By Bethany Fitts
Stephen Emerson (BA 05), an environmental inspection and biological monitoring expert, has worked as an environmental scientist for over 10 years, providing environmental inspection for companies working on linear or renewable energy projects. Over the course of each project, he gives training courses to help construction teams safely follow environmental protocol such as noxious weed prevention and removal and hazardous waste disposal.
Despite this extensive experience, Emerson didn’t really know what to expect when he was first asked to work on the Dakota Access Pipeline–an underground oil pipeline that runs through North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.
“They told me right before I came that there might be some minor protests but nothing to be concerned about,” Emerson said.
However, it didn’t take long before Emerson realized that “minor” was a significant understatement.
“I was hiking solo with all of my tools, and I saw 200 cars on the road,” he said. “And, soon enough, 200 became 2,000.”
Thousands of people from across the country and the world had gathered to protest construction of the pipeline with concerns about environmental threats and damage to sacred Native American sites.
“I get it,” Emerson said of the protestors. “There are some very strong opinions on both sides. My job is to make sure construction is completed according to protocol and that regulations are abided by. Our goal is to leave the smallest footprint on the environment. When I’m flying over in a helicopter, I want to be able to look down and not see where that pipeline went in.”
Emerson believes he and his team succeeded in minimizing the pipeline’s environmental footprint and is proud of his work on the project.
“A lot of projects don’t involve that level of protest,” he said. “But to know that I’ve done my best and getting to be a part of American history are the reasons I love this job.”
The history Emerson referred to actually began, he said, in 1973 when President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act.
“At the time these laws were written, it was needed because you had a lot of corporations shooting for the almighty dollar,” Emerson said. “You know… you don’t want your water contaminated just because this big corporation makes profits.”
Even though Emerson loves his job, he did not initially want to specialize in environmental inspection. In fact, he earned his degree in biochemistry from Ole Miss with the intention of going to medical school. After graduating, though, Emerson began working in Oman’s Wahiba Sands desert as an environmental scientist, and his path began to change.
“I fell in love with the environmental component of biochemistry,” he said. “I’d always loved nature as a child.”
Emerson’s work requires a thorough knowledge of acts like the National Environmental Policy Act, California Environmental Quality Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act. His past clients range from Google and the Department of Homeland Security to Pacific Gas and Electric and Genesis Solar, LLC.
Of his work with the Genesis Solar Energy Project, a new solar power plant located in the Colorado Desert, Emerson said, “It was amazing to have been there before anybody else was. And now you have one of the largest solar facilities in the world.”
As we move further into the 21st century, Emerson believes environmental inspection and biological monitoring will only become increasingly vital.
“There’s more people on the planet and less natural resources,” he said. “The protection of these natural resources is going to be a critical component as we move forward.”