Environmental engineering is a flourishing field that focuses on addressing society’s most pressing environmental concerns, such as water pollution, air pollution, climate change, recycling and the efficient disposal of waste. Aspiring engineers who are interested in creating innovative solutions for critical environmental challenges should take the time to learn more about the skills, knowledge, and educational qualifications needed to become an environmental engineer. With the effects of global warming, the field of environmental engineering is only expected to grow.
Education & Employment
To pursue a career in this field, individuals need a comprehensive understanding of the major technical facets of environmental engineering, such as air and water pollution control, complex engineering calculations, solid waste management, and wildlife intervention. All of these skills can be acquired through the completion of a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or in a closely related field. However, given the multi-faceted nature of the field, those looking to advance in the field should consider a civil engineering graduate program where they can specialize specifically in environmental engineering. Graduates with satisfactory credentials have good earning potential, as the median salary for environmental engineers is approximately $84,560. The field is expected to see a 12 percent increase in job availability by 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Roles and Responsibilities of Environmental Engineers
Environmental engineers are constantly innovating and developing new strategies to prioritize the protection and conservation of the Earth’s natural resources and environments. Environmental engineers usually find themselves recruited to help communities combat air and water pollution, as well as by agencies that are concerned with reinvigorating wildlife populations. While there are many other positions available to talented environmental engineers, most positions in the field specifically focus on resource conservation, environmental assessments, and pollution management.
Water Supply and Wastewater Reclamation Facilities
Clean water is imperative to securing positive health conditions in any society. In water supply facilities, environmental engineers aid in the development of systems that are capable of adequately storing, treating and transferring water to the community. Though the facilities designated to treat wastewater are, at times, located in separate locations from the water distribution plants, environmental engineers are responsible for operations in both types of facilities. In this particular capacity, engineers usually handle sludge-filled water at modern water treatment and supply plants, a task that includes:
- Developing plans for the use, discovery and protection of new water resources.
- Selecting equipment that will deliver water to the population efficiently without risk of repeated contamination.
- Performing proper studies that accurately quantify the quality of the water, while also identifying the presence of specific pollutants.
- Determining the source of particular water pollutants and designing plans to eliminate them from the water supply.
- Analyzing past water usage data to anticipate the demand for water in the future.
- Designing systems that use current wastewater treatment technologies to remove solid materials and clarify the water.
- Modeling water delivery systems using simulation software that shows the movement of water, forecasting the potential dispersion of contaminants.
- Overseeing the construction of water reclamation facilities, making sure the need for pumping systems, sewer systems, pipelines and other utilities is fulfilled.
In some instances, environmental engineers are limited by the budgets they share with environmental scientists, planners and hazardous waste technicians to eliminate water contaminants. Even with limited budgets, a creative staff backed by experienced environmental engineers can develop wastewater treatment strategies that keep the water clean and the people healthy.
Air Pollution Monitoring and Control
Large construction projects and industrial production facilities push volumes of harmful chemicals into the air that the general population breathes, so preventing the release of these chemicals is of grave importance to environmental engineers. Environmental engineers who work with air quality are generally inclined toward one of two specific categories: air pollution control and air quality engineering. Air pollution control is focused more on actively preventing and controlling the emission of air contaminants. Air quality engineering focuses on larger scale control strategies, employing often complex formulations of physics and chemistry to analyze and address pollutant interactions within the atmosphere. Several particular air pollutants are actively regulated by environmental agencies within the United States, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, heavy metal trace species, hydrocarbons and other volatile organic compounds. Limiting human exposure to these harmful contaminants is critical to human safety, and therefore, environmental engineers focused on air quality must be able to perform a variety of functions, some of which are as follows:
- Regulating compliance of air quality regulations in a set region by performing inspections and source tests.
- Responding to inquiries made by public or commercial interest groups regarding air quality and air pollution control.
- Auditing and reviewing environmental air quality conditions and recommending the best available technology for controlling air pollution.
- Administering permits and violation notices to groups that are not in compliance with proper air quality control legislation.
Environmental Impact Assessment and Mitigation Planning
A key task for environmental engineers is performing an environmental impact assessment of a project, which is designed to anticipate the impact that the specific construction project or development may have on the environment where it is hosted. Environmental impact assessments were introduced by professionals working to maintain our ecosystems in order to limit the negative impact that plans, policies and projects may bring forth on the environment. If an environmental engineer does find that the proposed plan will have dire consequences, they can then use the information from the assessment to strategize the most actionable way to mitigate any negative effects before projects even start being developed.
Aside from the initial environmental impact assessment, environmental engineers are also often responsible for reviewing any previous environmental investigation reports. Unlike when performing their own impact assessments, during the review process, environmental engineers are usually tasked with examining the records of any engineer who worked in the region previously. This examination of past environmental conditions often leads to the discovery of information that can prove vital to the success of an environmental engineer’s current projects. Through these continual assessments, environmental engineers can become subject experts on particular or specialized environments and using their extensive knowledge of specific regions, many can become candidates for consulting careers within large corporations and government agencies that develop solutions for pollution, resource control, and other environmental concerns.
The work that environmental engineers do is not performed solely for the benefit of the current generation but also for the preservation of the environment for generations to follow. Professionals in this field have the great responsibility of working to protect our environment and holding others accountable for doing the same. For a fulfilling career in a growing industry that offers room for creativity and critical thinking, environmental engineering is an excellent choice for graduates to consider.
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Environmental Engineers, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Air Quality Engineer I/II, San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District
Environmental Engineers: Career, Salary and Education Information, CollegeGrad.com
What is an Environmental Engineer?, EnvironmentalScience.org