Environmental geologists help prevent contamination of soil and groundwater by determining geologically safe locations for new landfills, coal ash disposal sites, and nuclear power plants. They also help plan underground waste disposal. For example, companies in certain industries dispose of chemical-laden waste water by pumping it deep underground. Environmental geologists help determine sites for safe waste water “injection wells” and may oversee the process.
These professionals also help plan new mines to make them as safe for the environment as possible. They decide where to put the mining waste and how to protect groundwater, and may develop a soil and water monitoring plan. They also evaluate effects of proposed projects on the geological environment, and how geology may limit development.
In addition to preventing contamination, environmental geologists also help clean up contamination from leaking underground gasoline storage tanks or chemical spills. For example, they examine the structure of the soils and rock, along with the flow of groundwater, to determine the extent and distribution of contaminants underground. They may also assist with the remediation of Superfund sites and old mines by assessing and mapping underground conditions.
Environmental geologists may also help protect and restore water resources, such as Louisiana wetlands damaged by oil shipping channels and subsidence. They may also help prevent or repair coastal erosion. Some create natural hazard assessments and safe evacuation routes for local communities.
What Does an Environmental Geologist Do?
Environmental geologists plan or conduct geological field studies to collect data on a particular site, such as soil types, rock structure, and groundwater flows. They also use geographic information systems (GIS) and other specialized software to create geologic maps, maps showing the distribution of contamination, or cross-sectional diagrams.
They then use the information gathered from field surveys, maps, well logs, bore holes, ground penetrating radar, aerial photos, and the geologic literature to understand underground geological conditions and potential natural hazards.
They use their expertise and the information they've gathered to assess the geological safety of a location for a particular use, such as waste disposal or siting a nuclear power plant. They also advise on how to reduce risk or restore contaminated sites. They may write reports detailing their findings for clients.
Where Does an Environmental Geologist Work?
Many environmental geologists work for consulting firms, where they offer their expertise to oil and mining companies and other clients. They may also be employed by those companies directly, as well as by engineering and environmental remediation firms. Some work for state and local government agencies, such as geological surveys and environmental agencies. Others become professors or research staff at colleges and universities, or high school science teachers.