Diary of an engineer: Poring over the permit

Submitted by AWL on 22 June, 2021 - 4:49 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plant

After a month of 360 decision-making and discussions with friends and colleagues, I’ve taken the job offered me as Compliance Technician. I’m now working in an open-plan office with two of the senior engineers.

There are technicians, managers and contractors coming in and out all day for chats, updates, complaining or getting permits signed.

P — the young Slovakian bloke doing maternity cover for the plant accountant/receptionist — is friendly and good fun. Somehow rumours have sprung up that he has a prosthetic leg (he doesn’t, and walks normally, I don’t get it.) We are both new starters and wrestling with the company IT department to get all our software installed. I often feel like I’m in sitcom.

Me: “Can I have Excel, please?” IT respond: No. Can I please have Excel? No. I need Excel to do my job, can you please install it? No — but here’s an online version which we’ll but shutting down soon...

P: “Wait until you get a Chromebook, then accessing the online version is a nightmare — it’s Google Sheets or nothing.”

I’ve been poring over the plant’s permit — the legally-binding written document from the Environment Agency (EA) that explains exactly what the Plant is allowed to do and to what extent we’re allowed to do it. The rules extend to the milligrams of gases and particulate we’re allowed to emit into the air; the pH of waste water we can send to the sewer; the types of waste we’re allowed to burn; how long we can stay on-line in “abnormal” operation; what happens if we have to send furnace gases around the fabric filters and so on.

When the plant makes an emissions breach — almost never, I hope — part of my job is to make sure the EA is notified as soon as possible, with the time date, senior operator’s details, extent and nature of the emission, wind speed and direction, outside temperature, measures taken to mitigate, and many other emergency measures to help the agency assess the extent of the damage.

I assume as the plant is on the edge of Sheffield that environmental breaches are considered more serious than those of a plant in the middle of nowhere.

The permit also explains how often the plant must report to the EA with details of everything arriving on and leaving site, including waste, heat energy, electrical power, chemical residues, test gases, maintenance stock, pints of milk, sewer waste, bad smells, noise, dust; the list is exhaustive. It’s a document written by civil servants who are concerned with giving potential polluters as little wriggle-room as possible.

How we measure every substance arriving on and leaving site is also strictly controlled. After cross-referencing the codes for each regulation I have a long list of British Standards, ISOs and European Directives to fine-tooth-comb. Each document specifies the method by which a chemical is measured, and how that machine or process is maintained and calibrated; this is the engineering I’ll need to learn much more about.

My work with the electricians on the plant has been to take readings from instruments and do basic fault-finding, but we have never been permitted to fix a faulty analyser as our employers have a vested interest in rigging its readings.

• Emma Rickman is an engineer at a Combined Heat and Power Plant

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