Guest Editorial: Cost effective environmental goals - ACS Publications

Guest Editorial: Cost effective environmental goals - ACS Publications

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EEr GUEST EDITORIAL Cost-effective environmental goals The past year has seen great change in the environmental area. The pro-environmental zeal of the last administration has been replaced with environmental budget-cutting, critical examination of environmental laws, and a commitment to achieving goals at a “more reasoned pace.” This may not be all bad, for it forces environmental engineers and scientists, in practice and in academia, to reexamine our products, i.e., our designs and our designers, to see if we can do better. The past year also brought us the General Accounting Office report questioning the effectiveness of wastewater treatment plants. In the aftermath of the report, there has been a plethora of critiques and rebuttals on what the facts are, and who is to blame and for what. This does not seem to be productive; in fact, it begs the significant public policy question of concern to us as professionals and to the public we serve: Can we conceive and implement appropriate and cost-effective environmental control systems that are responsive to both the needs and realities of the day? To a major degree, the game has changed. When I was trained as a sanitary engineer nearly two decades ago, the objectives were to treat wastewater and to do a good job using the technology that had proven successful. Since then, the configurations and the techniques have become more numerous and sophisticated in order to keep pace with the complexity of the wastes and recognized environmental hazards. But, even today, too often waste is merely being treated; the environment is not being consciously and systematically maintained or returned to a state that allows a variety of legitimate beneficial uses. In the introduction to the first course I taught at Clemson, the undergraduate process-design course for chemical engineers, I discussed the need for cost-effectiveness so we could deliver a quality environment to the people and merit their confidence., even in the then-unlikely eventuality of reduced environmental budgets and less stringent environmental regulation. The piece of the social investment pie devoted to environmental protection is shrinking, partially because we have not convinced policymakers that this area has paid off as well as others.

We can produce, and in many instances are producing, environmental engineers who have the know-how to go beyond the job of treating waste well to the more and more frequentiy needed task o f designing cost-effective environmental management systems. This latter task requires, in addition to process-design skills, the ability to successfully deal with the institutional, political, and economic components of significant real-world environmental problems. With the tight economy, the current administration’s review of the federal commitment to environmental quality, and the thoughtful discussion stimulated by the GAO report, we have thrust upon us an opportunity to demonstrate that we can successfully illuminate environment-related public policy issues and responsibly facilitate hard, but necessary, environment-economic trade-offs. I f we can do this, it is less likely that environmental engineers and scientists will have to carry out an environmental protection agenda we had no real role in shaping-one that may not give the public the quality environment it could have had for the investment or, even worse, may not give the public as good a quality environment as it was willing to pay for. We should be aware that, as reported recently in the National Journal, “White House political strategists . . . are acutely aware of the public opinion polls that reflect strong support for cleaner and healthier air and water.” A lot depends on our meeting this great challenge.

0012-936X/81/0915-1111$01.25/0 @ 1981 American Chemical Society

Benjamin C. Dysart 111 is president ofthe Association of Enuironmentol Engineering Professors and projessor ojenuironmental sysrems engineering at Clemson Uniuersity, Clemson. S.C. Volume 15. Number 10. October 1981