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A Day in the Life of a Hazardous Waste Manager

Many people are involved in the management of America’s trash, from the local garbage collector to the analytical chemist, but no aspect of waste management poses the challenges faced by hazardous waste professionals. Management of hazardous waste is perhaps the weakest link in America’s dynamic industrial economy, because of the dangers posed by toxic chemicals, nuclear by-products and organic garbage. A career in hazardous waste disposal and management may lead you to a lab, to a landfill, or to Washington, D.C. Several federal agencies deal with hazardous waste, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy. Private industrial enterprises, such as large corporations, employ their own teams of waste specialists or hire consultants to manage their hazardous waste output. A hazardous waste professional may be a geologist, a chemist, or a nuclear physicist. Other hazardous waste professionals are engineers or managers, working to develop systems to reduce waste in the production process or to protect the environment from the dangerous substances that must be disposed of. Many specialists must work together to reduce the burden of hazardous waste. There are two approaches to hazardous waste management: Remedial and removal. Remedial waste management specialists define the waste problem—for instance, a leaky landfill seeping dangerous chemicals into a drinking-water supply—and then explore various solutions to the problem. They have to consider the impact on the environment, design a solution and finally put that solution into motion. Removal specialists control and clean up major hazardous waste accidents, such as oil spills.

Paying Your Dues

A bachelor’s degree is necessary for this profession and, in today’s competitive job market, a master’s degree or even a doctorate is preferred. Highly sought-after hazardous waste professionals usually specialize in one or more sciences. Major in geology, chemistry, physics, ecology, or any combination of sciences. If you want to specialize, look into soil, air, or water ecology. Since much of your job may require preparing environmental impact statements or proposing waste-management systems, it’s a good idea to develop your speaking and writing skills. Working for the government is rewarding, but it’s not always easy. If you choose a job with the EPA or another federal agency, remember that you are joining a large bureaucracy whose commitment to waste management is occasionally diluted by political considerations. Big businesses that hire hazardous waste professionals are committed to keeping the air, earth, and water clean, but they must also keep their eyes on the bottom line. A committed hazardous waste specialist must be patient and resourceful to fulfill this twin agenda. Despite the obstacles, and because of the growing emphasis on environmentalism, effective professionals are always in demand.

Present and Future

Improper disposal of hazardous waste has led to some of history’s most vicious epidemics. The industrial revolution, symbolized by belching smokestacks, highlighted the problem. Nevertheless, it is only since World War II that the U.S. government has taken significant steps to control environmental hazards. The Superfund legislation of 1980, which earmarked billions of dollars to finance hazardous waste cleanups, set in motion what is now the thriving industry of hazardous waste disposal. Waste management is a promising field. The negligence of environmental law enforcement of the 1980s has left a legacy of hazardous waste accidents waiting to happen. Changing priorities and mounting health concerns in the 1990s has spurred a trend to more vigorous enforcement of environmental regulations, with a new wave of prevention and cleanup efforts. Nuclear waste disposal alone represents a multibillion-dollar industry (with the U.S. government likely to foot the bill for the most expensive projects, including burying waste deep within the earth’s crust in what amounts to a monumental public works project). Chemicals, used car tires, medical (biological) and a range of other hazards will all supply opportunities for hazardous waste management. As the number of available disposal sites shrinks and the challenges and costs of disposal continue to rise, industry and government will be forced to join forces to help resolve ongoing crises in the years ahead.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Many professionals work part time while getting their master’s degrees or doctorates in environmental science, and the part-time jobs often turn into full-time positions when they graduate. Professionals analyze and collect samples and write summary reports. Hours are average to long, but most professionals spend time reading professional journals and traveling for the job.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Professionals start to specialize in remedial or removal management, depending on their temperament and abilities, and available opportunities. Many publish articles in professional journals, which enhances their reputations. Government employees often shift to the private sector in years four through six, citing better pay, more control over working conditions, and greater responsibilities. Hours remain stable; salary increases.

TEN YEARS OUT

Hazardous waste removers lead teams and direct tests at this point, rather than spend time in the field or lab conducting them. Many are involved in policy discussions and environmental and business issues, and engage in debates over technology.