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Kissane: Every project we build has a foundation

Published March 16, 2020
Chicago District

Joseph Kissane, USACE Chicago District senior geologist, at Burns Harbor breakwater, 2011.

Chicago District

Pictured in middle of photo, Joseph Kissane, USACE Chicago District senior geologist, speaks with blasting experts at Calumet Harbor, 2018.

Chicago District

Joseph Kissane, USACE Chicago District senior geologist, at McCook Reservoir's main tunnel connection.

Chicago District

Joseph Kissane, USACE Chicago District senior geologist, in a tunnel near McCook Reservoir.

(March 16, 2020) – Understanding the nature of earth materials from soils and rock that are part of an excavation wall or used in embankments is pretty much imbedded in the mind of Joe Kissane, senior geologist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Chicago District. His 40-year career has taken him from tunnels around Niagara Falls in Ontario to the Chicago shoreline project.

Nineteen years ago, Kissane came to the Chicago District from Harza Engineering where he worked on tunnel projects that were connected with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP); a tunnel at Fermilab for the Nutrinos at the Main Injector (aka NuMI) project; a tunnel in Ontario around Niagara Falls; and other tunnels in New York, California, and Turkey. 

“When I came to the Chicago District, I became immersed in the TARP/McCook reservoir project and also picked up on the Chicago shoreline work,” he said. “And those two made up more than two-thirds of my work for the next 15 years or so.”

He started working for USACE in 1980 in the St. Louis District’s Construction Branch as a grouting and foundation prep geologist at Clarence Cannon Dam. Between 1982 and 1994, he worked in its Geotechnical Branch where his work included projects for other Corps districts and federal agencies across the country.

“Although I spent about seven years in the private sector between my time in the St. Louis District and my joining Chicago District, I still think of my career as almost entirely Corps-related,” he said. “I applied the experiences of St. Louis District to my work as an environmental and geotechnical consultant in the private sector, and then applied the experiences in the private sector to my work here at the Corps in Chicago.”

Kissane has a bachelor's degree from Montana State University and a master's degree in geological engineering from University of Missouri, Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology).

He said when it came time choosing a university, his criteria were focused on the ability to see "geology" out the windows of the place, and places where he could easily go out into the mountains at a moment's notice. 

“At Montana State University, I could ride a bike for 10 minutes and be in the mountains or at a trout stream,” Kissane said. “And Yellowstone National Park was a little over an hour away by car.”

His interest in geology began when he was four years old. While on vacation in Idaho to visit his grandparents, his father told him he could look for agates. So over the next few hours he combed the mountainside - and was broken-hearted to learn that there wasn't room in the station wagon for his collection. 

“We used to go on long stereotypical 1960s summer vacations in a station wagon driving all over the western United States, and the manner in which geology impacted not only the physical landscape but the cultural landscape fascinated me,” he said. “After my initial experience with rock collecting, I learned that photography offered me a means of documenting geology without the burden of hundreds of pounds of samples, and for some time I was a rarity among my peers for the minimalist approach to rock collecting.”

He is currently involved in the design of a tunnel for the Louisville District at Rough River Dam in Kentucky, and emergency repairs to the Chicago shoreline at Morgan Shoal.

He explained that the tunnels and reservoirs in Chicago are excavated into rock, and understanding geology and hydrogeology (i.e. the interaction between groundwater and rock/soils) is an essential part of that. The characteristics of earth materials from soils that are part of an excavation wall or are used in embankments impact the design of projects that use these materials.

“Every project we build has a foundation and those foundations are soil and/or rock,” Kissane said. “Understanding the properties of different types of rock and the impacts those properties have on the strength and stability or instability of these materials allows us to design things more efficiently.”