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Hazardous Waste Management Specialists

The Job

Management of hazardous waste in the United States is handled in a variety of ways. Hazardous waste specialists are educated and trained to work anywhere along the continuum of hazardous waste management, strategizing and engineering ways to prevent spills or contamination before they happen, helping to control them when they do, identifying contaminated sites that have existed for years, and managing and overseeing cleanup and disposal of hazardous waste to meet environmental laws and regulations.

Another title hazardous waste management specialists may have is hazardous waste management engineer. In this job, engineers are responsible for regulating different engineering aspects of hazardous waste facilities, including combustion tanks, units, and container storage areas. They make sure that the combustion of hazardous wastes are in compliance with local, state, and federal environmental laws. Waste management engineers design, evaluate, and operate solid waste storage, collection, and disposal systems, which may reduce the volume of waste by compaction, solidification, or incineration.

Cleaning up a contaminated site is a complicated task that needs to be carefully planned and documented. It's a process that may take several months or even years, and a bureaucratic process that must be followed. An example of steps a hazardous waste management specialist may be involved in before any cleanup proceeds includes: 1) identification of the hazardous substance and testing to gauge the extent of contamination; 2) search for or negotiation with parties responsible for the contamination; 3) writing of a plan of how best to clean up the site and how much it may cost; 4) waiting for several months or longer for approval and funding to clean up the site; and 5) public hearings to notify how, why, and when the cleanup will be done.

In the past, and over the course of many years, hazardous waste was simply dumped anywhere, and contaminated sites existed everywhere. Before hazardous waste laws such as SARA and Superfund were passed, for example, a paint manufacturer might have innocently (and legally) dumped mounds of garbage containing toxic substances into a nearby field. Today, that dump may be leaking hazardous substances into the surrounding groundwater, which nearby communities use for drinking water. Specialists study the site and determine what hazardous substances are involved, how bad the damage is, and what can be done to remove the waste and restore the site. They suggest strategies for the cleanup within legal, economic, and other constraints. They organize and manage hazardous waste teams, and oversee the work of all personnel involved in the cleanup project, including technicians (who do the sampling, monitoring, and testing at suspect sites). Once the cleanup is underway, teams of specialists help ensure the waste is removed and the site properly restored.

Specialists who work for emergency response companies help stop or control accidental spills and leaks of hazardous waste, such as those that can occur when a tank truck containing gasoline is involved in an accident. Specialists working for hospitals or other producers of medical wastes help determine how to safely dispose of such wastes. Those working for research institutes or other small generators of radioactive materials advise employers about handling or storing materials.

Government-employed hazardous waste management specialists often perform general surveys of past and ongoing projects, assemble comparative cost analyses of different remedial procedures, and make recommendations for the regulation of new hazardous wastes. Government hazardous waste management specialists make detailed analyses of hazardous waste sites, known as Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Studies. Using data provided by technicians and other support personnel, these hazardous waste specialists weigh economic, environmental, legal, political, and social factors and devise a remediation (cleanup) plan that best suits a particular site. Some help develop hazardous waste management laws.

Other specialists work in pollution control and risk assessment for private companies. They help hazardous waste-producing firms limit their waste output, decrease the likelihood of emergency situations, maintain compliance with federal regulations, and even modify their processes to eliminate hazardous waste altogether. Hazardous waste management specialists might also help develop processes that utilize potential waste.

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