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Engineers and the Environment
Engineers and the Environment
Engineers and the Environment
Engineers and the Environment
Engineers and the Environment
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Engineers and the Environment


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  • 1. Engineering and the EnvironmentIntroduction Engineering responsibility for the environment is necessarily closely related to thelaws governing environmental matters, but environmental degradation was not thesubject of serious federal regulation until the late 1960s. Until that time, private litigationand the common law were the principal tools for controlling pollution. Usually, however,no single individual was sufficiently harmed by pollution to be motivated to bring suitagainst a polluter. Both the states and the Federal government were ineffective incontrolling pollution.Engineering Codes and the Environment In the light of widespread skepticism on the part of managers, what are theresponsibilities of professional engineers with regard to the environment? The first canonof the NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers) code requires engineers to"hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of theirprofessional duties." Insofar as environmental issues have a clear relation to human safetyand health, therefore, the engineering profession has already committed itself to aconcern for environmental protection and perhaps even improvement. For example,engineers already have an obligation to concern themselves with pollution, when itaffects human health. The codes give little direction, however, as to how this concern should beimplemented. What kinds of policies with respect to the environment should engineersadvocate? If engineers have an obligation to promote a clean environment in order toprotect human health, how do they determine what is "clean"?
  • 2. A still wider issue is raised by the fact that some environmental problems do notraise issues of human health. Suppose an engineer is asked to participate in the design ofa dam that will destroy a section of "Wild River" and flood thousands of acres offarmland. He may believe that this is an unwarranted destruction of a natural state andeven bad social policy. If an engineer objects to such, should she do so as an engineer oras a concerned citizen? In other words, should the objection to environmental degradationnot involving dangers to human health be a matter of professional ethics or personalethics? Consider another example. An engineer may be asked to design a condominiumproject that will be built in a wetlands area. She may be concerned about the resourcedepletion that will be accelerated by a chemical process, or the destruction of plantspecies that will result from an engineering project. Can an engineer object to suchprojects on the basis of her role as an engineer, or should she make clear that she isobjecting as a citizen? Again, should such objections be made on the basis of professionalethics or personal ethics? One of the most explicit statements on environmental matters to be found in anengineering code is in the code of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers(IEEE). The first canon of the code commits IEEE members:“ accept responsibility in making engineering decisions consistent with the safety,health, and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger thepublic or the environment.” The fact that there is an explicit reference to endangering the environment inaddition to endangering "the public" might be taken to indicate that environmentalconcerns go beyond a concern for human health. This inference might, however, beunwarranted. The concern for the environment might be intended to refer only to mattersaffecting human health.
  • 3. Furthermore, IEEE members are obligated only to "disclose" possible dangers tothe public and the environment. Should such dangers be disclosed only to onesimmediate superior? What if ones superior is part of the problem? And does an engineerhave any right as a professional to refuse to participate in projects to which she has strongobjections from an environmental standpoint? Again, the codes are silent.Engineering Responsibilities to the Non-Human Environment Contemporary technologically advanced civilization has made massive changes inthe environment. Western society has tended to conceive of nature as passive, as the fitobject of human manipulation and control. This view of nature as passive is amplyreflected in our language about the natural world. Land is to be "developed." "Raw" landis to be "improved." Natural resources are to be "exploited" and "consumed." Trees are tobe "harvested." The rivers are to be "harnessed" to produce electrical power. Thewilderness must be "managed." Nature, like the rest of the non-human world, is to besubservient to human purposes. The environmental movement, so influential during the last twenty-five years, is areaction against this attitude toward nature, but there is still a question as to whether theconcern for non-human nature should be a part of professional engineering ethics ratherthan an engineers personal ethics. What are some of the arguments for and againstincluding a concern for non-human nature in the professional codes of engineers? Another conception of responsibility is a rule-following sense, referring to sociallyexpected behavior associated with certain roles. Thus parents have responsibility forchildren. In this sense also engineers have responsibility for the environment, for manymembers of the public expect engineers to assume this responsibility. The engineering profession could make a substantial contribution to the protectionof the environment. Engineers are, after all, major participants in virtually all of theprojects that affect the environment for good or ill. If even a substantial number of
  • 4. concerned engineers refused to contribute their professional skills to some of the mostenvironmentally destructive projects, the result might well be the cancellation of theprojects or at least a modification of them so they will produce less environmentaldevastation. Engineers should not be required to participate in projects which, in their personaljudgment, are unnecessarily harmful to the environment. They also have the right tomake their objections known to the proper authorities. This provision allows a professional engineer to refuse to participate in (and evento object to) projects which offend her personal values regarding the environment.Environmental impact assessment and mitigation In this division, engineers and scientists use a systemic identification andevaluation process to assess the potential impacts of a proposed project , plans, programs,policies, or legislative actions upon the physical-chemical, biological, cultural, andsocioeconomic components on environmental conditions. They apply scientific andengineering principles to evaluate if there are likely to be any adverse impacts to waterquality, air quality, habitat quality, flora and fauna, agricultural capacity, traffic impacts,social impacts, ecological impacts, noise impacts, visual (landscape) impacts, etc. Ifimpacts are expected, they then develop mitigation measures to limit or prevent suchimpacts. An example of a mitigation measure would be the creation of wetlands in anearby location to mitigate the filling in of wetlands necessary for a road development ifit is not possible to reroute the road.What is Environmental Engineering? Environmental engineering has developed from the historical branch of civilengineering known as sanitary engineering involving drinking water and wastewatertreatment. Following rapid growth in the 1970s and 1980s, this truly interdisciplinary
  • 5. field involves the application of scientific and engineering principles to improve andmaintain the environment for the protection of human health, for the protection ofnatures beneficial ecosystems and biodiversity, and for environment-relatedenhancement of the quality of human life. Through education and experience,environmental engineers develop an understanding of the earths biological, chemical,physical and geological systems. They use this information to develop engineering plansto design solutions for environmental problems caused by pollution. They are also beingincreasingly called upon to develop pollution prevention plans to keep environmentalproblems from occurring in the first place. Environmental engineers often work with civil engineers as consultants onprojects, but may work with engineers and scientists from all disciplines, as well asgovernment regulators and officials, private and municipal agencies, industries, andpublic-interest groups.Areas of Study in Environmental Engineering Air pollution control Bioassays (biological indicators of pollution) Drinking water treatment Environmental and occupational health Environmental chemistry Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Groundwater hydrology and remediation Hazardous waste management Solid waste management Surface water quality Wastewater treatment (domestic and industrial) Water and sewer system design (applied hydraulics) Water resources and hydrology