Environmental engineers, what do they actually do?

Question: Hello, I am currently a first year engineering student just seeking some information on what an environmental engineer really does. I started engineering with the idea of fixing the environment and doing such things as air pollution control, waste water management, bio remediation etc. I've started to read up on what engineers generally do on a daily basis and it seems its far from what I thought it would be. From what I've read, most engineers work in offices doing paperwork rarely ever leaving to do work in the field or the lab. This is a huge issue for me, the whole reason I want to go into environmental engineering is to be able to work in the lab or in the field and actually see the impact I have. I would like to be able to actually develop solutions to environmental issues through the creation of systems and applications of science. So, if anybody has any information on what an environmental engineer actually does on a daily basis, it would be greatly appreciated.

Answer:  There are lots of ways to divide up the various job descriptions, but it usually breaks down along the lines of permitting and compliance, remediation, and due diligence. Obviously if you work in heavy industry you do more of the first, if you work for a remediation company more of the second, and if you
work for a bank or something you do more of the last. Many environmental engineers will work as consultants and end up doing a mix of these.

Permitting work involves identifying applicable requirements, designing cost-effective systems to meet these requirements, and then convincing regulators that you are trust-worthy and know what you're doing. Compliance work involves all the monitoring and inspecting to make sure you comply with your permits. This kind of work often requires a broad set of skills because you have to understand how everything works - not just the pollution controls and the waste streams, but everything involved in the entire process. If you work for the government you pretty much do permitting and compliance, but in reverse.

Remediation work involves a lot of problem solving (ie, how do I clean up the petrol or whatever that has contaminated ground and groundwater) that ultimately translates into moving dirt and water. Environmental engineers usually don't come up with new treatment technologies - in my experience that is usually more in the realm of chemical engineering. Water management systems typically seem to be designed by licensed civil engineers or mechanical engineers.

Due diligence is probably the least scientific, but can be very challenging. For example, your client might give you two weeks to come up with a shilling amount to account for all of the potential liabilities on a company acquisition. So you start reviewing every permit, inspection report, characterization, etc you can get you hands on and at the end of two weeks you submit the report.

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