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What Do Environmental Engineers Do?

Jan 24th, 2024

Engineers come in many forms, and one of the more recent of those forms are environmental engineers!

Environmental engineers cover a wide range of roles and responsibilities within environmental career fields, with duties ranging from designing reservoirs to translating legal documents to cross-checking data and more. They are absolutely integral to the progress and success of environmental projects and policies, and without their knowledge and expertise, our planet would have a much more bleak outlook. 

Here’s a pretty basic overview of what environmental engineers do (thanks, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics!) and how those skills are implemented in the world today!

Typical duties for environmental engineers

Report on environmental issues

Environmental engineers are master storytellers, weaving factual threads into compelling narratives about the state of our planet. Their meticulously crafted reports go beyond dry data to present actionable insights on environmental issues. 

First, data is gathered. Meters monitor air quality, samples paint a picture of water health and surveys gauge community concerns. Each scrap of information is meticulously organized and forms the raw material for the report. 

The environmental engineers then scrutinize the data and sift through patterns and anomalies — their statistical models reveal trends and connections invisible to the untrained and inexperienced eye. Every fact is rigorously cross-checked, ensuring the data’s foundation is unshakeable. Any existing reports provide the base to which the new data is integrated, which highlights any changes and any progress made. 

All this information gets transformed into a presentation that goes to businesses, governments or individuals, summing up complex environmental issues into digestible information. Pretty cool!

Design systems that protect the environment

Environmental engineers are the architects of a cleaner future. They dream up and build systems that act as environmental shields, protecting our air and water for ours and future generations.

Take water reclamation, for example. Environmental engineers help design intricate filtration labyrinths that can transform wastewater into crystal-clear irrigation or even drinking water! For air pollution, they help design towering smokestacks with high-tech scrubbers that trap harmful gasses before they escape into the atmosphere. These systems filter, purify and cleanse our natural resources, ensuring a healthier planet and future.

Manage plans, permits and standard operating procedures

There’s a decent amount of paperwork and legalese that many environmental engineers are responsible for, and without that work nothing else can run at all!

Environmental engineers decipher intricate permits, secure approvals for projects and ensure every step adheres to the law. Their meticulous work ensures air and water treatment plants can run smoothly, waste disposal facilities operate safely and construction projects minimize environmental impact. They have to update plans and procedures almost constantly, adapting to evolving regulations and technological advancements as projects progress.

Work on environmental remediation projects 

When environmental wounds need healing, environmental engineers are the ones that can start to fix them.

A great example of this is working on a remediation project — as in, damage control after an environmental crisis (oil spills, water pollution, wildfires, etc.). Engineers assess the damage, design clean-up strategies and monitor progress; their expertise guides excavation crews to safely traverse the landscape, selects effective treatment technologies and ensures every step adheres to proper environmental regulations. In legal battles, they translate complex data into clear evidence that explains contamination sources and potential health risks to people who are affected by the crisis. 

Basically, they’re the cool heads among the chaos!

Analyze data and perform quality control checks

Data is the bedrock of any environmental project, and it’s no small feat to sift through all the numbers gathered from years’ worth of research.

Environmental engineers are those data experts and can meticulously scrutinize scientific information. They employ statistical tools and visualization techniques to uncover patterns, trends and relationships that turn a bunch of numbers into real-life stories about the environment. The organized data could tell us how much the air quality has changed over the past few years, how quickly a species is recovering from endangerment or what sea levels could look like in the next decade. 

Part of this data analysis is also making sure the date-collections tools are in working order. Calibration of instruments, duplicate sampling and data validation procedures ensure the integrity of information from all sources of data, from checking nature cameras to testing seismic instruments to mending fences and more!

Monitor environmental improvement programs

Environmental engineers act as environmental watchdogs, meticulously monitoring progress in a variety of improvement programs. They establish baseline measurements for key parameters, such as air quality, water quality or pollutant levels, using established protocols and calibrated instruments — then data is collected periodically through sampling, sensing technologies or remote monitoring systems. These data points are then compared to established targets or baseline levels, revealing trends and progress over time. 

Statistical analyses and modeling techniques help assess the effectiveness of implemented strategies and identify areas for improvement. This ongoing monitoring by experienced environmental engineers ensures that programs remain on track, delivering tangible environmental benefits!

Ensure environmental regulations are being followed

Environmental engineers can also fulfill the role of environmental auditors, making sure that governments and corporations are following the proper regulations. 

This involves everything from reviewing operational records, inspecting equipment and processes and collecting environmental samples (like air, water and soil) for analysis. Data is then compared to regulatory thresholds and permit limits which can then identify potential violations or areas of non-compliance. Through detailed reports and technical recommendations, environmental engineers guide facilities and programs towards proper environmental compliance, safeguarding public health and the environment!

Advise on environmental matters

Finally, environmental engineers can act as advisors to the public, to the government and to corporations in matters that concern the environment, bridging the gap between technical expertise and practical decision-making. 

Engineers can consult with corporations, government agencies and community groups to provide objective assessments of environmental risks, opportunities and compliance needs. This involves analyzing data, evaluating regulations and identifying potential solutions to environmental challenges. For corporations, they may recommend sustainable practices, suggest pollution control technologies or assess environmental impacts of proposed projects. For government agencies, they may contribute to policy development, recommend regulatory changes or assist in emergency response efforts. For community groups, they may provide educational resources, participate in public hearings or advocate for environmental protection initiatives. Their recommendations, grounded in scientific knowledge and practical considerations, guide informed decisions on sustainable practices, pollution prevention and resource management for any type of audience.

Environmental engineers wear many hats when it comes to their chosen career fields, and it goes to show that there are so many working parts to protecting the environment. Next time you meet an environmental engineer, ask them about their jobs and what part they play in this grand, noble scheme!

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Featured photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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