Quite often we are asked, “So what is environmental engineering? Do you pick up litter?” To which you probably know the answer to the second question is a definite “NO!!!”, but may not so definitely know the answer to the first question. According to Britannica (https://www.britannica.com), environmental engineering is “the development of processes and infrastructure for the supply of water, the disposal of waste, and the control of pollution of all kinds. These endeavours protect public health by preventing disease transmission, and they preserve the quality of the environment by averting the contamination and degradation of air, water, and land resources.”
According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org), “Environmental engineering is a professional engineering discipline that takes from broad scientific topics like chemistry, biology, ecology, geology, hydraulics, hydrology, microbiology, and mathematics to create solutions that will protect and also improve the health of living organisms and improve the quality of the environment.” This definition is very similar to the one above. And both accurately define environmental engineering.
But Really, What is Environmental Engineering?
That is the million dollar question. But the history of the discipline will help answer it. For years and years, environmental engineering was known as sanitary engineering and was part of the civil engineering field. However, it came into its own being in the mid-1960’s with the recognition of pollution on our planet and the outcries to clean it up. Scientists and engineers came to the forefront to assist. Technical expertise was needed with water pollution, air pollution, and land pollution. Landmark federal laws were passed – the Clean Water Act (1972), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, & Liability Act (1980).Don’t worry, this is not a boring paper on detailed regulations! Those federal laws were only mentioned to identify the three main areas of environmental engineering and to demonstrate how loud the outcry was to clean up the environment. It is extremely impressive that the U.S. Congress passed these laws so quickly! And what they did was create the need for environmental regulations, permits, and agencies to accomplish the mission.
Agencies, you ask? Let’s start at the top – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (https://www.epa.gov) came out of Reorganization Plan No. 3 calling for the establishment of that agency. That was an executive order which President Richard M. Nixon signed on July 9, 1970. The EPA began operation on December 2, 1970. Wow, things seemed to move quickly fifty years ago!
Once the EPA began publishing regulations to clean up the environment, they worked in cooperation with states to form departments or to use existing departments to implement the regulations. And so state environmental departments formed to clean up the environment across each state. Pollution control departments and divisions were formed at county and city levels.
Existing health departments were tapped. Funding came down from EPA and it was often tied to the construction of wastewater treatment plants which are a huge expense that no county or city can afford on its own. If the states did not enforce the mandated environmental regulations, EPA would cut funding. And that meant jobs, worsening pollution, and outcries from the public. So there were incentives to comply.
Birth of the Environmental Engineer
Formerly known as civil or sanitary engineers, environmental engineers came to the forefront to assist the various governmental entities and the private sector with implementation of and compliance with the environmental regulations.
Environmental scientists and engineers began working together both in the government and private sectors. Their job? Ultimately, their job was to clean up the environment through the design of processes, equipment, and testing in the areas of water, air, and land. And they are still at it today!
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