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Cleaning up the environment and keeping it clean will take a whole army of scientists and techies in the years ahead. Environmental science covers much more than cleaning up the rivers so fish can live in them or picking up roadside trash on a Saturday morning. Pollution threatens our water, air, and land. Having a part in this massive operation could be very satisfying.

Environmental technicians perform lab and field tests to monitor air and water quality and determine if contaminants are present. They then try to find the sources of pollution. They may also be involved in stopping it (pollution abatement), controlling it, or remedying it. If there is an offshore oil spill, for instance, environmental technicians are sent to the scene to help with the cleanup.

One of the best opportunities for those interested in the environment today is in the field of wastewater treatment. An expanding population with increasing density in urban areas plus more complex manufacturing processes means that our water quality is at risk. Hundreds of chemicals, as well as sewage and discarded food, go into America's wastewater every day.

Wastewater technicians typically work for municipal water treatment plants, but some also work for manufacturers who have orders to meet federal and state guidelines for their effluent (wastewater discharge). Water is pumped from wells, rivers, and streams to water treatment plants, where it is treated and distributed to customers. Wastewater travels to treatment plants via sewers. After water is treated (cleaned) it is returned to streams, rivers, and oceans, or reused for irrigation and landscaping.

At water treatment plants, technicians monitor meters and gauges to make sure treatment processes are working properly. They oversee the use of chlorine and other chemicals to purify water. They test the water for the presence of bacteria and parasites. If they find them, they must notify health officials and step up water purification procedures. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 established standards for drinking water; it was upgraded in 1996.

To keep water flowing to homes and businesses, technicians must adjust intake and outflow mechanisms as pressures increase or decrease. At commercial time during the Super Bowl, for instance, there is a tremendous upsurge in water use all across the nation. Technicians must monitor the weather, too. Heavy thunderstorms or long periods of heat and drought call for special procedures in water management.

Some state water-pollution control agencies hire technicians to inspect wastewater treatment plants throughout the state. This requires travel and knowledge of the state's geography, particularly its water resources.

At manufacturing plants, wastewater technicians work under the supervision of chemists and engineers to take steps to counteract the polluted effluent. Almost 50 percent of our serious pollution comes from industrial sites, and most major companies employ environmental engineers and technicians to work at their plants on pollution prevention and control.


The median salary for wastewater plant operators is just under $30,000 per year. For technicians who start in this field, the pay is about $20,000 per year.

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