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  Geotimes - September 2007 - NY State: Still no license for geologists
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Science and Society
NY State: Still no license for geologists

After 11 years of trying, geologists in the state of New York are still waiting for their professional license. Despite a long series of unsuccessful bills stretching back to 1996 to introduce such a license to the state, some proponents see signs that the mood in Albany may be changing at last.

Professional geologists are tested and licensed on a state-by-state basis, rather than a national one (see story, this issue). A national exam does exist, but many states also include a state-specific section to their license exam. Currently, 31 states, including large, populous states like California, Texas and Florida, issue professional licenses for geologists, according to the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists.

The New York State Council of Professional Geologists (NYSCPG), an organization representing thousands of practicing geologists in the state, has been lobbying the state legislature to create a professional license, which it says will ensure the quality of state projects involving geology, and will also provide accountability to the public.

A professional license can also affect the job market for geologists. Both federal regulations and state regulations, such as those governing environmental site assessments or cleanup of contaminated sites, may require that either a licensed professional geologist or professional engineer work on the project, risking outsourcing of those jobs to out-of-state geologists. Furthermore, private companies and public agencies often require a licensed professional for contract work, which, the council says, means that New York’s geologists are excluded from working on these projects. It has also meant that some projects went forward without a qualified geologist’s input, sometimes with disastrous results, NYSCPG states on their Web site. Some such cases, according to NYSCPG, include “sinking homes” in some subdivisions in Amherst, N.Y., which an investigation by the Army Corps of Engineers found had been built on clay soils that swell and shrink with moisture; and the collapse of a theater in New York City in 1997 due to a geologic fault and unstable bedrock in an adjacent construction site.

The most recent version of the bill, introduced in April, establishes new guidelines to become a professional licensed geologist in New York, including experience, education and examination requirements. That bill unanimously passed the state senate in May, and has moved to the state assembly, which referred it to the Higher Education Committee for consideration.

But it is there that previous bills have become mired in recent years, says Mark Williams, a professional geologist at the consulting firm H2H Associates, LLC in Troy, N.Y. Williams is also the president of NYSCPG, and has helped shape the current bill. “The senate has passed our bill for seven straight years, but [each time] it stalled in the Higher Education Committee in the state assembly,” he says.

The stumbling block in the assembly, he says, is not the overarching question of whether a geologist needs a license, but has more to do with more detailed questions about the minimum qualifications — for example, whether a master’s degree should be a requirement, and whether there should be a state test. Requiring a master’s degree for the license would present a logistical nightmare, Williams says, because universities and private colleges in the state would not be able to handle the sudden influx of students, and there are no current master’s programs in geology that are tailored to full-time professionals. Additionally, a lack of staffing in the state legislature has been a stumbling block, slowing the bill’s progress.

There are some signs that NYSCPG’s case is making some headway in the state, Williams says. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently adopted the term “Environmental Professional,” recognizing a need for recognized professionals to work on Superfund, brownfield and environmental restoration program sites. Furthermore, he says, “there is an air of reform within the state. There has been a lot of change in the state legislature, and it’s a different political climate.”

One such change is increasing support for the bill among the Assembly, as well as a new chair to the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, Williams says. Most hopeful of all is that the bill passed the 2007 Senate and moved to the Assembly without changes, which should fast-track it during the next legislative session in 2008. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” he says.

Carolyn Gramling

Links:
"A License to Practice Geology," Geotimes, September 2007 Coming later this month!

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