Environmental Engineering in the Office of Water

My sister once asked me to speak to her fifth-grade class on career day. All the kids raised their hands when I asked them if they thought it was important to protect the environment. However, they were stumped when I asked them if they knew what I do as an environmental engineer at EPA. To be fair, this is a difficult question, as environmental engineering is a relatively new profession and it includes topics from many other studies like biology, chemistry and hydrology. I told the class that my job is to collect, organize, and analyze data so that decisions can be made on how best to protect the environment. To be a little more specific for all of you who think you are smarter than a fifth grader, my job is to help establish technology-based regulations to control industrial wastewater discharges to sewage treatment plants and to lake and rivers.

To better explain how I use science to inform EPA’s decision-making, I described to my sister’s class how I use wastewater sampling, industry surveys, and visits to industrial facilities to gather the basic data to help identify the best available technologies for treating industrial wastewater. My colleagues and I sample industrial wastewater to identify pollutants in the wastewater and to quantify the amount of pollution. Industry surveys help us identify available and affordable best management practices and technologies to reduce and treat industrial wastewater. Finally, visits to industrial facilities help us learn more from industry experts on how to better reduce and control industrial wastewater pollution. I use the data we collect and my engineering skills to identify the capabilities of different technologies to treat industrial wastewater and the related costs and pollutant reduction benefits. For example, some wastewater technologies like reverse osmosis can produce very clean water but certain pollutants must be removed prior to their treatment by reverse osmosis. The industry data we collect (wastewater sampling, industry surveys, site visits) help me identify how to configure different wastewater treatment technologies for the different wastewaters across all industry sectors for EPA’s studies and regulations.

One of my favorite site visits involved taking a helicopter to an offshore oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico. I went to this platform to see how they reduced their discharges of drill cuttings, the small bits of rock excavated by the well drilling, through use of newer and better technology. I gathered the information from this site visit and other data to establish a new rule to control the amount and types of wastes that can be discharged from offshore oil and gas platforms. We estimate that industry’s compliance with our new rule reduced the annual discharge of drill cuttings by 118 million pounds! Numbers like that helped my sister’s students understand how I use science and engineering to help protect the environment. And by the end of my career day talk, all the kids thought my job wasn’t so boring after all, as I get to visit interesting places, meet people from all over the country, and occasionally do cool things while protecting the environment.

About the author: Carey Johnston works as environmental engineer in EPA’s Engineering and Analysis Division within the Office of Water. The Division works to reduce industrial and municipal impacts on water bodies and aquatic life by identifying technological solutions.