Engineers Australia

Distinguished Lecture

David Daniel


Although the origins of geoenvironmental engineering can be traced to numerous activities, the transformative event was leakage of toxic chemicals from the chemical waste dump at Love Canal, New York, in the late 1970’s. The actual and alleged health impacts produced dramatic changes in regulations and stringent new requirements for disposal of hazardous and solid wastes. Concerns also fueled major investments in research on clay barriers, geosynthetics, chemical transport in the subsurface, groundwater clean-up, and other areas. The result was enhanced understanding of natural and engineered systems, and much better engineering materials, designs, and laboratory and analytical tools.

Early permeability testing of clay materials showed that concentrated organic liquids caused large increases in hydraulic conductivity, but many people questioned the validity of the tests given the likelihood of sidewall leakage in the experiments. Early field hydraulic conductivity tests on small-scale compacted clay liners pointed to great differences between laboratory and field testing results, which led to much controversy and to changes in testing protocols. Traditional earthwork specifications were sometimes found to be inadequate for achieving the exceptionally low hydraulic conductivity required by regulation, and improved methods of thinking about earthwork specifications evolved. The appearance of geosynthetic clay liners led to many engineering questions, but as knowledge was gained, dramatically expanded use of geosynthetic clay liners evolved. Similarities between the controversies experienced in the evolution of knowledge about the geoenvironment are compared with experiences of the author while he served on investigation teams for levee failures in New Orleans and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, all of which highlight the challenges that engineers may face as they balance demands for reduced costs against application of sound engineering principles that ensure public safety.


David E. Daniel earned bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in civil engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. Between Masters and Ph.D. degrees he worked for 3 years as a geotechnical engineer for Woodward-Clyde Consultants in the San Francisco area. He served on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin from 1980 to 1996. In 1996, he moved to the University of Illinois, first serving as the Head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and later as Dean of Engineering. Dr. Daniel was appointed UT Dallas’ president in 2005.

Dr. Daniel’s engineering work has focused on geoenvironmental issues associated with waste containment and clean-up of contaminated sites with emphasis on low-permeability clay materials. His work has been recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which awarded him the Norman Medal, the Middlebrooks Award, and on two separate occasions the Croes Medal. He has also been awarded the ASCE Presidents’ Award, Geotechnical Hero’s Award, and the OPAL Award for Education. In 2000, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

In 2005 through 2008, Dr. Daniel served as Chairman of the External Review Panel of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which reviewed causes for the failure of New Orleans’ levees during Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Daniel also served on the National Academy of Engineering panel that investigated the causes for the explosion, fire, and oil spill from Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

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