Dr. Peter Van Metre, Pioneering Coal Tar Researcher, Dies in Weekend Crash

Sad news from Texas today as many of us learned about the death of Dr. Peter Van Metre of the United States Geological Society. 

Last summer Pete retired from full-time work at USGS and there was a Zoom retirement party for him. Yes it was kind of awkward but you could appreciate the geographical and technical breadth of his work and the way that he touched his colleagues.

My words here will in no way capture the extent of his life and work, but I was always impressed with the intellectual rigor which he brought to the world of coal tar sealers. In those early years of discovery, there was just so much we didn’t know.

How much is used across the country?

What are the human effects?

How fast does it wear off?

How does it wear off?

What about fish kills?

What about airborne effects?

How soon before a nationwide ban would happen?

How long after a ban will the benefits be seen?

But intellectual curiosity isn’t enough without the chutzpah to withstand the onslaught of an entire industry against you. 

Ever had your job come up in the US Congress as an example of government waste by vindictive coal tar advocates?  

Ever have your job highlighted in the Washington Post for a new incoming President to address/eliminate? 

Probably not, but Pete did. In spite of that, he and his partner in life and work, Dr. Barbara Mahler pressed on with grace and joie de vivre. 

As of this writing over 25 million Americans are under a coal tar sealer ban. While Pete and the USGS never advocated for regulatory action against these products per their charter, their quality research and collaboration have been a key elements in the bans across the nation.

A few years ago toxicologist Dr. Spencer Williams studied coal tar sealers and said that many Americans likely have cancer from coal tar sealers and they don’t even know it.

The converse can be said for the work of Dr. Peter Van Metre, many have likely been spared cancer as the result of his work and they don’t even know it. And I think Pete would be OK with that.

The above picture is Dr. Van Metre with Dr. Mahler and Congressman Lloyd Doggett celebrating the publication of their study finding the reduction in pollutants in Austin’s Lady Bird Lake 8 years after the coal tar ban went into effect.

Below are a few pictures and videos I have of Pete, who I will miss tremendously.