Thursday, February 27, 2014

state of the industry

A month or so after I started working in environmental consulting, someone told me that the industry was dying and that I should find something else to do.

I'm still here, still looking at an upward career trajectory. I'm not particularly worried about running out of work. But he had a point.

I missed out on the environmental boom in the mid-80s and early 90s. Back then, there was a backlog of drum farms and massively contaminated drinking water and uncontrolled industrial waste dumps to be investigated, argued over, and cleaned up. Many of those sites were well known and had a viable potentially responsible party (PRP), and the Superfund was available to pay for investigations that didn't have a viable PRP. This activity can be seen in the number of sites that were added to the National Priority List (NPL) in the 80s and 90s - you can browse the list here. But the chemical industry tax that paid for the Superfund program ended in 1995 and the program has been funded out of the general EPA budget since then. Big hazardous waste sites aren't politically popular and the funding levels for traditional large scale cleanups have been dropping ever since. Enforcement and state-led cleanups depend on highly-variable state funds, which were almost all cut in the recession.

The industry has been going on a consolidation tear in the US for the last several years. I poked around the ENR top environmental firms, and the top 20 or so (probably more, but there's only so many corporate websites I can dig through at once) environmental consulting firms have bought multiple mid- or large-sized environmental firms in the last 5 years. Most of the regional consulting firms I was familiar with from before grad school have since been bought out by or merged with one of the giants - one of the reasons nobody was hiring when I graduated.

My little corner of the environmental field, studying dirt+water+rocks to investigate and clean up complicated messes, has shrunk noticeably since I started. It's not quite as hard to get established in as the wetland/ecology world (because who wouldn't like to be paid to count flora and fauna?), but it's becoming a niche instead of The Future of Science I had thought it would be.

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