Getting Your Hands Dirty

A picture of Rob Ribbens

It’s not a burden to be heartfully blessed by the beauty of a waterfall or a gaggle of snow geese over your head just after dusk. The truth? Every dawn is a revelation. Mountains stop your breathing. A fresh lake’s gaudy reflections somehow mirror the soul’s peace. Think about it: where would we be without rivers?

He’d admit it himself, so why be shy about it? The fact is, Rob Ribbens (’87), despite being the son of former Dean of Instruction Dr. Douglas Ribbens was at best a fair-to-middling student when he was at Dordt, not because he lacked ability, but because, like lots of others, he lacked what some might call “direction.”

The missing “direction” in Ribbens’s life took shape when he realized that radio broadcasting wasn’t what he thought it would be—and learned at just about the same time that an introductory science course was perfectly fascinating.
But his real motivation arose with an independent study in what was at the time a fledgling major, environmental studies. Ribbens’s project, as Vander Zee remembers it, was “to sample shallow wells in Sioux County for the presence of nitrates, which are easily dissolved in surface waters and are the product of applied fertilizers on farmlands.”

It was a big job, an important job—and Ribbens got really into it. He sampled 80 wells on 80 local farms and found, strikingly, half of them registered nitrates exceeding safe levels for drinking, an ecological disaster as well as a danger to public health. What he’d discovered was bad news but real news.

In collaboration with Association of Public Justice local activist, Joyce Campbell, Ribbens’s study of well-water nitrates was presented as the lead testimony to the Iowa legislature at that time. It was a huge story. After graduating, Ribbens went to work in Omaha on what had become a familiar task: testing water. Then he spent a couple years with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, establishing the state-wide household hazardous waste (HHW) program, as well as the rules and procedures for solid waste planning for Iowa landfills. His experience in the state’s capital, Des Moines, taught him something a bit less than inspiring.

“I learned that science and politics are not compatible in many cases,” he says.

Undeterred, he stayed with environmental problems, but headed off to Muskegon, Michigan, where he’s been since 1991, busy with recycling programs, upgrades to public parks, and vigilance for “the parabolic dunes along Lake Michigan, for magnificent wildflowers, and great birding areas” that comprise so much of the lakeshore he now calls home. Much of his work involves keeping the shoreline from the industrial pollution that played so significant a role in Michigan life for almost a century.

Cleaning up the beauty means knowing where to go with the dirt. To organize that onerous job, Ribbens wrote the county’s solid waste plan, a plan that looked closely at waste reduction, waste diversion and recycling, and finally, proper landfilling. For a year, while waiting to find someone to fill the position, he managed the county landfill.

Today he may well be purchasing water from the City of Muskegon, then distributing it to neighboring townships. His is no small task; he’s responsible for water quality to all customers, which means doing all the lead and copper sampling.

As if that weren’t enough, chances are good, this morning, he’s wearing yet another hat, this one as Muskegon County Soil Erosion Agent, issuing soil erosion permits for any project that disturbs more than one acre of land or is within 500 feet of any body of water (lake, stream, drain, and more). Chances are, he’s making sure that preventative measures are in place to keep soils from migrating into waterways. He may be stopping by one of the township offices to review plans for a new subdivision, to determine flow rates and fire protection, to prevent stagnation of water, and to test water quality. Then, he’ll finish up by reviewing multiple plans for other construction projects throughout the county.

Is he busy? Don’t ask. He’ll call you when he has a minute.

Once Rob Ribbens found the direction he was looking for, he was off and running. He hasn’t stopped for a minute since; he’s stayed the course and kept the faith, even though he’s often done maybe more than his share of dirty work.