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Winter 2000

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Diving in, digging down, cleaning up

by Robert W. Smith


Photo by Emma Dodge Hanson
Mary Passaretti '80 and her crew drill beneath a gas station on Saratoga's west side.

A resourceful woman succeeding in improbable places–that’s Mary Passaretti ’80: soccer trailblazer, petroleum research diver, and flourishing founder of Passaretti Geological & Environmental Consultants.

The assertiveness that led her to launch the Skidmore women’s soccer club and to learn deep-sea diving two decades ago is still a key to the respect she enjoys today in the competitive, male-dominated world of environmental geology.

Passaretti’s eight-year-old, 10-person firm, headquartered in Saratoga Springs, cleans up oil spills–usually slow leaks from underground tanks at gas stations, not the dramatic Exxon Valdez kind. Her subsurface soil and groundwater investigations may lead to the removal of a tank or the design and installation of a remediation system to treat the contamination. Stewart’s and Extra Mart, the self-serve gasoline and convenience stores, and Congress Gas and Oil are three of her biggest clients; in addition, banks use her services for environmental site assessments before they make loans on commercial properties.

In 1995, Passaretti started a second business when she and engineer Fil L. Fina Jr. formed Aztech Technologies, which is a New York State Department of Energy Conservation contractor, working on DEC-funded projects. DEC tells Passaretti that her firms have more clients, and more spills to clean up, than any other Capital Region contractor. Given the intense business climate in her field, she observes, "I’m sure that creates a lot of jealousy." She knows of several firms that "feel really threatened by the fact that a woman geologist has so much work."

But being a woman in a man’s world, she says, "has not been a problem for me. I imagine there are some women who’d get walked all over in this business. But I’m not one of them!"–a statement she punctuates with a hearty laugh. Besides, Passaretti has more than pluck going for her. Honesty, for one thing. "This business can be a license to steal," she says. "I can’t tell you how many dishonest contractors there are. That’s probably the number-one reason I have so much work: I’m honest and that reputation is far ahead of me. All my business comes from word of mouth by satisfied customers."

Passaretti says the real reward for her comes when she knows she’s saved a client money and met DEC requirements without compromising the environment. "Doing all that together is tricky," she admits, but says she manages to pull it off "99 percent of the time."

As a teenager, Passaretti enjoyed rock-climbing lessons taught by a geologist at the White Mountain School in New Hampshire, and she formed a school geology club. Once at Skidmore, "geology was a turning point for me," she recalls. Professors Kenneth Johnson and John Thomas were "great," and the Capital Region offered excellent field experience. Success in geology (including departmental honors) led to a January-term internship at Amoco Oil in Tulsa, Okla. There she produced the first book on identifying minerals and types of sedimentary change using a scanning electron microscope; Amoco hired her immediately.


Photo by Emma Dodge Hanson
Passaretti gets down to business with a colleague.

"I wanted a job that would keep me outside," Passaretti says, but as a research geologist for three firms, "I ended up looking in microscopes for eight years." Of course she didn’t spend all her time indoors. Her second employer, Cities Service, sent her diving: offshore Belize, the Bahamas, and "less glamorously, offshore New Jersey," she says. "Drilling cores into ancient rock, we found a lot of oil stored in coarse-grain limestones off the Bahamas." Those experiences formed the basis of her master’s thesis as a night-school student at Tulsa University. When she wasn’t in the lab, in the ocean, or in class, Passaretti played soccer in a rugged semiprofessional league–back when some of the media darlings of today’s women’s soccer had only a diaper to show off. Passaretti can exhibit 11 scars from knee surgeries.

While Passaretti agrees with the license-plate slogan "Oklahoma is OK," she was eager to get back east, and in October 1989 she landed a job with an Albany-area environmental firm.

Now with two businesses to run (and daughters Makayla, five, and Savannah, two, to raise on her own), Passaretti is looking to settle into something solid–like waste water. She points out that Environmental Protection Agency regulations are succeeding in reducing oil spills–and the cleanup work that goes with them. So now, "we’re working on developing equipment that will treat waste water from municipal landfills or industrial areas. That stuff will always be going on," she predicts. "Ideally, I’d like to get into a business where at the end of the day someone says ‘thank you.’ "

Maybe she’ll find it. She is, after all, a resourceful woman seeking an improbable place.


Freelance writer Bob Smith has also profiled ecotourism and wind-turbine entrepreneurs for
Scope.

 


© 2000 Skidmore College