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10 questions..

Dr. Kirsten Edelkraut, Geographer / Project Manager Environmental Projects

Constructing tunnels, bridges and other structures in Canton Graubünden’s beautiful mountains is challenging work. Kirsten Edelkraut ensures that environmental impacts are kept to a minimum. This includes the RhB’s Val Varuna Tunnel I.

Johanna Burger, Corporate Communications trainee, 27. July 2021

1 You supervise construction projects. What’s the first thing you do when you’re approached with a building project?

I start by finding out exactly what the project is, what the drawings or requirements look like and what the construction options are. I also check to see whether construction – i.e. encroachment on the natural environment – can be avoided. If it can’t be, I continue with internet and database searches.

2 What kind of research is that? What are you looking for?

I do things like checking the latest databases at the Swiss Flora and Fauna Data Centre and seeing whether there are rare species or species that need protecting in the area in question. I also check whether inventories are affected or whether water protection is an issue.

3 So are all your preliminary checks purely deskwork?

No. The research is followed by an inspection of the area where construction is planned. I look at what’s there in terms of nature and the ecology. I carry out habitat and soil mapping and prepare a report. Soil samples are taken to check for contaminants; if necessary, during construction work, the soil would have to be stored and reused or disposed of – all with great care.

Soil mapping

4 And then you issue the developer with instructions?

Not exactly. Based on everything I find out, I formulate proposals for a sustainable building project. These are then incorporated into the planning approval process.

5 Can you tell us a little more about what you do, using the Val Varuna Tunnel I as an example?

Sure: This project is taking place amid pastures containing a wide variety of species that are very valuable from a biodiversity perspective. What’s more, protected orchid species are present at the perimeter of the site where tunnel portal stones would have been stored. This area is now zoned off and protected with fencing. My internet research didn’t throw up any relevant information for the area, but I did find a Smooth snake there. The habitat for these animals needs to be reinstated once the tunnel renovation is completed. In this particular case, it means creating frost-free stone hideaways for the snakes. Soil samples showed that the soil is contaminated here and there: these are places with excess heavy metals. The soil there has to be stored separately, then returned to the same place after the building work is over. If flora and fauna are adversely affected by this or other construction work, even if only temporarily, the developer has to provide equivalent substitutes.

Barrier for orchids

6 What does “equivalent substitutes” mean?

In Canton Graubünden, habitats are awarded points per square metre. There’s a rule of thumb when it comes to assigning them a financial value: points times square metre times CHF 3.00. To achieve this value, something has to be done for nature. In the case of the Val Varuna Tunnel I, we teamed up with the forester to do so. During the discussions, it became clear that encroachment by forests is a problem in Poschiavo, where valuable land is slowly being lost. In order to counteract this process, the ground must be deforested and cleared of undergrowth. This and the bracken must be removed and the pasture land restored to ensure the survival of species-rich pastureland. So the RhB is now paying an equivalent substitute to allow the municipality to pay a farmer to carry out the work and use his animals to graze the land adequately afterwards.

7 Were other bodies included in the proposed measures apart from you?

That sometimes happens. However, in the case of the Val Varuna Tunnel I, we didn’t need to involve the Historical Monuments people – instead, I made a recommendation regarding some historical masonry that mustn't be damaged. Over time, you get to learn about all kinds of things, not just flora and fauna.

8 What do you do during the construction phase?

My work begins well before that. But when it gets underway, I’m regularly on site to make sure everything is done as agreed. It rather depends on the construction site and the people working there. If I see that everything’s going smoothly and my directions are being followed, I can visit less frequently. If not, I come by more often. As the construction comes to an end, however, I visit more often in either case.

On site inspection

9 You’re involved in a project before and during the construction phase. What role do you see yourself as having?

I see myself as a consultant. I prefer offering advice to issuing orders, because it allows me to give the reasons for my requests. I rarely have to insist; instead, I help the project manager comply with the nature conservation measures.

10 So you’re a consultant, but you’re also a trainer? What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to passing on the skills needed to head environmental projects?

A lot of it has to do with interpersonal skills. Learning and teaching what needs protecting and what doesn’t is straightforward. What’s not quite so easy is teaching how to deal and react to certain situations. There are some aspects of my profession that you can’t learn from a book. That’s down to the experience you acquire over the years.

Dr. Kirsten Edelkraut

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