Introduction to Environmental Engineering

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Environmental engineering is the application of science and engineering principles to improve the environment (air, water, and/or land resources), to provide healthful water, air, and land for human habitation and for other organisms, and to remediate polluted sites. Negative environmental effects can be decreased and controlled through public education, conservation, regulations, and the application of good engineering practices. In the U.S., minimum education requirements for environmental engineers typically include a Bachelor's Degree in environmental (or civil) engineering from an accredited college.


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"Pollutants" may be chemical, biological, thermal, radioactive, or even mechanical. Environmental engineering emphasizes several areas: process engineering, environmental chemistry, water and wastewater treatment (sanitary engineering), waste reduction/management, and pollution prevention/cleanup. Environmental engineering is a synthesis of various disciplines, incorporating elements from the following:

  • Civil engineering
  • Chemical engineering
  • Public health
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Geology
  • Ecology

Environmental engineering is the application of science and engineering principles to the environment. Some consider 'Environmental Engineering' to include the development of sustainable processes. There are several divisions of the field of environmental engineering.

Environmental impact assessment and mitigation

It is a decision making tool. In this division, engineers and scientists assess the impacts of a proposed project on environmental conditions. They apply scientific and engineering principles to evaluate if there are likely to be any adverse impacts to water quality, air quality, habitat quality, flora and fauna, agricultural capacity, traffic impacts, social impacts, ecological impacts, noise impacts, visual(landscape) impacts, etc. If impacts are expected, they then develop mitigation measures to limit or prevent such impacts. An example of a mitigation measure would be the creation of wetlands in a nearby location to mitigate the filling in of wetlands necessary for a road development if it is not possible to reroute the road.

Water supply and treatment

Engineers and scientists work to secure water supplies for potable and agricultural use. They evaluate the water balance within a watershed and determine the available water supply, the water needed for various needs in that watershed, the seasonal cycles of water movement through the watershed and they develop systems to store, treat, and convey water for various uses. Water is treated to achieve water quality objectives for the end uses. In the case of potable water supply, water is treated to minimize risk of infectious disease transmittal, risk of non-infectious illness, and create a palatable water flavor. Water distribution systems are designed and built to provide adequate water pressure and flow rates to meet various end-user needs such as domestic use, fire suppression, and irrigation.

Wastewater conveyance and treatment

Most urban and many rural areas no longer discharge human waste directly to the land through outhouse, septic, and/or honey bucket systems, but rather deposit such waste into water and convey it from households via sewer systems. Engineers and scientists develop collection and treatment systems to carry this waste material away from where people live and produce the waste and discharge it into the environment. In developed countries, substantial resources are applied to the treatment and detoxification of this waste before it is discharged into a river, lake, or ocean system. Developing nations are striving to obtain the resources to develop such systems so that they can improve water quality in their surface waters and reduce the risk of water-borne infectious disease.

There are numerous wastewater treatment technologies. A wastewater treatment train can consist of a primary clarifier system to remove solid and floating materials, a secondary treatment system consisting of an aeration basin followed by flocculation and sedimentation or an activated sludge system and a secondary clarifier, a tertiary biological nitrogen removal system, and a final disinfection process. The aeration basin/activated sludge system removes organic material by growing bacteria (activated sludge). The secondary clarifier removes the activated sludge from the water. The tertiary system, although not always included due to costs, is becoming more prevalent to remove nitrogen and phosphorus and to disinfect the water before discharge to a surface water stream or ocean outfall.

Air quality management

Engineers apply scientific and engineering principles to the design of manufacturing and combustion processes to reduce air emissions to acceptable levels. Scrubbers, precipitators, after-burners, and other devices are utilized to remove particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and reactive organic gases from vapors prior to allowing their emission to the atmosphere. This field is beginning to overlap with energy efficiency and the desire to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from combustion processes. Scientists develop dispersion models to evaluate the concentration of a pollutant at a receptor source or the impact on overall air quality and smog production from vehicle and flue gas stack emissions.

More applications

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  • Contaminated land management and site remediation
  • Risk assessment
  • Environmental policy and regulation development
  • Solid waste management (See Maxpost idea, above)
  • Hazardous waste management
  • Environmental health and safety
  • Natural resource management
  • Noise pollution
  • Geographic information system (GIS)
  • Air pollution


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Part of the Wikiversity Department of Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering and the Engineering and Technology Portal