Building a Sustainable Future

Article by Adam Duckett

Kathryn Richardson talks about her role as Area Environment Manager at the Environment Agency in England

IN THIS series we speak to chemical engineers working outside of the fossil fuel sectors to highlight the breadth of opportunities open to those just starting their careers or seeking to change sectors. To mark International Women in Engineering Day, we spoke to Kathryn Richardson who is Area Environment Manager at the Environment Agency in England.

Kathryn is a chemical engineering graduate from the University of Bradford and has an MBA from the Open University. Her career journey has included working as a project engineer, process engineer and production manager for companies manufacturing composite materials and speciality chemicals before she moved to England’s environmental regulator.

What are the main responsibilities in your current role?

“I look after regulatory teams in Yorkshire who specialise in the environmental regulation of waste and larger industry – such as biowaste, metals recycling, chemicals, energy, food and drink and landfill – and an enforcement team who investigate criminal activity mainly in the waste sector.

“I have a senior leadership role in operational COMAH regulation across the north and east hub, working with the Health and Safety Executive.

“Also, the Environment Agency is a Category 1 responder to environmental incidents and floods. My current role is a Gold Lead Officer, working with multi-agency partners such as the police and fire service in major incidents at a strategic level.

“A key part of my current role is to ensure we understand and are equipped to regulate low carbon technology, particularly in the Humber Cluster. With ambitious plans of our own to be net zero by 2030, we understand the challenges of being an operational organisation too, with computers, pumps, cars and construction having a significant impact on our emissions.”

What aspects of chemical engineering do you apply in your everyday role?

“Our regulatory activity focuses on protecting people and the environment, looking at risks, emissions and potential impacts. Being a Chartered Chemical Engineer has equipped me to grasp the underlying industrial processes, constraints, technical and commercial challenges.

“Understanding the principles of operation for the facilities we regulate are key skills that chemical engineers bring. This applies through the different roles I have held in the Environment Agency from regulating power station emissions in Yorkshire to negotiating European hydrocarbon environmental guidance.

“Industry, and the environment, does not stand still and we engage early in developments to ensure the best outcomes. For instance, we are currently very involved in discussions with industry bodies and individual companies around hydrogen developments and carbon capture to ensure that environmental constraints and potential impacts are understood at an early stage.”

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

“My favourite part is going out to site, having discussions with operators and the local communities and understanding the constraints, challenges and impacts first hand to ensure we reach the best outcomes. It is really important to me that we are a transparent regulator and are very clear about what we can do and are trying to achieve, and to ensure we have the right people, skills and guidance in place now and in the future to meet the challenges that the environment and industry are facing. As part of this, I’m excited to be taking on a summer placement chemical engineering graduate who will help us with analysis of industrial emissions to help inform our regulatory approach.

“Regulation plays a key part in driving down emissions and improving water quality. There is continued focus on these aspects with new challenges of climate change adaptation, and enabling regulated sectors to decarbonise whilst maintaining and enhancing our environment.

“Waste and resource are also key as we move to a circular economy, and ensuring that the environmental impacts from waste treatment are managed effectively means a targeted regulatory focus on waste misdescription, hazardous and biodegradable waste.”

What skills have you developed since leaving university that have been key in helping you achieve your career aims?

“The joy of being a chemical engineer is that you are always learning, and I have been lucky to work in project management, enjoying working with instrumentation engineers on user interfaces; process engineering and continuous improvement with six sigma projects; through to production management and ensuring the product goes out the door on time and meeting specification. All required constant technical skills development and the people around me have been immensely important in providing support, guidance and sharing their expertise.

“The Environment Agency has provided even more scope for learning. I am extremely fortunate to work with some remarkable highly-motivated experts in their fields of air quality, groundwater, water quality and process safety and have gained a much wider knowledge of key environmental issues. I have expanded my knowledge of skills in air quality assessment, microseismic monitoring, biomass combustion and more recently carbon capture through internal and external CPD.

“The Environment Agency supports professional development to achieve and maintain chartered status and CPD. The importance of chemical engineering and process safety knowledge and skills have been recognised in the recent establishment of a 3-year programme of IChemE training courses to support new recruits and upskilling of existing staff. Additionally, we have several staff who contribute to IChemE volunteer activities including for the Safety and Loss Prevention SIG, Major Hazards Committee, Hazards conference, Loss Prevention Bulletin and the Process Safety and Environmental Protection (PSEP) journal.

“I should also mention that external support has been invaluable. My career hasn’t been continuous and following a break when I was thinking about returning to work, Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) helped me with a placement at the University of York in the Innovation Team which convinced me to return to chemical engineering. Whilst at the EA, I have also had the opportunity of being in the 30% Club, a cross-company mentoring programme delivered by Moving Ahead. This provided me with an external mentor from the financial sector who was excellent in helping me to think through my next career move. Inspired, and recognising the impact this had on me, I am now a mentor myself for the diversity and inclusion programme called MissionINCLUDE.

“And on the topic of diversity, I’m pleased to say that INWED is widely supported at the Environment Agency, where we use it as an opportunity for everyone to get together and share experiences and ambitions.

“INWED events promote the diversity of our engineers and as part of this we have arranged internal virtual interview panels to raise the visibility of female engineers and provide support and encouragement to everyone at all points of their engineering careers.

“We have used these events to share experiences and support each other. This has included tips on procuring the correct fitting PPE, to working on sites where there are still assumptions made that all engineers are male. I am lucky that I have had support from colleagues and mentors throughout my career when I have needed it, and it’s important that everyone has this.

“This year the focus of INWED is innovation and it is inspiring to be part of engineering at the Environment Agency working to build a sustainable future.”

What advice would you give to a recent graduate or early careers chemical engineer who wants to work at the Environment Agency?

“You will work with enthusiastic people from many different backgrounds, so there are outstanding opportunities for you to apply your chemical engineering knowledge. One of the most important aspects is being able to work in multi-disciplinary teams, explaining engineering principles and working together to reach the best outcomes.”

Kathryn Richardson: 'My favourite part is going out to site, having discussions with operators and the local communities and understanding the constraints, challenges and impacts first hand to ensure we reach the best outcomes'

What advice would you give to an engineer considering moving into your sector from a different sector?

“Keep an open mind and your skills will naturally transfer. Learn from all the experience around you, understand the constraints and challenges and reflect what additional skills you can bring to reach the best decisions. Chemical engineering principles are applied easily to sustainability, green growth and climate adaptation.”

Do you expect the need will grow in your sector for people with chemical engineering skills?

“Yes. As industry decarbonises and we move to net zero whilst adapting to climate change, the mix of chemical engineering skills with sustainability and environmental understanding is crucial to ensure we are making informed decisions. These skills are critical in both industry and the public sector.”

To read more articles in this series visit

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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