Interview with an Environmental Engineer

John Roll began college studying chemistry and biology. Halfway through his undergraduate degree, he switched to agricultural engineering with a focus on water-quality issues. Roll completed his master’s degree in agricultural engineering and expanded his environmental background to include livestock waste management. He spent the first three years after graduation on a project involving treated solids from a municipal wastewater treatment facility. For the next 14 years, Roll was manager of land reclamation and environmental permits for a surface coal mining company in Illinois. In 1990, Roll entered Oklahoma State University, where he studied groundwater transport of contaminants and received a doctorate in Biosystems Engineering.

Q: What does an environmental engineer study in college?
Roll: First and foremost, a student must obtain an engineering degree. The individual must have a desire to study hard, and it helps to possess an aptitude for the math and hard-science courses (physics, chemistry, and mechanics) required by engineering programs. An environmental engineer can come from different engineering study areas, but all individuals should share a common desire to apply engineering principles to an aspect of the environment that is interesting to them. Agricultural engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, general engineering, geological engineering, and mechanical engineering programs routinely graduate individuals who work on environmental issues specific to their discipline.

Q: What kind of jobs does an environmental engineer do?
Roll: The range of jobs performed by an environmental engineer is extremely varied. A chemical engineer may develop new manufacturing methods that remove toxic contaminants from a product. A civil engineer may be involved in the design of water and wastewater treatment plants, the development of better methods to treat wastes, the development of road-building processes that are more environmentally friendly, and the design of groundwater treatment schemes. Mechanical and general engineering graduates may work on controlling air pollution from factories and producing changes in manufacturing methods to create less waste. Agricultural engineers often work on environmental issues involving livestock waste, runoff-water quality, erosion control, and application methods to lower the quantity of fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides used to grow crops.

Q: What is the most important skill an environmental engineer should possess?
Roll: An environmental engineer must be skilled in the application of science and engineering principles to help solve a problem. Using a team approach to an environmental problem will yield a broader view on the issue. Team members usually have expertise in different environmental disciplines, and this results in multiple views on how to solve the problem at hand. Therefore, probably the least expected but the most important skill for an environmental engineer is the ability to communicate clearly through written and spoken words.

Q: Do you feel that environmental issues are often misunderstood?
Roll: I have found out through firsthand experience that environmental issues require very careful communication skills. Environmental issues are often controversial. However, open communication between all interested parties, including those individuals who are against a project, can prevent misunderstanding. For example, the plans for the Industry Coal Mine were finalized after discussions with governmental agencies, local citizens, and authorities. The planning and public meetings lasted almost three years, and during this time everyone had a chance to question the coal company about its plans and to express their views. The public opinion ranged from very favorable to a few individuals who were totally against the project. By addressing the issues with good faith, a reclamation plan was developed that was ultimately approved by all state and federal agencies, local county officials, and zoning boards.

Q: What is the future need for environmental engineers?
Roll: My feeling is that the future will be a good one for environmental engineers. Since 1970, the environment has been an important focus for many people. Congress passed new laws and created new agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to specifically address environmental problems. The agencies wrote regulations based on laws passed by Congress and approved by the President, and this resulted in new or additional permits, approvals, and public comment requirements for activities that might harm the environment. In order to enforce the regulations, new agencies were created in the states as well as the federal government. Industry and government currently hire many environmental

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