Peri’s story below comes from a taped interview with Peri conducted by AYM Secretary Susan Addison in October 2012.
Peri Coleman (SANTRM) owns and operates Delta Environmental Consulting, which provides environmental services in the areas of coastal ecosystems, water quality assessment, wetland management, botany, marine and coastal ecology education and salt field biology. She also operates a laboratory for water, soil and air testing.
She lives and works beach-side at St Kilda, a historic seaside town near Salisbury, 45 minutes north of the Adelaide CBD, where she has created an extensive garden
I had a boss who used to refer to me as the ‘last of the amateur naturalists’. In fact, ‘amateur naturalists’ were the start of a whole new breed of people interested in the environment as a whole, rather than different aspects of it.
Plants are what I remember best. I’m hopeless remembering people; they move too fast to stick names to them. Our family came to Australia in 1964 when I was six. My Dad couldn’t make up his mind where to live so he got a caravan and we travelled for years. Plants everywhere. My mother was interested in birds. I can remember this one place we settled called One Tree Hill which years later I was able to find because I could identify the trees.
You see, you’ve got the geology and the soils, and that’s the backbone of the world. Plants are like the fuzz on the backbone on the world. The plants that grow in a place are an expression of that underlying backbone. And depending on the plants that grow, you have different animals. It’s all interrelated.
I’ve been very fortunate. People are prepared to pay me for what I’m interested in doing—providing environmental services. It’s been wonderful—not the kind of living to make you a millionaire, but if you want to be satisfied at the end of the day… I’ve done a master’s degree in environmental science. To be perfectly honest, I did the university degree because the Environmental Protection Agency said they needed me as an expert witness, and it would help to have letters after my name when I appeared in court.
I grew up in the Wallum swamps of south east Queensland around Labrador on the Gold Coast, now all houses. My sister and I used to go to school through the swamp. It’s an interesting area because it burned during the dry season and in the wet season, the burnt trees would fall over, so there were these really tall sedges and a maze of old fallen trees which we’d run along like roads to get to school—a lot shorter than going by road and more fun.
I was very close to my Dad who was an amateur naturalist too. He used to catch snakes for David Fleay, a naturalist who set up a wildlife sanctuary in the Tallebudgera estuary on the Gold Coast [now the David Fleay Wildlife Park, owned and operated by the Queensland Government]. David Fleay milked death adders and other venomous snakes for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories to make antivenins.
My first ‘environmental’ job was as a beekeeper’s labourer for my first husband’s family. They had me do herbarium training in Western Australia in the early 1970s so I could find the magical mystical ‘honey prionotes’ that beekeepers talk about. There’s a common banksia in south west Western Australia called Banksia prionotes, but it does not produce much nectar. The so-called ‘honey prionotes’ I discovered is actually Banskia hookeriana. I found it after years of searching because lots of insects were flying around it. To this day, most beekeepers can’t pick the difference.
It was work on salt fields that brought me and my first husband to Adelaide in 1993. We had developed a reputation for fixing salt fields, after solving biological problems in salt fields in Western Australia and Queensland. When I decided to stay on, I ran into Colin Pitman, then Salisbury Council’s city projects manager [now retired] who was trying to build wetlands as part of a massive rainwater collection and storage system. One half of the world was telling him wetlands only work in fresh water. I said to him, ‘What’s wrong with a saltwater wetland? It’s called a salt marsh. It’ll do the same work. It’s just as big a carbon sink.’
The reason salt marshes are such good carbon sinks is that a slime grows on the mud surface and that traps lots of little bits of dirt and all of the carbon in that is buried, then more slime grows, and because it’s grown in saline conditions it doesn’t rot down and create methane. Consequently the carbon that’s buried in a salt marsh can’t escape. Once it’s buried, it’s essentially locked up for 100 years or more so salt marshes are a very good carbon sink. The tide flows in, the right plants grow.
The State Government has now adopted the idea of water sensitive urban design that uses wetlands, and permeable paving to reduce water run-off. Everything that Colin had done has become quite standard.
Colin Pitman later commissioned me to write the interpretive signs on the Mangrove Trail here at St Kilda, then he started using my company, Delta Environmental Consulting, for flora surveys. When I do flora surveys I also go to the Lands Title Office, to look at who owned the land and what they did with it. The site history can explain a lot about the state of land.
Once Colin Pitman started hiring us, others did as well. And reputation builds from familiarity. It’s been easier and easier. I don’t even advertise any more. Over the years I’ve mentored a lot of people—my daughter worked for me for 15 years before starting her own business, and my niece worked with me for 5 years while she was studying. My stepdaughter who helped me for years has now gone on to buy a florist shop. My clients often ‘steal’ recent graduates who’ve worked with me in the environmental area. But that’s alright—they think of me when there’s some consulting work to be done!
Reducing the carbon footprint of Adelaide Local Meeting
In 2007 Adelaide Local Meeting joined with its neighbours, including St Peter’s Cathedral, St Mark’s College, the Adelaide Oval and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, to work towards establishing a local green precinct, the Green Cathedral Precinct that aims to be sustainable in its use of water and power. It was a bottom-up initiative, started by St Peter’s Cathedral.
It’s fallen into something of a heap because of the Adelaide Oval redevelopment and now that the Glenelg – Adelaide pipeline brings sewage-recycled water into the city, people are less worried about water supply. Once the Adelaide Oval Redevelopment is over, we hope the Cathedral Green Precinct will go ahead again.
There were two parts to the Cathedral Green Precinct—a power part and a water part. Although the State Government spent a quarter of a million dollars doing a very detailed study of the water side of things, they never got on to power.
Adelaide Local Meeting asked me, as part of its commitment to the Cathedral Green Precinct, to work out the carbon footprint for the Meeting House. The Meeting House is quite an amazing little place. Its carbon usage is very small and the building itself is very old [erected 1840] and made of wood.
I decided to include the carbon embodied in the building as well as the operational carbon. Normally when you do a carbon footprint, you look at the carbon it takes to operate your lifestyle and the building component often gets left out. You don’t tend to look at the materials in the building because a building exists for such a long time that a building is theoretically quite a small component.
I get a bit cranky about the building being left out because, in truth, especially with our modern buildings, they’re not designed to last very long. Therefore the embodied carbon might be a decidedly larger component than you might think, especially with these new lean-up concrete buildings. Concrete in its production is very carbon intensive.
As a result of the audit, the Meeting identified a range of energy, waste and water-saving initiatives. About 4 – 5 years ago, we installed a photovoltaic system of 10 x 205 watt solar panels on the roof of the library and the children’s room at the Meeting House. A Commonwealth Government grant covered roughly half of the cost. The solar panels generate more than the Meeting House’s electricity requirements for most of the year. One of the grant requirements was to maintain a website that included details of our photovoltaic system. This can be viewed on my website www.deltaenvironmental.com.au/archives/Solar/Index.htm
The Meeting has adopted the principle that when a piece of equipment, like the fridge, dies, we’ll replace it with one with a lower energy use. Being ‘conservation-conscious’ Quakers, we realise that there’s embodied carbon in the appliance, so we wouldn’t throw out a working fridge! The Premises Committee have been asked to only buy good quality items, so the embodied carbon doesn’t become an issue.
Also as a result of the audit we looked at water usage and put in rainwater tanks. We now direct all water in excess of the rainwater tanks into the spoon drains surrounding the Meeting House. The run-off in the spoon drains has been redirected away from the storm water discharge to the street and now goes into giant underground tanks beneath the parking area of our neighbour, St Mark’s College. These underground tanks can store over 90,000 litres of water. The work to connect our storm water to St Mark’s tanks was part of the recent refurbishment of the Meeting House driveway, jointly conducted through a Memorandum of Agreement with our neighbours, St Mark’s College and St Peter’s Cathedral. Thus our ‘widow’s mite of water’ helps maintain the aesthetic amenity of the streetscape of Pennington Terrace, through our neighbour’s extensive gardens.