Meet the Board: Elizabeth Hellman

Elizabeth Hellman is one of Sweet Water’s newest board members. We sat down to chat about her thoughts as an Environmental Engineer and what she’s noticed over her career at WEC Energy Group subsidiaries in Milwaukee.

Elizabeth Hellman is one of Sweet Water’s newest board members. We sat down to chat about her thoughts as an Environmental Engineer and what she’s noticed over her career at WEC Energy Group subsidiaries in Milwaukee.

By Martha Allen

Allen: What is your background and how did you end up in the position you are in now?
Hellman: My title is Principal Environmental Engineer at WEC Energy Group – Business Services. I originally went to college for chemical engineering but sometime during that time I became interested in environmental issues and completed an Environmental Studies certificate program in addition to my engineering degree. Meanwhile, I worked during the summers for We Energies, which was called Wisconsin Electric at that time, and one summer I had an environmental project there which interested me. Once I left college, I worked for Wisconsin Electric full time and after a year of getting used to working I started a part time master’s degree program at Marquette University and got a Civil and Environmental Engineering degree there that led me to a position at Wisconsin Electric in the environmental department and later on the water quality team.  Throughout my education and the beginning of my career, many of the projects that had interested me had been water-related and the transition made sense.

A: What kinds of things are you responsible for in your current position?
H: Actually, this summer I will be having my 25th anniversary with the company and I have been in my current position for about 15 years. I work mostly with water permits for the various generating facilities (power plants) and for other water-related projects. These permits are for water discharges, intake structures, and wastewater management/treatment. I also work on spill prevention control and countermeasure plans, not just for the power plants but for any company facilities that need them. This also includes more than just our We Energies plants because all service centers and power plants that store oil above a certain threshold need to have a spill plan. My team works on these and we also cover numerous other ancillary things that have to do with stormwater and wastewater.

A: Are you originally from the Milwaukee area?
H: I’m originally from Wisconsin but I grew up in three different places in the state. I spent most of my adolescence in Two Rivers, Wisconsin until I went to college.

A: What was your relationship with water like growing up?
H: I have lived near Lake Michigan my whole life. When I was younger, my relationship with the lake was complicated because I grew up in Two Rivers which is a bump out into the lake and it was always cold unless there was a strong wind from the west. From that standpoint I had some animosity toward Lake Michigan. Obviously, since then I have really come to appreciate it for all that it provides as a natural resource and a recreational gem. I think it’s interesting to talk to people who aren’t from the Great Lakes area because you can’t really convey how expansive it is until you’re standing on the shore. It’s interesting to see them realize that you can’t see the other side when you’re standing near it, because that’s not what most people imagine when they picture a lake. It’s really an amazing, unique, natural feature.

A: How have you seen the environmental community change over your career?
H: I think there have been such great improvements made in the Milwaukee area. I didn’t think about it as much when I first started but I realize now that there were many significant environmental challenges in our area. Looking around now, it’s amazing to see all the hard work paying off in our area. For example, I’ve worked on studies that have been done to support permitting and modifications for the Valley Power Plant which is located right next to downtown Milwaukee near I-94. Seeing the improvements over time in the aquatic community in the Menomonee River and the quality of the river water that the plant uses for cooling is really encouraging and shows how all of the work done by all of the entities in the area to bring about those improvements has paid off.

A: Briefly, what do you think of as your favorite part of your job?
H: One of the things I really enjoy is learning more about new developments in science and technology. I love seeing the new things that people have discovered or invented and figuring out how we can apply those things to our company’s facilities. In particular, I am fascinated by intake and wastewater treatment technologies that are able to do things that haven’t been done before or are more efficient at removing more arsenic, mercury, and selenium from wastewaters. The chemistry and biology involved is fascinating to me and I love being involved in deciding what equipment to install and how to make it work in a way that makes sense for our facilities and that is also cost effective for our customers.

A: If you were granted the ability to change one thing about how people view water quality, what would it be?
H: Coming from the industry perspective, I wish more people would realize that those of us in industry do care about the environment. There are many people working in our facilities who are doing their best to protect the environment and create cost-effective solutions to protect our natural resources. I am very excited to be starting my journey as a Sweet Water board member and to get to interact with a wide range of leaders in industry, higher education, and nonprofit and to see that we all share the same goals.

A: What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not at work?
H: I love spending time with my family. My four kids are very active in sports and scouts. My favorite event every year is a big summer camping trip with my husband and kids to see a different part of the country and enjoy some quality time outdoors.