Altamont’s Charles “Chuck” Pippin, P.G., developed his love of the outdoors at an early age—particularly when rocks were involved. Chuck was an eager hiker, backpacker, rock climber, and caver, which ultimately led to his pursuing a career in geology.
He was born in Atlanta, and his father worked for Norfolk Southern Railroad. “Every time my father had an opportunity to advance,” Chuck says, “he took it.” The family moved every 1.5 to 2 years. As a result, Chuck lived all over the Southeast: in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, and mostly—for about 6 years—Kentucky.
He went to college at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He was torn between majoring in English or geology. Perhaps influenced by his continuing recreational interests—Chuck was a “beatnik, Royal Robbins-style” rock climber—he got his degree in geology with a minor in statistics. Still, while pursuing his degree he took several classes in poetry, creative writing (with Resident Artist Orson Scott Card), and performance art. Chuck’s senior project at Appalachian State was titled Granitic Provenance of Grandfather Mountain Conglomerates, which he presented at a Geologic Society of America meeting in 1993. The study involved sampling and petrographic analysis of granitic clasts from the Grandfather Mountain Conglomerates and of the granitic plutonic rocks that were in the area. Upon graduation, Chuck was recognized as the Outstanding Senior Geologist by the Appalachian State Department of Geology.
He was mentored by several college professors. “I still keep in touch and share stories and information with them today,” Chuck says. He developed an interest in igneous petrology, structural geology, and geophysics as an undergraduate, which led him to graduate studies in volcanology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, outside of Chicago. “I became more attracted to igneous petrology and plate tectonics than anything else,” he says.
During graduate school, Chuck did what he considers a very formative project in geophysics: Unwinding Clockwise Rotations of Pacific Northwest Terrains. He was looking at paleomagnetism in accreted terranes of the Pacific Northwest. Paleomagnetism refers to the orientation of the magnetic field in iron-bearing minerals after magma cools. The magnetic field of iron-bearing minerals is parallel to the earth’s magnetic field at the time of cooling. Over time, these rocks might move due to continental drift, and when they do the magnetic field orientation will no longer be oriented parallel to the Earth’s magnetic field.
“When you reconstruct plate movements, you perform Euler pole reconstructions that involve matrix calculations to figure out how rigid plates rotate on a sphere around a fixed axis, a Euler pole,” Chuck says. “Traditionally, paleomagnetic declination studies only accounted for declinations related to plate collisions. They didn’t account for how the degree of rotation contributed to the movement of a plate around a Euler pole.”
For this project, Chuck had to digitize micro-continental plates and model their migration and accretion to the Pacific Northwest region of the North American continent. The digitization process and spatial modeling were essentially an early GIS mapping project. Chuck presented the results of this project at the American Geophysical Union meeting in 1994.
The project helped him learn how to think and how to analyze data, Chuck says. It also made learning GIS software and programs much easier later in his career.
For his master’s thesis, Geology and Geochemistry of the Cope Hollow Mafic Intrusive Complex, Chuck studied the caldera complex near the Saint Francois Mountains in Missouri. His thesis involved mapping the distribution and sampling of igneous intrusive rocks and volcanic rocks and performing major and rare earth element geochemistry. “The interesting thing about these rocks is how well preserved they are given their age of about 1.4 billion years old,” Chuck says. “For example, thin sections of rhyolites show preserved shard textures of volcanic ash. “
A career begins
After graduate school, Chuck jumped into a job working for the Mooresville regional office of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DENR), which is now known as the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
He started in 1996 and worked there for 2 years; joined the consulting firm Conestoga Rovers and Associates as a staff geologist for 2 to 3 years; and then went back and rejoined DENR as a hydrogeologist for another 6 years.
One project he worked on while employed with the state was related to naturally occurring arsenic. Chuck used North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services water-supply-well analyses to create a probability map for arsenic occurrence across that state. “Anytime someone tests a private water supply well they submit that data to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services,” Chuck says. “This project used GIS to geo-reference the addresses of these wells in order to correlate arsenic data to rock types.”
Chuck was able to correlate areas with higher probabilities for elevated arsenic concentrations to a specific suite of rocks, the Carolina Slate Belt, which is prevalent in the middle portion of North Carolina.
His efforts on this project were recognized by the State of North Carolina, which awarded Chuck the Distinguished Service Award, and by the Division of Water Quality, which awarded him both the Outstanding Achievement Award and Employee of the Year recognition.
Chuck next worked as a senior project hydrogeologist for another consulting firm, Golder Associates, for 8 years. He then joined Altamont in 2013.
“I came to Altamont about five times during the interview process and spent a lot of time with the majority of the staff,” Chuck says. “Eventually, they found a position for me.”
Chuck says he has enjoyed a very broad geologic career. He appreciates projects that are technically challenging, and his favorite projects are ones that involve geologic analysis—“analyzing the orientation of fractures, rock types, and patterns that might affect what you’re investigating,” he says.
His efforts at Altamont include a lot of assessment and remediation work.
“I like to work from the geology up,” Chuck says. “First, identify where the resources are. How does the subsurface influence the distribution of contaminants, for example?
“One aspect of environmental consulting is presenting the data, which is typically from under the ground, within the context of a well thought out conceptual site model. The challenge in this relates to the ability to investigate the subsurface. Due to budget constraints, you often have to make inferences based on limited data and experience.”
He likes the diversity of working with many types of clients and also in sometimes developing deeper relationships with them while engaged collaboratively in longer-term projects.
Three years into working at Altamont, Chuck has begun to shift some of his energy toward further developing and expanding upon the water resources services Altamont provides.
“I’m very interested in the clean water work of environmental consulting, such as groundwater exploration and development, stream restoration work, and source-water vulnerability assessments,” he says.
One of the projects Chuck is especially excited about right now is a United States Forest Service project to perform a geologic evaluation of a site. “It’s pure geologic structural analysis, which I love,” Chuck says.
Keeping things personal—and a little advice
Chuck met his wife, Jodi, when he was 20 and she was 17. She had gone to Eagle’s Nest Camp in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, growing up, and she was working as a whitewater canoe guide at the camp in 1990. Chuck got a summer job there as a rock climbing guide after his sophomore year at Appalachian State. They became friends and then started dating during college.
They have three children: Sophie, Oliver, and Veda. Chuck says he most enjoys hanging out with the kids and getting outdoors as much as possible with them, especially for rock climbing and mountain biking.
“I love living in Western North Carolina and being able to find interesting pockets in nature: creeks, waterfalls, special spots that sometimes feel completely untouched,” he says.
Chuck and Jodi enjoy hosting musical events at their home, inviting both local artists and ones from out of state. In graduate school, Chuck did a lot of bike touring, and he’s currently trying to get back into it. And he still enjoys writing and poetry.
Also as a creative, Chuck makes pottery when he has time. He likes to engrave narrative cartoons into his work.
Asked what advice he has for people pursuing a career in the field, Chuck says, “First, make sure you enjoy what you do and who you work with. Second, learn from your mistakes.”
A job and career become harder in some ways when you have kids, he says.
“I have found maintaining a healthy work-life balance to be difficult at times,” Chuck says. “I work really hard to leave work at work. But I definitely spend time at home figuring out how to solve a problem or doing research so that I can deliver an excellent quality of product.”
Making good choices about the type of work you do and the employer you work for is important, Chuck says. “For example, for me, I definitely prefer working as a consultant as opposed to with the state, mostly due to the variety of projects that I get to work on,” he says. “But some people prefer working for the state because they get to oversee the regulatory side of projects. They become the point of contact for many people who need their assistance to work through the regulatory hurdles for a particular project.”
Either way, he says, you need to make good, conscious choices: “Don’t get too far along before deciding what you’re doing is really the career you want.”
And what has been his own career highlight—thus far, anyway?
Chuck says his favorite project was working on the October 2009 I-40 rock slide that closed that interstate in whole and part for 4 months. He provided construction oversight and quality control/quality assurance services during the stabilization process of the vertical and sub-vertical portions of the failure plane.
“I enjoyed that work,” he says, “because it was very tangible in how it mattered and affected people’s lives.”
Chuck Pippin, P.G. was interviewed by Altamont’s Melanie Kemp.
Read an earlier interview with Altamont’s Jennifer Verde, P.E.