Putting in the groundwork

Without geo-engineers like James Regan we might stumble across poisonous chemicals from old factories near our home or they might pollute the natural world.

Factories and high-rise buildings could also fall over or sink into the ground without geo-engineering knowledge, endangering people's lives.

James has a passion for the environment and helps recycle old sites for new building development, so we can build new homes for people and still protect natural areas in the countryside.

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Name: James Regan
Age: 32
Job title: Senior Geo-Environmental Engineer, Sirius Midlands Ltd
Studied: A-Level: Chemistry, Biology, German
University: BSc Soil Science: Bangor University
MSc Environmental Management with Pollution Control: University of Derby

What is geo-environmental engineering?
Geo-environmental engineering is a combination of geo-technical engineering and environmental engineering, which are quite broad subjects. Geo-environmental engineers assess, investigate and then engineer solutions to underground problems where property developers are planning on putting up buildings (or the buildings are already present).

What projects might a geo-environmental engineer work on?
You might have an old shoe factory with poor ground beneath it and the land-owners want to knock it down and build a new factory in its place - this is where we come in. You would need geo-technical engineers to tell you how the ground behaves, what foundations the building will need and what needs to be done to the ground to make sure the new factory won’t fall down when it’s built. We might recommend ways of installing foundations for anything from this old shoe factory to a new high-rise office block.

We’ve recently worked on some sites that used to be home to soap-making factories. On this kind of site there might be extremely aggressive chemicals in the ground that could burn your hands if you picked them up. Another problem might be contamination from an underground tank that’s killing fish in a nearby stream. In that case you would need environmental engineers with a background in chemistry and contamination (pollution) to help make sure the ground is safe and the chemicals in the ground don’t attack the new structures or corrode the concrete for any new building.

Most geo-engineering companies have different engineers in the same team looking at the various issues you can come across onsite and we’re employed by property developers or environmental regulators to look for problems in an area where people want to build. We then suggest affordable and effective solutions so they can put up new buildings and re-use the land.

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And which part of that does your work focus on?
I specialise in chemicals that might contaminate (pollute) and cause risk to water and human health around sites considered for new building development. There might be contamination in streams, rivers, lakes, the groundwater or soil around industrial sites. I didn’t do a “geo-technical” engineering degree but soil science and chemistry are really important parts of geo-environmental engineering.

I calculate the risks from the contaminant(s) and then recommend ways to remove or reduce contaminant concentration to safe levels so an area of land can be used or lived in by humans again.

It’s a great job as it involves a bit of travel and loads of detective work in investigating sites and tracking contaminants. I do lots of calculations and have meetings with our clients as well. It is never the same from one day to the next and it’s always challenging, interesting and rewarding!

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Can you tell us about how your work is important to sustainable development?
It’s really important. If it wasn’t for companies like us and engineers like me, a lot of derelict or abandoned sites would just stay that way or people would build on greenfield sites (undeveloped natural areas in a city or the countryside - Ed) and so we’d have fewer natural areas. Before people knew that you could safely redevelop and remediate sites (cleaning them up if they’re heavily contaminated - Ed) they would be left abandoned or – even worse - someone might move back onto the site and get ill.

Re-using an old site is really important for sustainable development because it’s one of the biggest and best examples of re-using and re-cycling things. There could be a site with a lot of nasty chemicals in the ground – they could be going straight into the groundwater or the local environment and killing fish, trees and plants.

We don’t look at the engineering behind cutting carbon emissions and global warming but we are helping to really improve the environment on a local basis by cleaning up sites and stopping harmful effects from continuing.

Tell us about a site that you’ve worked on recently:
There was a former industrial site where the plan was to build homes where there would have been children playing in the back garden. The site was the size of four or five football pitches and had some bits of ground with a high concentration of hazardous chemicals.

Children are the worst case scenario for this because they run around, explore and are more likely to encounter some harmful chemicals in the ground. They are also small so any chemicals are more concentrated in their body so without us cleaning up the site before building houses they could have got very sick.

We went in, investigated the site and worked out which areas were contaminated. It’s a bit like the game Battleship - you put a peg in the ground, see if you find anything and make assessments of the whole area based on this. We made a big difference on site.

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What is the most challenging part of the job?
You have to consider all aspects of a site and not just one issue such as contamination. With environmental systems everything is interrelated so you have to consider the effects of the site on everything surrounding as well - such as nearby residents, the water underneath the buildings or the water in the river 200 metres away.

What inspired you to become an engineer?
The engineering I’m doing now brings together all the things I like to do. I was always interested in science from the age of five and my mum and dad were both teachers so they were always willing to answer science questions.

I’ve also always enjoyed being outdoors and the environment and I joined Greenpeace when I was eight. When I was younger I thought engineering meant building bridges and skyscrapers but at university I became friendly with a couple of lecturers who suggested that geo-environmental engineering was something I could consider as a career.

What subjects did you study at A-level and university?
I studied chemistry, biology and German at A-Level as these were challenging and I enjoyed the sciences.

I went down the environmental sciences route with my first degree in Soil Science at Bangor University and focused on chemistry. Then I studied a MA course in Environmental Management with Pollution Control at Derby University, which was a good course and looked at environmental regulation and policy.

What kind of personal qualities do you think are important for an engineer?
It’s important to be a good all-rounder and you have to be keen and willing to learn. I’ve come from a soil chemistry background so I need to have a good appreciation of geo-technics and soil strengths. You’re always looking at new projects and challenges that you haven’t seen before and they often introduce new laws or guidelines that you have to keep up with but constantly learning is very rewarding.

You need to be able to work in a team because you never work on your own. If you need to know about building foundations there will always be a guy who can let you know that what you’re recommending is safe, correct and accurate.

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You won Young Environmental Engineer of the Year in 2011. Tell us about that.
That was such an honour. The Society of Environmental Engineers has been around since the 1950s so to be recognised by them was incredible.

I became a Chartered Environmentalist with the SEE last year and I had a lot of interviews with them as part of that (a Chartered Environmentalist, or CEnv, is a qualification that demonstrates commitment and expertise in working to protect the environment – Ed). Afterwards they had a list of people who were being considered for this award and they asked me if I would like to apply for it. I wrote a little bit about being a geo-environmental engineer, my personal background, some case studies and what I did in my job, sent that off and thought no more of it so it was a real surprise when I won the award.

What advice would you give to people who have read about you and would like to go into engineering?
Get out and do some work experience which is helpful for working out what you don’t want to do as well as what you do want to do. Talk to your lecturers or personal tutors because they have contacts in industry and can give you good advice. I got my first job after my master’s course through one of my lecturers passing my CV on to someone he knew from WSP.

Do you have a favourite piece of engineering or an invention you wish you could go back in time to create?
The Honda Fireblade motorbike from 1992 was a real benchmark in engineering. I’ve been reading about the engineer who led that project and it’s an exciting example of engineering.

What do you like doing outside of work?
I’m interested in motorbikes and I am a marshal at British superbike races.

More links...

The Society of Environmental Engineers