Field investigations in remote locations – factors for success
Conducting field investigations in remote areas is no ‘walk in the park’. On top of the investigation activities themselves, there are the complex logistics of getting personnel and equipment into hard-to-reach places, the imperatives of maintaining safety and managing community expectations, and the significant challenge of conducting works but leaving minimal impact on the landscape.
‘Leave no trace’ may not be too hard a goal when you’re heading off on a simple bushwalk. However, when it comes to conducting field investigations in remote areas with heavy specialist equipment, ‘treading lightly’ can be extremely challenging – but it is something Entura is committed to.
Entura has recently delivered geotechnical investigations for Hydro Tasmania’s feasibility study into the potential for pumped hydro development in some very rugged, remote country in western Tasmania. This is how we did it, and some success factors we can share for field work in these conditions.
Planning and contract expertise is paramount for successful execution of any project, but particularly so in remote locations. It’s important to take the time at the very beginning of a project to really understand the entirety of the scope and the project objectives. To reduce the risk of unwelcome surprises and unwanted variances, spend enough time on the ground before the works commence so that you can be sure that all the elements have been considered.
This is also the time to gain a full understanding of all the permits and approvals that will be required, the lead time to achieve them, and the range of agencies and key stakeholders who need to be engaged right from the earliest stages.
It will take time and consideration to engage carefully with all contractors to understand their expertise, capability and willingness to undertake the works; but the effort to find the right contractors will be more than repaid by the improved outcomes.
Our project involved multiple drilling investigations to 600 m in 3 separate and remote locations, including a deep ravine located between Lake Plimsoll and Lake Murchison in the heart of Tasmania’s West Coast. The goal was to achieve a clear understanding of geological conditions within the region, which had previously been identified as a fault zone. Our planning needed to encompass all the necessary desktop studies to understand as much as possible about the environment, the stakeholders, the regulations and requirements, and the conditions our contractors could expect, all in advance of sending personnel and equipment into the remote site.
The key to our success in the project was leaving no stone unturned in the planning phase, and using these preliminary insights to choose the right contractors for the job, with the right equipment and skills to achieve our objectives. When things go smoothly and look seamless or simple from the outside, it is usually because of the significant investment of effort in detailed, logical planning right at the start.
Remote access can be extremely difficult, so the success of a project will depend on establishing practical, efficient and low-impact routes at the earliest stages of planning. Time is money, so contractors will need the easiest and quickest access to the site that you can achieve without compromising on safety or the environment. This will need early and thorough engagement with land-owners to identify constraints, requirements and options. Selecting the best access options will rely on a deep understanding of the biodiversity and heritage values of the site through desktop analysis combined with intensive field observations and data collection.
We selected access routes using a variety of considerations, including what equipment would be required on site, the duration of investigations, the significance of data we gained in the planning stage, analysis of the costs and benefits of options, consideration of the longer term benefits to the land-owners, and consideration of future works.
Ultimately we used a combination of access methods including foot tracks, temporary and permanent roads, and helicopter access. Again, it was crucial that we chose the right contractors who could cope with the conditions and understand the constraints. Our excellent local contractors were integral to our success.
Conducting works in a region of high natural values demands deep consideration of strategies to avoid or reduce long-term impacts and of what remediation efforts will be necessary and effective.
In one particular instance, we identified and implemented a range of strategies to create a 1.2 km foot-access track in a very sensitive and damp area that was likely to become muddy and highly degraded under the pressure of constant foot traffic during the duration of the works. To protect against this, we hand-cleared the site, developed suitable drainage channels, stabilised the banks, then deployed geo-fabric matting onto which we laid a top coat of clean and approved local woodchips. This innovative solution proved highly successful: it provided solid, safe and reliable footing, excellent drainage and made clearing up the site relatively easy and efficient as the woodchips could be wrapped in the geo-fabric matting, bagged and removed from the site. Once the works were completed, the cut-back vegetation was relatively unscathed, and was able to re-shoot and re-establish rapidly.
Stakeholder and community engagement
Continuous and inclusive community and stakeholder engagement, tailored to the particular community or stakeholder segment, is critical for the success of any project – and the earlier it begins, the better. In our project, we went out on the front foot, building a shared understanding of our objectives, making detailed information available and inviting stakeholders to raise any concerns with our team. We even facilitated site visits for key stakeholders to gain a fuller understanding of the works and build trust.
Many project proponents will tell stakeholders and communities that they want them ‘to come on the journey’ – but we walked the talk, inviting stakeholders to check our milestones, come along to inspect aspects of the work, and to share their feedback.
Over a sustained period, Hydro Tasmania has undertaken intensive desktop and field analysis of particular regions and their history. In addition to this rich database of information, Entura has access to specialist cultural heritage consultants who document heritage sites and support us to manage these sites in accordance within the appropriate legislation requirements. Early notification and thorough assessment early in the planning phase indicates whether a heritage site or specific location is likely to be encountered, which enables processes to be established to mitigate heritage risk, minimise site damage and, in some instances, plan for total avoidance and re-siting of works.
In our project, the early engagement of reputable consultants gave us confidence that any areas of significance had been identified. We clearly defined these areas of significance and protected them from any impacts from the works.
Drilling investigations require a significant volume of water every day. But not all, if any, remote locations have a ready supply, and if so it’s usually some distance away. Geotech drilling investigations require up to 30,000L/day depending on ground conditions, so the ability to capture and re-circulate water and reduce sediment discharge to the natural environment is crucial in remote locations. Sometimes this needs a bit of innovative thinking to achieve.
Working in a naturally wet environment and on a hillside enabled us to trap natural run-off and control flow to a small header tank (44 gallon drum), then pipe the water to 3 x 10,000L tanks at a flow rate over 24hr period. Three sandbags, float switches and low-impact plastic irrigation pipe allowed us to supply the drill rig with water for 90% of its operation, only having to stop temporarily while drilling during a 5-day period without rainfall.
The creation of a small pond on a steep downhill slope minimised environmental impact downstream and allowed a steady flow of water to continue over the micro dam. The header tank minimised air locks, while tank float switches prevented overflow on the drill site.
By capturing water above the work site, we eliminated the need for extra foot tracks to the creek down in the valley or the need to pump and re-fuel a diesel water pump or to truck water in over 2 km.
Projects sometimes can’t wait for the perfect time of year to commence. In Tasmania, this brings the challenges of adverse weather conditions and extreme events such as snow and bushfire – even within the same month!
Our remote projects faced these challenges, including frozen water pipes, snowed-in access routes and the risk of bushfire. Planning, watching the weather, and evacuation plans became a daily function.
At one particular location we soon learned that water freezing overnight in pipes could cause significant delays in the morning. Our quick solution was to drain the pipes at night to avoid the problem reoccurring.
To mitigate risks in hot conditions, we had safety processes and equipment in place, such as no-work orders in extreme hot and windy conditions, evacuation plans, safe areas, designated exits, fire pumps and satellite communications.
Safety should be a top priority on all worksites, and working in very remote areas involves an extensive range of safety considerations. Our workplace health and safety plan provided an overarching document to support the program of work, providing a framework of safety planning, processes and equipment, and careful consideration of the range of potential controls. Each of our contractors developed their own safe work method statement for their own tasks.
In our project, the key identified risks were driving long distances in remote areas and working in areas at risk of bushfire. However, adding to the complexities of safety considerations was that our project was conducted in the time of COVID-19, which necessitated extra hygiene requirements, COVID testing, travel restrictions and the need to immediately stop work when any symptomatic individuals were identified. Ultimately, by implementing our safety plans and processes, we completed the project with no significant safety incidents.
Team work and problem solving
In such complex conditions, the ‘glue’ is good relationships built on trust, shared expectations and objectives, accountability and confidence in each other. This enables collaborative problem solving to overcome challenges or changes in the project. However, contractors often don’t know each other and may be meeting for the first time onsite, so these trusting relationships need to be built quickly.
This requires a level of frankness and transparency among all parties, with honest and open analysis of where things are working well, where there’s room for improvement or where more support is needed.
Particularly in remote areas, it is essential that people don’t feel isolated or alone. Regular drop-ins can help, providing continuity and fresh eyes on site.
Some of the success of a remote project will come down to experience, but just as much depends on good teamwork, regular and open communication, choosing great contractors, and meticulous planning. Not every on-site circumstance can be foreseen, but with these success factors in place, you’ll have a solid foundation and the flexibility to solve challenges on the ground as they arise.
Written by James Butler.
March 17, 2022