In October of 2015 my advisor suggested that I apply for an internship with EHS. I had no idea what EHS even was, but I sent her my resume, as I was in no position to turn down an opportunity for work experience. I did not hear back and assumed it was yet another example of the dreaded cycle: needing a job to get experience but needing experience to get a job.
In late November I finally received a call for an interview, which I set up for the next day. It turned out that I was interviewing for the Stormwater Management Internship with the NC State Environmental Health and Safety Office (hence, “EHS”). I began my interview with the Environmental Affairs manager and by the end of the interview the Stormwater manager and two other people from EHS had joined in. Needing to impress 4 people rather than one or two was daunting, but I got a call later that day offering me the position.
The Environmental Health and Safety Office ensures that NC State meets the requirements for keeping students and employees safe, as well as being in compliance with environmental regulations. The office works on everything from indoor air quality in university buildings to handling the hazardous waste produced by the many labs on campus.
My primary job has been to inspect NC State’s stormwater outfalls that direct runoff to streams and retention ponds. Inspections have to be done in pairs for safety, because many of them involve picking through thick brush or rock-hopping across the streams that meander around campus.
My intern partner and I actually had a lot of fun exploring corners of campus we had never seen or even knew existed. While it was disheartening to see the volumes of litter around the creeks, there were also plenty of signs of wildlife. We saw where NC State’s resident beaver had been gnawing tree trunks around his dam, raccoon footprints on muddy streambanks, fish, frogs, and deer tracks.
Like other college campuses, NC State has a stormwater permit. An important requirement is ensuring that the university is not discharging anything but actual stormwater into local streams. We inspect each outfall (there are over one hundred) twice a year on dry days. Theoretically, if there has been no rain in the past 72 hours, the outfalls should be dry. When we came across an outfall that was flowing, we tested the water’s temperature, pH and ammonia level. These are simple, cheap and fast tests that can be done in the field.
Warm temperatures, unusual pH, and high levels of ammonia indicate that water is likely being discharged from a campus source and needs immediate investigation. We did come across one outfall that was flowing during dry weather, which we had to trace back to the source. It was an exciting and productive day, as we were able to help alert the University to correct the problem.
Another important aspect of NCSU’s stormwater permit is education and outreach. Every few weeks we would take a break from inspections and work on better educating the campus community about stormwater and what we can do to minimize the impact of stormwater runoff. We stuffed reusable bags with stormwater pamphlets and promotional items and passed them out to students. We also passed out postcards with information on the importance of picking up dog waste and how it causes pollution problems urban waterways.
My favorite educational project was creating a fact sheet for NC State staff and project managers to make it faster and easier to follow the criteria for the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). This act requires major construction projects to create and submit environmental assessments for review before beginning construction. The process of interpreting the language of SEPA vastly increased my own understanding of the Act, while helping other NC State employees in the future!
My work at EHS has been widely varied and I’m grateful that I have had the opportunity to learn about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making a large institution like NC State a responsible member of the community. My tasks as an intern have not always been exciting (one rainy day I spent almost the entire day scanning), but I have learned at least something from every task. Even on my office work days as I poured through and organized documents, I saw how Environmental Assessments can be hundreds of pages and the product of extensive and expensive investigation that can take years before construction can even begin.
On field days, I have had the opportunity to apply many of the things that I have learned in my studies so far, such as water quality testing and science communication. I also have a better grasp on what it is really like to work in the environmental profession and the necessary, though sometimes tedious, red-tape maze of environmental policies.
While I do not feel like this type of compliance-focused work is what I want to pursue in the future, but it has reaffirmed my love for working in the environmental field. I love talking to people about the environment and how to protect it. I love addressing and mitigating problems, and overall feeling that I am making a positive contribution.
I did occasionally feel like I was doing these things in my internship, but I also did not like being the person that no wanted to see. Technically being a compliance inspector you are looking for deficiencies that need to be corrected, and generally people do not like that because it takes time, effort and often money. I would like a position where I am viewed as helpful rather than a hindrance. I want people to work with me because they want to solve problems, not because it is compulsory. I am grateful for having had this opportunity and look forward to continuing to learn more about becoming an environmental professional.