Cool Jobs: CSI Environment

Monday - 9/12/2011, 2:01am EDT

K. Eric Nottingham, special advisor to the director, National Enforcement Investigations Center

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By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

You won't find any bodies or blood at this crime scene investigation.

Instead, the special agents and chemists on EPA's criminal enforcement team test chemicals from buried drums, asbestos stripped from buildings or water samples from a contaminated lake.

"We act as the forensics laboratory," said K. Eric Nottingham, senior advisor to the director of the National Enforcement Investigations Center in Denver, Colo.

The center is part of EPA's division that prosecutes civil and criminal cases against environmental offenders.

Nottingham's career with EPA spans nearly four decades. When he started working in a laboratory, the EPA was still in its infancy. He said the offenses in his early career were more egregious than they are now.

"People really didn't think it was an actual crime to throw a barrel of hazardous waste in somebody's back lot," he said.

The methods of polluting have become more sophisticated, but so have the methods of testing for contaminants. Since 9/11, the labs were asked to handle any chemical, including those found in terrorist attacks. Typically, the lab can identify the chemical within a few hours, Nottingham said.

A law school drop-out, Nottingham said he knew he didn't want to become a lawyer, but the training did come in handy when the Justice Department needed him to testify in criminal cases.

"A lot of people — a lot of chemists especially — they aren't verbal people. They have a hard time getting in front of a jury and trying to explain their work and defend it against a defense attorney who's trying to make them look bad," Nottingham said.

On the other hand, Nottingham said he enjoyed the "verbal jousting."

This story is part of the Cool Jobs in Government series.