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Modern-day builders protect ancient treasure

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs
It's an interesting dichotomy of sorts -- a huge, 4-story state-of-the art, steel-and-concrete structure under construction just yards away from delicate, precarious, protected sea turtle nests that grace the seashore here.

The Air Force Technical Applications Center's new headquarters is taking shape, thanks to the construction efforts of Hensel Phelps, the project's main contractor. Since January, workers have been hauling dirt, concrete, steel and heavy equipment to the site, forming the foundation of AFTAC's future home.

The main structure, a 276,000 square foot complex that will house the majority of AFTAC's 1,000 personnel, has reached a point where Hensel Phelps prefers to pour concrete on the upper levels of the structure early in the morning to avoid afternoon rain. To accommodate working in the pre-dawn hours, Hensel Phelps installed temporary lighting, approximately thirty 75-watt light fixtures to provide the correct amount of illumination for safety requirements.

And although those fixtures provide much needed brightness to the crews, they also pose a significant threat to the sea turtles that call the beaches of Patrick Air Force Base home.

The turtles dig their nests in the cool sand along the dunes adjacent to the base. In two months, the eggs hatch and the baby turtles make their way to the ocean under the cover of darkness. The hatchlings rely on natural light -- the stars and the moon -- to make their way to the surf.

But in areas where artificial light is visible, the hatchlings' critical journey of survival can be disrupted, and the turtles will find themselves disoriented or lost, and consequently far away from the sanctuary of the ocean.

To protect and preserve the ancient sea life as well as adhere to ordinances that govern coastal construction, Hensel Phelps erected large tarps across the massive steel beams that form the frame of AFTAC's new headquarters building. The tarps are thick enough to prevent light from emanating towards the shoreline, but lightweight enough to allow the workers access to their work areas.

"As anxious as we are to see this facility built as quickly and efficiently as possible, we also recognize the need to respect the beautiful sea life and protect their natural habitat," said Scott Shelby, Hensel Phelps project manager. "Many of the workers here on site call Brevard County home, and they have just as much a vested interest in protecting the turtles as the rest of the community. It's important we strike a healthy, environmental-friendly balance, which I think we've done here."

Over the years, the 45th Space Wing here has been lauded for its concerted efforts to protect the sea turtle nests along the nearly 5-mile stretch of beach adjacent to the main base, as well as the 13 miles of shoreline at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

According to the 45th Space Wing's Environmental Flight, five percent of Florida's sea turtles nest on Patrick AFB's beaches. The base averages more than 1,000 nests a year, and Cape Canaveral AFS averages more than 2,000.

"The Air Force is diligent in protecting sea turtles, and makes an extra effort to reduce or eliminate adverse affects from construction projects and base activities," said Keitha Datillo-Bain, Patrick AFB's environmental planner. "The wing has had a good relationship with the regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services because we want to be proactive and strive to find the middle ground between our mission and natural resource protection."

AFTAC's military construction project manager echoed Datillo-Bain's sentiment.

"The turtle nests already face a number of natural challenges," said Jeff Barrows. "We need to be especially considerate of their nesting habitat during this time of the year."

Pre-dawn construction, light mitigating measures are expected to last until Oct. 31, when sea turtle season officially ends.