There is never a dull moment in the life of an Environmental Manager - this is one of the more memorable experiences.
‘A day in the life of’ an Environmental Manager at NCC is a foreign concept, especially when you are a roaming ECO. Every day offers up new challenges and new ways to learn. Coupled with my side projects like writing, social media and designing, a day in the life of this Environmental Manager at NCC is not normal. Luckily, I’m not a big fan of normal. And going to a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean was the least normal thing I could imagine myself doing for three months in 2015.
St Helena is a volcanic island, currently one of the most remote locations in the world, and a British Island territory on the same longitude as Angola, in the Atlantic Ocean, slap bang in the middle of Africa and South America. The only way to get there is by a boat ride, a 5 day boat ride on the last Royal Mail Ship in operation in the world – the RMS St Helena. 2016 marks the year that St Helena will allow the first commercial flight to arrive on the island, making this most inaccessible place somewhere that more and more people are beginning to put on their bucket lists and realistically so.
I was granted the opportunity to work on the Basil Read St Helena Airport Project in the role of Contractor’s Environmental Control Officer for three months, from April to July 2015. During my time on the island I stayed in Jamestown, the capital, which is comprised of houses, pubs, and shops all in a linear fashion, all contained by the valley walls of this island with such extreme topography. Most ‘towns’ are like this – with suitable flat ground for building houses being few and far between. Considering that, a 1850m runway with associated infrastructure was a feat of engineering, one which almost seemed impossible.
Basil Read took on this ‘impossible’ feat, and the airport is set to receive its first commercial flight mid-2016. As an environmental manager working on construction sites, I generally find the engineering aspects very interesting, and crave information on how things work. On St Helena, it’s extremely difficult to not find the creating of a 8,000,000m3 embankment, or a 13,7km haul road, or the building of a bulk fuel farm fascinating, but I’ll leave that (mostly) out of this, and focus on the environment and impacts of the construction on this rare environment.
Sitting on a boat for 5 days, reading 283 megabytes of management plans, authorisations, specialists studies, reports, technical summaries, chatting to locals, watching videos etc can’t possibly prepare you for a place like St Helena. Typical environmental challenges existed on this site – waste, water, biodiversity – all exemplified by the remoteness and the endemism of the island. Hazardous waste can’t be removed from the island due to the Basel Convention, general waste tends to breeds pests and predators which threaten the endemic wildlife such as the St Helena Wirebird. Although surrounded by the ocean, and fed by an underground aquifer, fresh water of an adequate quality needs to be strictly managed. Many conservation projects exist on the island, separate from the airport projects which run concurrently with them. The environmental team are responsible for monitoring spiders, birds, cats, insects and general ecosystem quality on the footprint of the airport project. You can’t manage what you can’t measure so this is an integral part of the project managing its environmental impact.
There is also a strong heritage aspect to the project and the island in general, as Rupert’s Bay, where the wharf is built and the access road begins, is the location of numerous liberated African slaves’ grave sites. Slaves were brought to the island on boats and a depot was set up for the slaves to be ‘freed’. Many were returned to Africa, enlisted, or went on to become labourers, but many also died on St Helena due to the conditions they faced. Uncovering human remains is one aspect of ‘a day in the life of an ECO’ I never thought I would be including. The presence of the liberated African slaves on the island form a thread in the thick tapestry that is the history and heritage of the island.
The actual airport and runway is on Prosperous Bay Plain, on the South-Eastern side of the island. While the wharf and bulk fuel farm, which will provide the airport with jet fuel, and the island with diesel and petrol, is in Rupert’s Bay, on the North-Western side of the island. These two ‘sites’ are joined by a 14km road, also part of the project, and typically St Helenian. Winding. One also has to adhere to St Helena driving practices: hooting around corners and waving to every car you pass. That, coupled with the inclines, the breath-taking scenery, construction vehicles and Atlantic ocean as far as the eye can see makes for an interesting drive around site.
Working on an island in the middle of no-where had varied challenges, of course. The RMS brings everything to and from the island, my slops broke in the first week of being there, but it would have taken a month, or more, to replace them. Ordering supplies for the project required serious logistics, and Basil Read made use of a boat called the NP Glory to bring all plant and construction material to the project. Working on an island in the middle of no-where had its benefits, of course. The scuba diving, night-life, hiking, braaing with friends and spending three incredible months on an island was the most incredible 93 days in the life of an ECO that any Environmental Manager could ask for.