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What Does an Environmental Engineer Do?

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Environmental engineers help identify and develop solutions to environmental problems in order to protect the population from harm or enhance people’s quality of life. An environmental engineer may assist with a project aimed at improving a recycling process in a nearby municipality, or may work with an organization to monitor levels of air pollution and take necessary action.

Those interested in environmental engineering might consider how to create sustainable buildings, or how contaminated waste sites are cleaned up. To pursue this profession, prospective environmental engineers will need to complete a bachelor’s degree in environmental, civil, mechanical, or chemical engineering. In addition, because environmental engineers often work in teams to complete large-scale processes or projects, they must have an ability to work well with others.

Read on to learn more about this profession, including specializations, common employers, day-to-day tasks, and typical environmental engineer work environments.

Environmental Engineer Job Overview

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), environmental engineers consider the earth’s natural resources while applying physical, biological, and chemical principles to address local, regional, and global environmental issues. Depending on their specialization, environmental engineers may work on any of the following projects throughout their careers:

  • Air and water pollution monitoring and mitigation
  • Creation and maintenance of recycling and waste disposal methods
  • Development and maintenance of efficient fuel methods

This is only a small sample of the type of work available to an environmental engineer. Engineers in this industry may expect to work on any project that is aimed at protecting the environment and developing ways to make life better for the global community.

Environmental Engineer Specializations

Like many other fields of engineering, environmental engineering includes a variety of specializations, which are described in detail below. Anyone interested in a career in environmental engineering will benefit from exploring the full range of options available in this dynamic field:

Coastal Engineering

Coastal engineering involves aspects of civil engineering and focuses on risks and demands posed by any development along a coastline. A coastal engineer may work for a public or federal agency or a private organization, and may be responsible for monitoring the effects of wave activity, any detriment to coastal flora and fauna, and anything else related to the shore.

Geophysical Engineering

This specialty of environmental engineering generally examines the methods involved in extracting various resources from the earth, including minerals, gases, and oil. A geophysical engineer may find employment with a private oil company or mine, and may help develop safer and/or more efficient methods of extraction.

Water Resources Engineering

Water resources engineering focuses on the creation of new equipment for managing water resources. A water resources engineer may work on projects related to wells, natural springs, and water treatment plants or related facilities.

Ocean Engineering

Although related to coastal engineering, ocean engineering more specifically focuses on the ocean environment and acts as a connecting piece between various other sciences, including marine biology and oceanography, among others.

Ecological Engineering

A relatively new field of engineering, ecological engineering emphasizes the construction, design, and monitoring of various ecosystems. One of the main goals of ecological engineering is to help the human population better integrate with its surrounding ecosystems.

Common Employers of Environmental Engineers

Environmental engineers may find employment with various public and private organizations. According to the BLS (Oct. 2017), federal, state, and local governments, as well as utility companies are in need of environmental engineers to help comply with environmental regulations. For instance, environmental engineers may find themselves working for municipal governments, assisting in projects aimed at improving a specific system or method within a town or city. Private companies constructing alongside the coast or extracting oil or other natural resources from the ground might also employ environmental engineers as consultants. In addition, engineers may also find employment within federal agencies looking to improve existing technology to monitor air or water quality.

Furthermore, environmental engineers may work either independently or on a team alongside other engineers within an organization. Often, those who obtain a master’s degree, or who are licensed or Board Certified Environmental Engineers might serve as consultants or in managerial roles.

Day-to-Day Tasks for an Environmental Engineer

The day-to-day tasks of an environmental engineer depend entirely on the type of work and industry in which the individual is employed. For example, an engineer monitoring a system aimed at treating water or processing waste or recycling may spend a large portion of time at the specific site alongside other professionals who maintain the system. At other times, an environmental engineer who is responsible for the development of a coastline may spend time in a planning office with other members of the team who are working on the project. Engineers who have completed a study on the efficiency of a new method of resource extraction may make presentations to others in the industry at seminars.

The following are typical responsibilities environmental engineers might encounter at a global engineer firm, paper and packaging firm, and defense technology company:

Coastal engineer for global engineering firm

  • Design projects with a focus on coastal areas and ports
  • Develop data collection plans for surveying, geotechnical exploration, and other environmental data analyses
  • Perform engineering analysis of coastal and marine facilities
  • Periodic construction oversight

Environmental engineer at a paper and packaging firm

  • Assist staff in regulatory and compliance-related tasks, including audits
  • Develop a competency in government rules, regulations, and technologies related to paper mill environmental processes
  • Assist with environmental record keeping
  • Participate on various mill committees and groups to review air quality, water quality, solid/hazardous materials, or other compliance-related issues

Marine engineer at a defense technology company

  • Write proposals and interface with customers
  • Perform trade studies
  • Lead design teams
  • Perform system level modeling and analysis

The responsibilities of environmental engineers are the backbone of urban and technological developments. Their ability to bridge the needs of humanity with the respect for available natural resources is the foundation of making the world a better place for all.

Environmental Engineer Work Environment

At some point in their careers, environmental engineers may work in an office alongside other team members. In addition, many environmental engineers are required to travel to specific locations, including water treatment facilities or waste disposal plants, where they may monitor the systems and create reports or make recommendations. Those engineers who have completed studies related to their industry may present this information to various groups or organizations.

For instance, the role of a coastal engineer of a state government may be to work on a project to help protect nearby structures from destruction and/or erosion. This engineer may spend time in an office or laboratory setting, designing and planning a model to implement, such as a dike or seawall. Upon completion of the design, the environmental engineer may oversee its successful implementation on the shoreline. Subsequently, the engineer would likely be required to monitor the implemented structure, which may involve improving the existing structure, or replacing it altogether.

Those interested in a career in environmental engineering will most likely have the opportunity to work in an office, and/or at on-site locations. Ultimately, environmental engineers may find themselves in positions to help change the world by ensuring a sustainable global community and planet.