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Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering

The development of environmental engineering as a discipline is a reflection of the modern need to maintain public health by providing safe drinking water and sanitation , and by treating and disposing of sewage, municipal solid waste , and pollution . Originally, sanitary engineering, a limited subdiscipline of civil engineering, performed some of these functions. But with the growth of concern for protecting the environment and the passage of laws regulating disposal of wastes, environmental engineering has grown into a discrete discipline encompassing a wide range of activities including: "proper disposal or recycling of wastewater and solid wastes, adequate drainage of urban and rural areas for proper sanitation, control of water, soil and atmospheric pollution and the social and environmental impact of these solutions." Education for environmental engineers requires that they be "well informed concerning engineering problems in the field of public health, such as control of insect-borne diseases, the elimination of industrial health hazards, and the provision of adequate sanitation in urban, rural and recreational areas, and the effect of technological advance on the environment." More broadly environmental engineering is defined by W. E. Gilbertson as "that branch of engineering which is concerned with the application of scientific principles to (1) the protection of human populations from the effects of adverse environmental factors, (2) the protection of environments, both local and global, from the potentially deleterious effects of human activities, and (3) the improvement of environmental quality of man's health and well-being."

The American Academy of Environmental Engineers (AAEE) has defined environmental engineering as "the application of engineering principles to the management of the environment for the protection of human health; for the protection of nature's beneficial ecosystems and for environment-related enhancement of the quality of human life."

Degree-granting institutions in the United States do not necessarily consider environmental engineering as a separate discipline. A report by the U. S. Engineering Manpower Commission found that only 192 baccalaureate environmental engineering degrees were granted in 1988; however C. Robert Baillod estimates that at least 10% of the 8,800 annual graduates from baccalaureate civil engineering programs are educated to function as environmental engineers. If similar estimates are made for chemical, mechanical, geological and other engineers who function as environmental engineers, 1,0002,000 graduates are entering the profession each year. Data collected by Baillod indicate that the supply of Environmental engineers will satisfy half the demand for 2,0005,000 new environmental engineering graduates per year for the next decade.

From 1970 to 1985, an increasing number of Environmental statutes passed at the federal and state level in the United States while parallel legislation was being established internationally to regulate and control environmental pollution. In the United States, the establishment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)known as Superfund for shorthas provided the impetus for significant activity in remediation as well as providing industries and municipalities with incentives (such as liability for environmental damage) to clean up and avoid pollution. In order to comply with environmental laws and also to maintain good business practice, corporations are including impacts on the environment in planning for their process engineering. A serious potential for fines or costly liability suits exists if the design of processes is not carefully conducted with environmental safeguards.

In addition to employment by the private sector, state and federal governments also employ environmental engineers. The primary function of environmental engineers in government is research and development for implementation of regulations and their enforcement. At the federal level, agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Interior and Agriculture, employ environmental engineers.

Environmental engineering is proving crucial in addressing an array of environmental needs. Techniques recently conceived by environmental engineers include:

  • The development of an oil-absorbing, floating sponge-like material as a re-usable first response material for remediating oil spills on open bodies of water.
  • Design and operation of a plant to process electrolytic plating wastes collected from a large urban area to reuse the metals and detoxify the cyanide as a means of avoiding the discharges of these wastes into the sewer system.
  • Development of a process for reusing the lead , zinc, and cadmium which would otherwise be lost as a fume in the remelting of automotive scrap to form steel products.
  • Use of naturally-occurring bacterial agents in cleanup of underground aquifers contaminated by prior discharges of creosote, a substance used to preserve wood products.
  • Development of processes for removal of and destruction of PCBs and other hazardous organic agents from spills into soil.
  • Development of sensing techniques which enable tracing of pollution to point sources and the determination of the degree of pollution which has occurred for application of legal remedies.
  • Development of process design and control instrumentation in nuclear reactors to prevent, contain and avoid nuclear releases.
  • Design and development of feedlots for animals in which the waste products are made into reusable agricultural products.
  • Development of sterilization, incineration and gas cleanup systems for treatment of hospital wastes.
  • Certification of properties to verify the absence of factors which would make new owners liable to environmental litigation (for example, absence of asbestos , absence of underground storage tanks for hazardous material)s.
  • Redesign of existing chemical plants to recycle or eliminate waste streams.
  • Development of processes for recycling wastes (for example, processes for de-inking and reuse of newsprint or reuse of plastics).

These wide-ranging examples are typical of the solutions which are being developed by a new generation of technically-trained individuals. In an increasingly populated and industrialized world, environmental engineers will continue to play a pivotal role in devising technologies needed to minimize the impact of humans on the earth's resources.

[Malcolm T. Hepworth ]



American Academy of Environmental Engineers. AAEE Bylaws. Annapolis, Maryland: 1990.

Cartledge, B., ed. Monitoring the Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Corbitt, Robert A.: Standard Handbook of Environmental Engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Jacobsen, J., ed. Human Impact on the Environment: Ancient Roots, Current Challenges. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.


Crucil, C. "Environmentally Sound Buildings Now Within Reach." Alternatives 19 (January-February 1993): 9-10.


Gilbertson, W. E. "Environmental Quality Goals and Challenges." Proceedings of the Third National Environmental Engineering Education Conference edited by P. W. Purdon. American Academy of Environmental Engineers and the Association of Environmental Engineering Professors, Drexel University, 1973.

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