If you are interested in exploring careers in hazardous waste management, you should get involved in local chapters of citizen watchdog groups and become familiar with nearby Superfund sites. Ask yourself the following questions: What is being done at those sites? Who is responsible for the cleanup? What effect does the site have on nearby communities?
Additionally, understanding the problems of hazardous waste management and the controversy surrounding some of the limitations of Superfund will provide a more detailed picture of careers in this field. Ask your librarian or teacher to refer you to resources or visit the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site, https://www.epa.gov/hw. You might also try to arrange an information interview with a hazardous waste management technician.
Hazardous waste management technicians are trained to safely contain and remove highly toxic or volatile materials (such as chemicals, radioactive waste and materials, and even certain types of mold that cause serious allergic reactions). Broadly defined, a hazardous waste is any substance that threatens human health or the environment. Specifically, as defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, hazardous waste is "a contaminated chemical or by-product of a production process that no longer serves its purpose and needs to be disposed of in accordance with the Environmental Protection Agency. This could include small amounts of chemicals such as parts washing solvents in a machine shop, or large amounts of construction by-products."
Some hazardous waste management technicians known as emergency and disaster response workers respond to emergency situations, such as petroleum or chemical spills. Other hazardous waste management technicians clean up devastating industrial messes—ugly reminders of a time when our country did not monitor environmental contamination as closely as it does today. Such sites are specifically targeted for cleanup by the federal government under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, which established the hazardous waste cleanup program known as Superfund.
Since many of the worst Superfund sites have been cleaned up, a larger number of hazardous waste management technicians are involved in lower priority cleanups. Many are cleaning up previously abandoned industrial sites, called brownfields, so that the land can once again be used. These sites do not pose an immediate threat to human health or the environment. In addition to helping clean up these kinds of sites, hazardous waste management technicians may identify, categorize, and dispose of hazardous waste, or help in efforts to lower the amount of hazardous waste produced in the first place. They also assist in other types of cleanup and pollution prevention efforts, including routine monitoring of air, soil, and water, to make sure hazardous substances are within acceptable limits.
Nearly every industry produces hazardous waste, from food, textiles, metals, petroleum, plastics, and paper manufacturing to dry cleaning services, printing, and more. Chemical and petroleum companies are significant sources of hazardous waste. For example, one common hazardous waste is benzene, a component in fuel that has been identified as a carcinogen. Tanks of fuel around a gas station can leak, and substances from the fuel, including benzene, can seep into the ground and contaminate groundwater, which people then drink. Other hazardous wastes include solvents used in paint, manufacturing, and service operations such as dry cleaners. Manufacturing processes also produce certain metals that are hazardous.
The federal government is also a leading generator of hazardous waste. The government usually hires private environmental consultants to carry out its cleanup jobs, which include military bases and military production sites.
The United States has some of the toughest environmental laws in the world. Beginning in the 1960s, people began to realize that this country's industry, including its military production industry, was producing vast amounts of pollution and waste that was ruining the environment and threatening human health and safety. Private industry, municipalities, and the government had been producing hazardous and other wastes for many years. A series of tough laws, including CERCLA, have been passed over the last 35 years to force the cleanup of old waste sites and discourage companies from creating new ones. Although the cost of cleaning up our environment is high—billions of dollars have been spent to clean up hazardous waste sites—the cost of not cleaning up is potentially even higher.
The following paragraphs discuss a few hazardous waste management specialties.
Asbestos abatement technicians, also known as asbestos removal technicians, assist with the removal of asbestos-containing materials from buildings (or coat and seal asbestos to eliminate exposure).
Decommissioning and decontamination workers remove and treat radioactive materials that have been generated by nuclear power plants and other facilities.
Treatment, storage, and disposal workers ready hazardous materials for treatment, storage, or disposal. They use forklifts, trucks, and other equipment to transport hazardous materials from contaminated sites to landfills, incinerators, or storage facilities.