“First, let’s stroll down memory lane for a glimpse at an engineer ready to conquer the world.”
According to the environmental industry, nothing’s changed. Elizabeth Cromwell is an operations manager at the Burnside sulfuric acid regeneration (SAR) facility in Darrow, Louisiana, a plant that’s distinct from other regen plants in two fundamental ways: At 2,200 tons of resource capacity, it’s huge. And second, the plant turns 50 years old this year — a birthday that lines up with Elizabeth’s 10-year anniversary at the plant, and one that is marked by something she’s proven as a woman in STEM: Leadership is a circular quality.
A Unique Lifecycle
Elizabeth was hired as an assistant-to-operations engineer (ATO) at the Burnside plant in 2007. In just one year, she became a process engineer.
Sulfuric acid is one of the world’s most widely used compounds, with applications for consumers and industrial customers alike. When energy producers clean their product via alkylation, they spend this acid down to a lower quality, requiring them to retrieve more of it from crude sources. Regeneration services like those at Burnside convert this spent acid back to fresh sulfuric acid, allowing these facilities to use the same resource to produce more fuel.
This lifecycle is part of the circular economy, wherein formerly discarded resources are still valuable after the previous operation ends. The following year it proved to be a unique metaphor for Elizabeth’s career, when she was called to do something in Delaware.
It’s not uncommon for engineers to travel to different facilities to assist in safety procedures — a cornerstone of workspaces dedicated to sustainability. Some of them actually conduct workshops on protocols with which many acid handlers nationwide are unfamiliar.
In Delaware City, Elizabeth faced a regen plant that needed to be idled.
Also known as mothballing, idling deactivates all or part of an operation such that it preserves energy while allowing for the quick reactivation if the plant needs to come back online. Often it’s done in response to changes in consumer demand or environmental supply.
And, it was a tremulous situation: “Instead of running a plant, it became idling a plant,” Elizabeth said, “so that everyone behind me can do what they need to do safely."
Few engineers can say they were a part of this process, and it didn’t just teach Elizabeth how to shut down an SAR plant — it solidified a truth about the industry: Much like sulfur products are built to protect the process that comes after them, the people who make it happen are always leaving the business intact for the next team.
Birth of a Leader
Elizabeth took this experience back to Darrow with a new view of safety and conservation. It’s a cornerstone of the regeneration business, but it’s also an earmark of a good leader. In 2016, the plant joined forces with Veolia North America, and the Burnside veteran increasingly found herself providing guidance to burgeoning operations staff. As a woman in a male-dominated market, it wasn’t an expected road, but with experience at more than one location — and a mothball under her belt — the attention couldn’t have made more sense.
“Being in this role, when you don’t see a lot of women in this industry, you slowly realize leadership is an option."
In December of this year, Burnside’s sulfur regeneration facility celebrates a half-century in business, and the birthday carries unique meaning for more than one generation of engineers.
From Chem to STEM
Burnside’s employees take pride in operating a flagship facility and setting an example for everyone who has and will work there. But as this plant turns 50, Elizabeth’s tenure at the station turns 10, and she’s been considering her influence on more than just newer staff.
“It is a big milestone,” she said. “There are retirees who worked at this plant for more than 42 years and are still active in the community. And it’s heartwarming to allow them to drive by and see this plant still running.”
In this way, it’s clear how employees like Elizabeth fit into the leadership the plant needs. She looks up to her predecessors just as much as the next generation does to her. It’s a unique lifecycle, and in this way, leadership is as circular as the circular economy her plant is a part of. The phenomenon extends all the way to our youth.
“I feel my success is due to being determined and willing to learn something new,” she realized. And it’s an apt description of the culture this workforce supports. Chem Friends, a program local to Louisiana, promotes the STEM opportunities Elizabeth found a thriving career in — especially to the community’s youngest residents. It’s about getting involved, she added, and being an example for students and young women who don’t meet a lot of professionals who can do so many different things for the environment.
“Having two daughters, I want to be that example,” she asserts. “Mommy’s an engineer, and she loves what she does.”
Elizabeth is currently an area operations manager at the Burnside sulfur regeneration plant, bringing the same energy and passion that tomorrow’s environmentalists depend on.