The regulation of engineering practice takes place at the state level. All states and territories have laws and regulations covering engineering practice and they have licensing boards that ensure the laws and regulations are followed.
In many cases, engineers who work for the federal government are exempt from those laws, although federal agencies can set their own rules. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, for example, are strong proponents of the PE license.
The federal exemption raises questions about agencies’ commitment to the licensed practice of engineering and the qualifications of federal engineers involved in projects affecting the public health, safety, and welfare. In August 2015, the release of three million gallons of toxic water from an abandoned gold mine in Colorado raised these very issues. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency was working to prevent mine water from leaking into nearby waterways. In an independent investigation by the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation determined that the blowout could have been prevented with the proper engineering expertise. However, investigators found that while mine guidelines and manuals provide detailed guidance on environmental sampling, waste characterization, and water treatment, there is little appreciation for the engineering complexity of some abandoned mine projects that often require, but do not receive, a significant level of expertise.
NSPE has played a leading role in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine disaster to minimize similar incidents and to advocate for a licensed professional engineer in responsible charge of all federal engineering projects. After the incident, NSPE contacted EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to offer NSPE’s expertise. In response to the letter, the Environmental Protection Agency requested that NSPE review and provide input to a best practices report and checklist the agency is developing in response to the Gold King Mine disaster.
NSPE advocates that federal employees who by federal statute may be exempt from state engineering licensure laws but who are in responsible charge of engineering activities (as defined in the NCEES Model Law) should be required by federal agency policy to be licensed professional engineers in at least one jurisdiction. (NSPE Position Statement No. 09-1767)