Tackling challenging environmental projects: insights from Environments Lead, Erica Colley

Erica Colley & Emma Waterhouse in Iraq
Erica Colley & Emma Waterhouse in Iraq

Erica Colley is a Senior Associate Environmental and Social Consultant, currently leading Tetra Tech Coffey’s New Zealand Environments team.  A self-proclaimed ‘environmental warrior’ her diverse technical skills in environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) and contaminated land see her helping clients tackle some of the most challenging environmental projects. 

What inspired you to choose a career in the environments industry?

Growing up, you could say I was a real ‘nature nerd’.

I loved plants, and animals, and exploring the outdoors. When it came time for university, I just decided to follow my interests, so studying biology and environmental science was a no brainer. Back then, I had visions of working for the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, chasing cute fluffy kiwis around the place. Clearly things have worked out slightly differently!

The Environments sector is quite broad, is there a particular area of focus for you?

 In the early days I started out as a freshwater ecologist. I’m very much an outdoors person, most of my spare time is spent on, or in the water so I have a strong pull toward marine and freshwater. I also did a fair amount of contaminated land work, so I have a good understanding of the technical side of the site assessment and remediation (SAR) business.

For the past 11 years at Tetra Tech Coffey, I have managed projects and prepared reporting that covers all areas of ESIA across a range of projects and countries. This includes a broad range of topics such as air, noise, land and soils, water quality, ecology (freshwater, marine and terrestrial), cultural heritage, and socio-economic aspects.

As a Project Manager, I am now more of a generalist than a specialist. My role is now mostly office based, overseeing field teams, and managing reporting. I do sneak in the odd field trip still, with my most recent work involving marine surveys in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Tell us about some of the rewarding aspects of your role?

The most rewarding aspect of my role has been the ability to work in different parts of the world in some amazing locations. I find it interesting to learn about the different environments, the ecology, and then the people, and their cultural heritage.

I have been based in various offices across Australia and New Zealand. My field work has also taken me to places like PNG and Iraq and it is those kinds of experiences that have been life changing in terms of the things you’ll remember when you’re 90.

These days I enjoy mentoring people, helping members of my team progress their careers. I like being able to help them work through the difficulties that I’ve experienced in the past, teaching them the coping skills to deal with the stresses and the juggling of competing demands.  I really want to encourage people to have confidence and back themselves.

What about the challenges such a role presents?

One of the biggest challenges I face now is team management; making sure everybody is happy, especially after the disruption of COVID-19.  People have a lot going on – not only are there challenges at work, but everyone has things they are dealing with in their personal lives.

As a team leader, it’s important to touch base regularly with each team member and remain conscious of other things that may be impacting their life. I have also continually refined strategies to manage my own stress levels over the duration of my career. There is the hectic side of consultancy, the competing demands and being able to delegate and manage the workload to achieve that work/life balance can be difficult.

I really emphasis to my team, particularly in the more junior roles, that if you are overwhelmed you need to reach out to your leader or your colleagues. It is ok to say you’re ‘not ok’ or not coping. This is where it’s important to have a mentor that you can check in with regularly, as just talking often makes things clearer.

How important is team work and collaboration on a project?

Teamwork is everything to a project. From the way that people work together right through to assembling the best people to collaborate with, teamwork is everything. What the past two years, and the challenges of managing projects through COVID-19 has really shown is that teamwork can really make the difference.

Our team were awarded a project in PNG for a transmission line feasibility study just as COVID hit. Our locally based (Port Moresby) team are well versed in undertaking ESIAs for this type of project, but this time we were undertaking the whole feasibility study, including electrical engineering elements.  Initially we had international specialists going into PNG to support our team, but we had to restructure our proposal so that we could undertake the entire project using locally based staff with remote assistance from international specialists.

This project was a true collaboration within our Tetra Tech global family. We had electrical engineers based in Canada at our Tetra Tech company, PWR. Then our local office in Port Moresby where my colleague Nelson Sukwianomb was the in-country lead, supported by staff across Australia and New Zealand.

It has been a challenging assignment with limited resources on the ground. But working together, we have continued to keep our client’s project going, across time zones, across countries, and service lines. This has really demonstrated to me the power of teamwork and collaboration. I am really fortunate to not only do what I do, but to work with a great bunch of talented, like-minded professionals at Tetra Tech.

Tell us about one of your most memorable projects?

In 2017 my colleague, Emma Waterhouse and I travelled to Iraq to work on an ESIA and update environmental management systems documentation for the expansion of the HALFAYA Oilfield.

By coincidence, back in 2010 while Emma was employed by another company, she had worked on the first stage of the project completing the ESIA for its construction. A number of years later the Tetra Tech Coffey office in Dubai completed an ESIA for the initial expansion of the oilfield.  Emma and I then managed a final expansion that included additional facilities and well pads to upscale the operations.

Initially it was a little nerve wrecking as there was a lot of military activity happening in Mosul and Baghdad at the time. We flew into Basara airport and then to the oilfield on a small private jet. On our return to Basra airport the jet undertook a controlled emergency descent, presumably to minimise the risk of being a target. The spins and nosedive certainly weren’t my favourite part of the trip!

The whole experience on the ground was quite surreal. There we were in the middle of the desert with scattered tiny residential huts within an oilfield, surrounding a massive main camp.

The oilfield is owned by PetroChina so there was an interesting mix of Chinese and Iraqi personnel and customs. PetroChina had employed a lot of local people and had done very well in terms of local participation which created an interesting mix of cultures and delicacies in the food hall.

Definitely one of the highlights was the hospitality of the Iraqi members of the local Environments team – from their delivery of kebabs and other treats from the nearby town to our competitive table tennis and pool competitions in the recreation hall after work.

Once we settled in, it all seemed relatively normal, perhaps because there was so much distraction with the unrest further north. In hindsight, it was probably a relatively safe time to visit the south. We ended up completing two trips of 14 days each, one in winter and one in summer with 50 degree Celsius heat.

Looking back now, it was an incredible experience in my career, and I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity.


Connect with Erica  Erica.Colley@TetraTech.com

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