ve got to be smart about how we do it, how we develop. Maybe minimize the greenfield that we do and repurpose as much as possible to control that footprint.
You know, we’re getting $35 billion from the infrastructure bill coming to Texas. So we’ve got a lot of money coming. I think that’s gonna go a long way to help us build out and preserve what we’ve got in play.
Q: What do you do when you find unexpected archaeological remains, like on the San Pedro Creek project?
A: We’ve got a gentleman in San Antonio, Steve Tomka, that runs that cultural resources group. Fantastic guy. The first thing we’ve got to do, obviously, is notify the client. Then we’ve got to figure out, well, what is it? What’s the age? Then there’s a lot of conversations around, “OK, how do we preserve that structure? What do we do? What are the construction constraints we need to think about now? Do we leave it in place? Do we protect it, or leave it like it is? Do we put protections around it, or do we remove it and curate it?”
It’s a significant undertaking because it’s going to impact the progression of the construction project. There’s a lot of dollar and scheduling things around that. We’ve got to act quickly.
Q: What are some areas the firm is expanding in?
A: Outside of San Antonio, we’ve grown a tremendous amount in Houston and Dallas in terms of our stormwater permitting. We have got a stronghold of solid waste facilities, the people that are picking up your garbage in your house, those landfills, transfer stations; we do a ton of stormwater work there, and we’ve grown that tremendously throughout Texas in the last few years. We’ve actually developed a proprietary software to help folks comply with the industrial stormwater permit for those applications. If you don’t want to have the cost of us coming to your site to do all the work for you and do all the sampling and the monitoring, you can utilize this software and allow you to manage your own site’s stormwater permit.
Q: Do you find that your clients are concerned about climate change? And do you advise them to think about that?
A: We do. We have so many different clients, from a small mom-and-pop shop all the way up to multinational global corporations. The larger-scale clients, they’re concerned about greenhouse gas. They follow it, and they know the current administration is very focused on greenhouse gas and climate change. Now, what does that mean? I mean, there’s very little actual federal regulation on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions you can emit.
Q: Do you have an opinion as to whether we’re doing enough in Texas to reduce our greenhouse gases and to prepare for a future of more extreme weather?
A: I think we are. I think the state is ready to do more. You know, we’ve got $35 billion coming from the infrastructure fund. There’s a large chunk of that for disaster recovery and mitigating against climate change impacts. I think the state’s going to do what it needs to do in terms of hardening the coastal assets, improving infrastructure. I think there’s always more you can do.
Q: At the start of last year, Chris Schultz took over as CEO from Gary Raba. Has he led the company in a new direction?
A: He’s going to be very aggressive on the inorganic growth, the acquisition side. He’s got some great ideas on where we want to go in terms of growing services, growing geographies, and growing market sectors. I’m excited about it. Gary was a fantastic guy, and the Raba family obviously built the business since 1968. Gary’s still around and helping out, but Chris is gonna be really good. He’s got new, fresh ideas, and he’s going to be great from an acquisition perspective.