Tulsa, 1921. You will hear about this all weekend if you haven’t already. Tulsa happened and we need to acknowledge that it did. It was not one of our finer moments. In fact just the opposite. Tulsa is what hate can bring. It is what demonizing other people can cause. In a short span of time over 300 innocent people died, hundreds injured, hundreds rounded up like cattle. Why? Because they were black and successful. This is why we should not tolerate hate speech. And why there should be consequences for same. Remember the past so we can avoid it in the future.
The troubling aspect of that is that Governing magazine reports that many state are likely to see less revenue in 2017 vs 2016. Governing‘s analysis of projected 2017 budget data from the National Association of State Budget Officers shows shows states now have a median 4.9 percent of annual expenditures saved for the fiscal year, down from 5.1 percent the previous year. Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey and North Dakota have no reserves as of 2017. They add to Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Montana who had no reserves last year. And Alaska that is burning though theirs. Economic and tax policies are to blame. The Kansas solution to cut taxes to create economic growth has not worked. The state continues to get farther behind and it is becoming harder to pretend all is well. Having no reserves is a crazy bad idea. It is hard to explain just how crazy bad this idea is – it means that if a negative economic issue occurs, these states are in huge trouble unless they start cutting education and other essential services. The best way to get out of a budget hole is not cutting education – the one thing needed to dig out and attract new economic activity. Clearly these officials did not learn from 2008-2011 when there reserves were depleted to address the economic downturn. That makes no sense and dooms their residents to a repeat of 2009/2010, only worse.
The average is 4% of visible infrastructure is in poor condition. Actually 4-6% depending on the municipality. And this was visible infrastructure, not buried, but there is not particular reason to believe the below ground infrastructure is somehow far worse off. Or better. That 4-6% is infrastructure that needs to be fixed immediately, which means that as system deteriorate, there is catch –up to do. The good news is many of the visible problems were broken meter boxes, damaged valve boxes, broken curbs and broken cleanouts- minor appearing issues, but ones that likely require more ongoing maintenance that a water main. And the appearance may be somewhat symptomatic – people perceive that the system is rundown, unreliable or poorly maintained when they see these problems. It raises a “Tipping Point” type discussion. “Tipping Points” Is a book written by Malcolm Gladwell that I read last year (great book – my wife found it in a book exchange for free in Estes Park last summer). It was along a similar vein of thought as the Freakanomics books – the consequences of certain situations may be less clear than one thinks. The Tipping point that is most relevant is crime in New York in the early 1990s after Bernard Goetz shot several assailants in the subway. The problem was significant and the subways were thought to be among the higher risk areas. The new police chief and Mayor decided that rather that ignore the petty crimes (like many large cities do), they would pursue those vigorously. So fare hopping on the train and the like were challenged immediately. They decided that no graffiti would be visible on the subways and cleaned cars every night to insure this remained the case. Cars with graffiti were immediately removed from service. New subway cars were ordered. Pride and public confidence improved. Crime dropped. The impact of their efforts was that people recognized that criminal behavior would not be tolerated and fairly quickly criminal activity decreased. It was a big success story, but the underlying reasons were less discussed, but easily transferrable to our infrastructure. If we have broken valve boxes, meters, cleanouts, storm drains etc., the same perceptions of a rundown community rise. Rundown communities lead to a loss of public confidence and trust and pride. And none of those help our mission or our efforts to increase infrastructure spending. 4% might not look like much, but it can drastically change the perception of the community. So let’s start to fix those easy things; and document that we did in our asset management programs.
Speaking of water supply problems, welcome to Flint, Michigan. There have been a lot of coverage in the news about the troubles in Flint the last couple of months. However if you read between the lines you see two issues – first this is not new – it is several years old, going back to when the City’s water plant came back on line in May 2014. Second this was a political/financial issue not a public health issue. In fact, the political/financial goals appear to have been so overwhelming, that the public health aspects were scarcely considered. Let’s take a look at why.
Flint’s first water plant was constructed in 1917. The source was the Flint River. The second plant was constructed in 1952. Because of declining water quality in the Flint River, the city, in 1962, had plans to build a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint, but a real estate scandal caused the city commission to abandon the pipeline project in 1964 and instead buy water from the City of Detroit (source: Lake Huron). Flint stopped treating its water in 1967, when a pipeline from Detroit was completed. The City was purchasing of almost 100 MGD. Detroit declared bankruptcy. The City of Flint was basically bankrupt. Both had appointed receivers. Both receivers were told to reduce costs (the finance/business decisions). The City of Flint has purchased water for years from Detroit as opposed to using their Flint River water plant constructed in 1952. The Flint WTP has been maintained as a backup to the DWSD system, operating approximately 20 days per year at 11 MGD.
The City of Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) in 2010. The KWA consists of a group of local communities that decided to support and fund construction of a raw water pipeline to Lake Huron. The KWA was to provide the City of Flint Water Treatment Plant with source water from Lake Huron. An engineer’s report noted that a Genesee County Drain Commissioner stated that one of the main reasons for pursuing the KWA supply was the reliability of the Detroit supply given the 2003 power blackout that left Flint without water for several days. Another issue is that Flint no say in the rate increases issued to Flint by Detroit. Detroit’s bankruptcy may also have been a factor given the likelihood of increased prices. While discussion were ongoing for several years thereafter, the Detroit Free Press reported a 7-1 vote in favor of the KWA project by Flint’s elected officials in March, 2013. The actual agreement date was April 2013. The cost of the pipeline was estimated to be $272 million, with Flint’s portion estimated at $81 million.
The City of Detroit objected due to loss of revenues at a time when a receiver was trying to stabilize the city’s finances (in conjunction with the State Treasurer). In February 2013, the engineering consulting firm of Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull, Inc. (TYJT), at the request of the State Treasurer, performed an analysis of the water supply options being considered by the City of Flint. The preliminary investigation evaluated the cost associated with the required improvements to the plant, plus the costs for annual operation and maintenance including labor, utilities, chemicals and residual management. They indicated that the pipeline cost was likely low and Flint’s obligation could be $25 million higher and that there was less redundancy in the KWA pipeline than in Detroit’s system. In 2013, the City of Detroit made a final offer to convince Flint to stay on Detroit water with certain concessions. Flint declined the final Detroit offer. Immediately after Flint declined the offer, Detroit gave Flint notice that their long-standing water agreement would terminate in twelve months, meaning that Flint’s water agreement with Detroit would end in April 2014 but construction of KWA was not expected to be completed until the end of 2016.
It should be noted that between 2011 and 2015, Flint’s finances were controlled by a series of receivers/emergency managers appointed by the Governor. Cutting costs was a major issue and clearly their directive from the Governor. Cost are the major issue addressed in the online reports about the issue. Public health was not.
An engineering firm was hired as the old Flint River plan underwent $7 million in renovations in 2014 to the filters to treat volumes of freshwater for the citizens. The project was designed to take water from the Flint River for a period of time until a Lake Huron water pipeline was completed. The City of Flint began using the Flint River as a water source in May of 2014 knowing that treatment would need to be closely watched since the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, and the City of Flint Utilities Department conducted a source water assessment and determined the susceptibility of potential contamination as having a very high susceptibility to potential contaminant sources (take a look at this photo and see what you think).
Flows were designed for 16 MGD. Lime softening, sand filters and disinfection were in place. Everything sounded great. But it was not. Immediately, in May and August of 2014, TTHM samples violated the drinking water standards. This means two things – total organic carbon (TOC) in the water and additional chlorine being added to disinfect and probably reduce color caused by the TOC. Softening does not remove TOC. Filtration is not very effective either. High concentration usually needs granular activated carbon, ion exchange or membranes. The flint plant had none of these, so the carbon staying in the water. To address the TTHM issue, chlorine appears to have been reduced as the TTHM issue was in compliance by the next sampling event in Nov 2014. However, in the interim new violations included a total coliform and E. coli in August and September of 2014, and indication of inadequate disinfection. That means boil your water and lots of public outcry. The pH, salinity (salt) and other parameters were reported to be quite different than the Detroit water as well. A variable river system with upstream agriculture, industry and a high potential for contamination, is not nearly as easy to treat as cold lake water. These waters are very different as they City was to find. What this appears to indicate is that the chemistry profile and sampling prior to conversion and startup does not appear to have been fully performed to identify the potential for this to occur or this would have been discovered. This is now being suggested in the press.
The change in water quality and treatment created other water quality challenges that have resulted in water quality violations. Like most older northern cities, the water distribution system in almost 100 years old. As with many other municipalities at the time, all of the service lines from the cast iron water mains (with lead joints) to end users homes were constructed with lead goosenecks and copper lines. Utilities have addressed this with additive to prevent corrosion. In the early 1990s water systems were required to comply with the federal lead and copper rule. The concept was that on the first draw of water in the morning, the lead concentration should not exceed 0.015 mg/L and copper should not exceed 1.3 mg/L. Depending on the size of the utility, sampling was to be undertaken twice and a random set of hoses, with the number of samples dependent on the size of the system. The sampling was required to be performed twice, six months apart (note routine sampling has occurred since then to insure compliance). Residents were instructed on how to take the samples, and results submitted to regulatory agencies. If the system came up “hot” for either compound, the utility was required to make adjustments to the treatment process. Ideally water leaving the plant would have a slightly negative Langlier saturation index (LSI) and would tend to slightly deposit on pipes. Coupon tests could be conducted to demonstrate this actually occurred. As they age, the pipes develop a scale that helps prevent leaching. Most utilities tested various products. Detroit clearly did this and there were no problems. Flint did not.
The utility I was at was a perfect 100% non-detects the first time were tested. We had a few detections of lead and copper in samples the second time which really bothered me since the system was newer and we had limited lead in the lines. I investigated this and found that the polyphosphate had been changed because the County purchasing department found a cheaper product. I forced them to buy the old stuff, re-ran the tests and was again perfect. We instructed our purchasing department that saving a few bucks did not protect the public health, but the polyphosphate product did. Business and cost savings does not trump public health! Different waters are different, so you have to test and then stay with what works.
Now fast forward to Flint. They did not do this testing. The Flint River water was different that Detroit’s. Salinity, TOC, pH and overall quality differed. Accommodations were not made to address the problem and the state found no polyphosphates were added to protect the coatings. Veolia reported that the operations needed changes and operators needed training. Facilities were needed to address quality concerns (including granular activated carbon filter media). As a result the City appears to have sent corrosive water into the piping system, which dissolved the scale that had developed over the years, exposing raw metal, and created the leaching issue. Volunteer teams led by Virginia Tech researchers reported found that at least a quarter of Flint households have levels of lead above the federal level of 15 ppb, and as high as 13,200 ppb. Aging cast-iron pipe compounded the situation, leading to aesthetic issues including taste, odor and discoloration that result from aggressive water (brown water). Once the City started receiving violations, public interest and scrutiny of the drinking water system intensified.
The City Commission reportedly asked the receiver to switch back to Detroit water, but that request was initially rebuffed and the damage to pipes continued. Finally in October 2015, the water supply was switched back to Detroit and the City started adding additional zinc orthophosphate in December 2015 to facilitate the buildup of the phosphate scale eroded from the pipes by the Flint River water. But that means the pipes were stable, then destabilized, now destabilized again by the switch back. It will now take some time for the scale to rebuild and to lower lead levels, leaving the residents of Flint at risk because of a business/finance/political decision that had not consideration of public health impacts. And what is the ultimate fate of the KWA pipeline?
Just when things were starting to look up (?), in January 2016, a hospital in Flint reported that low levels of Legionnaires’ disease bacteria were discovered in the water system and that 10 people have died and another 77 to 85 affected. From the water system? A disinfection problem? Still TOC in the water? The lawsuits have begun but where does the problem lie? Let’s look at Walkerton Ontario for guidance in the aftermath of their 2000 incident.
First it is clear that public health was not the primary driver for the decisions. Treating water is not as simple as cost managers think. You need to understand what water quality, piping quality and stabilization you have and address the potential issues with new water sources. Membrane systems are very familiar with these challenges. Cost cannot be the driver. The Safe Drinking Water Act does not say cost is a consideration you use to make decisions. Public health is. So the initial decision-making appears to have been flawed. Cost was a Walkerton issue – cost cannot be the limiting factor when public health is at risk.
The guidance from consultants or other water managers is unclear. If the due diligence of engineers as to water quality impacts of the change in waters was not undertaken, the engineering appears to have been flawed. If the engineer recommended, and has lots of documentation saying testing should be done, but also a file full of accompanying denials from the receivers, another flawed business decision that fails the public health test. If not, I see a lawsuit coming against the consultants who failed in their duty to protect the public health, safety and welfare.
The politics is a problem. A poor community must still get water and sewer service. Consultants that can deal with rate and fee issues should be engaged to address fairness and pricing burdens. Was this done? Or was cutting costs the only goal? Unclear. The politics was a Walkerton issue.
Was the water being treated properly? Water quality testing would help identify this. Clearly there were issues with operations. Telling the state phosphates were used when they were not, appears to be an operations error. Walkerton also had operations issues as well. A major concern when public health is at risk. Veolia came to a similar conclusion.
The state has received its share of blame in the press, but do they deserve it? The question I have is what does the regulatory staff look like? Has it been reduced as the state trims its budget? Are there sufficient resources to insure oversight of water quality? The lack of provincial resources to monitor water quality was an issue in Walkerton – lack of oversight compounded local issues. That would then involve the Governor and Legislature. Politics at work. Likewise was there pressure applied to make certain decisions? If so, politics before public heath – a deadly combination.
So many confounding problems, but what is clear is that Flint is an example of why public utilities should be operated with public health at the forefront, not cost or politics. Neither cost of politics protect the public health. While we all need finances to pay for our needs, in a utility, money supports the operations, not controls it. We seems to have that backward. Private entities look sat controlling costs. Public agencies should look at public service first; cost is down the list. We need the operations folks to get the funds needed to protect the public health. And then we need to get the politicians to work with the staff to achieve their needs, not limit resources to cut costs for political gain. Ask the people in Flint.
So is Flint the next Walkerton? Will there be a similar investigation by outside unconnected people? Will the blame be parsed out? Is there a reasonable plan for the future? The answers to these questions would provide utilities with a lot of lessons learned and guidance going forward and maybe reset the way we operate our utilities. Happy to be a part of it if so!
In my last blog I introduced our ethics project we hope to make progress on. But here is one of the interesting questions, especially in Florida. I could not find any actual laws or rules issues here, but it is increasingly common for big engineering contracts to have lawyers, lobbyists, etc. get involved in what is intended to be a qualifications based selection process? There is an interesting issue raised in 287.055 FS (CCNA) where the legal intent is that governmental agencies “shall negotiate a contract with the most qualified firm for professional services at compensation which the agency determines is fair, competitive, and reasonable.” Most states use credentials and qualifications for selection as opposed to cost, because the lowest cost may not get you the best job. You want people doing engineering that have experience with the type of project you are doing. This has come up to me with storage tanks, membrane plans, deep wells, etc. You want someone that has done it before, not someone who is cheaper but hasn’t. There is too much at risk.
In addition the statute is fairly specific about contingent fees (as are most states):
Ch 287.055 (6) PROHIBITION AGAINST CONTINGENT FEES.—
(a) Each contract entered into by the agency for professional services must contain a prohibition against contingent fees as follows: “The architect (or registered surveyor and mapper or professional engineer, as applicable) warrants that he or she has not employed or retained any company or person, other than a bona fide employee working solely for the architect (or registered surveyor and mapper, or professional engineer, as applicable) to solicit or secure this agreement and that he or she has not paid or agreed to pay any person, company, corporation, individual, or firm, other than a bona fide employee working solely for the architect (or registered surveyor and mapper or professional engineer, as applicable) any fee, commission, percentage, gift, or other consideration contingent upon or resulting from the award or making of this agreement.” For the breach or violation of this provision, the agency shall have the right to terminate the agreement without liability and, at its discretion, to deduct from the contract price, or otherwise recover, the full amount of such fee, commission, percentage, gift, or consideration.
So here is the question: As the public becomes more aware of these types of political lobbying activities, does it move the perception of engineers away from a profession and more towards profession toward developers, lawyers and others who are often seen as less ethical than perhaps engineer, doctors, educators, and scientists? And if so, is this good for either the engineering profession or the local governments (and their utilities) involved in the selection process? The comment that “that’s how business get done” is not an acceptable argument when the priority purpose of engineers, and utility operators is the protection of the HEALTH, SAFETY AND WELFARE OF THE PUBLIC. Somehow I think the politicizing of engineering contracts does not help our profession. Looking forward to your thoughts.
So as 2016 starts, it is time to look at goals for the coming year. I have several project in mind that I would like to make progress on this year. The first is interesting. We have embarked on a project that looks at engineering ethics. The study have several parts:
- Historical context
- Engineering societies
- Laws and rules by the state
- Future directions
One of my reference points is an old publication from ASCE by Murray Mantell, who I got to know about 15 years ago. He wrote such a book in 1964 when he was char of the University of Miami’s Department of Civil Engineering. I believe he has since passed on, but I have used his book in some of my courses.
Other references come from contact with the Board of Professional Engineers in each state and various society’s code of ethics, and historical versions of same. However a “hole” in our project is the perceptions piece. Views change with time and with technology. Things like competition, lobbying, risk and costs create added pressures on engineers and a need to react to those pressures. So what we would like to do is create a survey monkey survey for engineers, professional and not to respond to as a means to evaluate perceptions.
I do not have ready access to a database for this purpose. Gathering data form many states would be difficult as well and duplicative as many engineers have multiple licenses. However, your organization does not have this constraint. So I am reaching out to several societies to see if there is a means to collaborate on this endeavor. The program is as follows:
- Complete the questionnaire (I have a draft but if anyone has thoughts on what we should ask, I would love to hear them)
- Make any final changes and launch it
- Send notices to members.
I am hoping that some of these organizations will find benefit and will agree to participate by emailing the survey link to their members. I will compile the data and we expect to publish it. Most of the work so far is being done via email, and thanks to some prior students for gathering information on it. I have a ways to go here though. So what are your thoughts? If anyone can help with ASCE, NSPE, ACEC, etc, I would appreciate it. And if you get that email with a link, I would appreciate your input and comments.
Most states were doing pretty well before the 2008 recession hit, but that ended in 2009. Most states had to make extremely difficult cuts or raise taxes, which was politically unacceptable. Of course invested pension systems received a lot of attention as their value dropped and long term sufficiency deteriorated, which was fodder for many changes in pensions, albeit not how they were invested. The good news is a lot of them came back in the ensuing 5 years, but 2015 may be different. A number of states have reported low earnings in 2015 and whether this may be the start of another recession. The U.S. economy has averaged a recession every six years since WWII and it has been almost seven years since the last contraction. With China devaluing their currency, this may upset the economic engine. At present there are analysts on Wall Street who suggest that some stocks may be overvalued, just like in 1999. If so, that does not bode well states like Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, Alaska and Pennsylvania that are dealing with significant imbalances between their expenses and incomes. Alaska has most of its revenue tied to oil, so when oil prices go down (good for most of us), it is a huge problem for Alaska that gives $2200 to every citizen in the state. An economic downturn portends poorly for the no tax, pro-business experiment in Kansas that has been unsuccessful in attracting the large influx of new businesses, or even expansion of current ones. California and next door Missouri, often chided by Kansas lawmakers as how not to do business, outperform Kansas.
Ultimately the issue that lawmakers must face at the state and as a result the local level is that tax rates may not be high enough to generate the funds needed to operate government and protect the states against economic down turns. There is a “sweet spot” where funds are enough, to deal with short and long term needs, but starving government come back to haunt these same policy makers when the economy dips. It would be a difficult day for a state to declare bankruptcy because lawmakers refuse to raise taxes and fees.
In an interesting twist of fate, USEPA caused a spill on the Animas River when a staffer accidently breached a dike holding back a solution of heavy metals at the Gold King mine because the misjudged the pressure behind the dike. Pressure? The spill flowed at 500 gpm (0.7 MGD), spilling yellow water spilled into the river. Downstream, the plume has travelled through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and will ultimately hit Lake Mead. Officials, residents, and farmers are outraged. People were told not to drink the water because the yellow water carried at least 200 times more arsenic and 3,500 times more lead than is considered safe for drinking. The conspiracy theorists are out. The pictures are otherworldly.
But they are all missing the point, and the problem. This is one of hundreds of “legacy disasters” waiting to happen. We are just surprised when they actually do. A legacy disaster is one that is predicated on events that have happened in the past, that can impact the future. In some cases the far past. There are two big ones that linger over communities all over the west and the southeast – mines and coal. Now don’t get me wrong, we have used coal and needed metals form mines. That’s ok. But the problem is no one has dealt with the effects of mining or coal ash for many years. And then people are upset. Why? We can expect these issues to happen.
One major problem is that both are often located adjacent to or uphill from rivers. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. The King Gold mine is just the latest. We had recent coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee (TVA, 2008) and the Dan River in 2014 (Duke Power). The Dan River spill was 30-40,000 tons. Kingston cleanup has exceeded a billion dollars. Coal ash is still stored at both places. Next to rivers. We had the federal government build ion exchange facilities in Leadville, CO and Idaho Springs, CO to deal with leaking water from mine tailings from the mountains. Examples are in the hundreds. The photos are of the two coal spills, mine tailings that have been sitting the ground for 140 years in Leadville and one of the stormwater ponds – water is red in Leadville, not yellow.
When the disaster does occur, the federal government ends up fixing it, as opposed those responsible who are usually long gone or suddenly bankrupt, so it is no surprise that EPA and other regulatory folks are often very skeptical of mining operations, especially when large amounts of water are involved. We can predict that a problem will happen, so expensive measures are often required to treat the waste and minimize the potential for damage from spills. That costs money, but creates jobs.
For those long gone or bankrupt problems, Congress passed the Superfund legislation 40 years ago to provide cleanup funds. But Congress deleted funding for the program in the early 2000s because they did not want to continue taxing the business community (mines, power plants, etc.). So EPA uses ARRA funds from 2009. And funding is down from historical levels, which makes some businesses and local communities happy. The spectre of Superfund often impacts potential developers and buyers who are concerned about impacts to future residents. We all remember Love Canals and Erin Brockovich. Lack of development is “bad.” They ignore the thousands or jobs and $31 billion in annual economic activity that cleanup creates, but it all about perception.
But squabbling about Superfund ignores the problem. We continue to stockpile coal ash near rivers and have legacy mine problems. Instead we should be asking different questions:
WHY are these sites permitted to store ash, tailings, and liquids near water bodies in the first place? EPA would not be inspecting them if the wastes were not there.
WHY aren’t the current operators of these mines and power plants required to treat and remove the wastes immediately like wastewater operators do? You cannot have millions of gallons of water, or tons of coal ash appear overnight on a site, which means these potential disasters are allowed to fester for long periods of time. Coal ash is years. Mine tailings… well, sometimes hundreds of years.
One resident on the news was reported to have said “Something should be done, something should be done to those who are responsible!” Let’s start with not storing materials on site, next to rivers. Let’s get the waste off site immediately and disposed of in a safe manner. Let’s recover the metals. Let’s start with Gold King mine. Or Duke Power. Or TVA.
There is an interesting ethical issues that arises in this discussion also. Engineers are entrusted to protect the public health, safety and welfare. When there were few people, projects did not impact many so little thought was given to the “what could possible happen” question. We are still paying for that. When bad things happen, the precedent has unfortunately been set that somehow “the government” will resolve this. An old 1950s BOR director said he thought he was “a hero because he helped create more room for people” in the west with dams and water projects. He did accomplish that, except that while there were more people coming, the resources were never analyzed for sustainability, nor the impact it might have on the existing or potential future economic resources. But once the well runs dry, I think we just assumed that another solution would resolve any issue. But what is if doesn’t?
There are many water supply examples, where we have engineered solutions that have brought water or treated water to allow development. South Florida is a great example – we drained half a state. But no one asked if that development was good or appropriate – we drained off a lot of our water supply in the process and messed up the ecological system that provided a lot of the recharge. No one asked in the 1930 if this was a good idea.
Designing/building cities in the desert, designing systems that pump groundwater that does not recharge, or design systems that cannot be paid for by the community – we know what will happen at some point. Now that there are more people, conflicts become more likely and more frequent. Most times engineers are not asked to evaluate the unintended consequences of the projects they build. Only to build them to protect the public health safety and welfare while doing so, but from a specific vantage point.
So if you know a project will create a long-term consequence, what action should you take? So the question is whether there is a conflict between engineers meeting their obligations to the public and economic interests in such cases? Or should we just build, build, build, with no consideration of the consequences?
I am working on a book on engineering ethics. My wife and I were talking about the ethical obligations of engineers and how that compares to the medical industry (which she is in). Engineers by canon, creed, code and law, have an obligation to protect the public health, safety and welfare above all else, including their clients and their firms. It is one of the reasons that engineering services provided to the public require a license and why codes exist to help guide design. My wife recently raised an interesting question – if licensure means that you must protect the public health, safety and welfare, can you sign and seal a project for which the consequences are not perfectly known? It harkens back to a lecture I do in my summer environmental science and engineering class – the infamous “What could possibly go wrong?” lecture. In that lecture we look at logging, mining, oil and gas and agriculture. I should note that we need each of these industries and will continue to need them for the foreseeable future, so abandoning any of them is not an acceptable answer. But in each case there are large, historical consequences, as well as current ongoing consequences. Let’s start with logging which fed the rapid development of many cities by providing accessible building materials. And actually let’s just start in the upper half of the state of Michigan where loggers cut timber across the state for over 50 years, eliminating white pines form many areas. The logs were sent down small streams and rivers, many of which had to be altered to take the logs. Rivers like the AuSable and Manistee changed completely afterward (starting with the loss of sweepers, increased siltation, the loss of the grayling (fish), and the need to introduce trout. Siltation is a difficult issue for water plants to deal with. Today the AuSable is a “high quality fishing water” with open fishing season, but limits of zero trout kept in many places or only really large fish (rare in cold water), which means catch and release only, which sounds more like – “not enough fish, so put them back” as opposed to high quality fishing waters. We needed the logs, but the impacts of logging were never considered and 150 years later, we still suffer the effects. Few engineers were involved.
Next we look at mining. Again we needed the gold, silver, lead, iron, etc. from the mines. The gold rushes started in the 1840s and expanded across the west. Material was dug out, metals processed and mines abandoned. The tailings from these mines STILL leach metals into waterways. The metals content remains toxic to ecology and to us in drinking water, and will continue be so for years. Metals are often expensive to remove via treatment. Sometimes the situation is serious enough that the federal government will construct treatment plants to protect downstream waters (drinking waters for people), as they have done in Leadville and Idaho Springs, Colorado. The tailings issue will be with us for years, which is why the mining industry is subject to regulations today. Maybe we learned something? Engineers have become more involved with mining with time, but historically, not so much.
With agriculture (Ag) the big issue is runoff and siltation. Siltation has increases as more property is farmed. The runoff also contains pesticides herbicides, and fertilizers, which impact downstream ecological sites, as well as creating difficulty for water treatment. Ag is largely unregulated with respect to runoff and best management practices are often lacking. The results include dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. Engineers try to deal with water quality issues in rivers and streams, but the lack of ability to effect changes with Ag practices is limiting. There are situations like Everglades where the engineers did exactly what was asked (drain it), but no one asked the consequences (lack of water supply), or the impact of farming north of the Everglades (nutrients).
The Everglades results, along with the unknowns associated with fracking (primarily surface and transport) brought the question to my wife — should an engineer sign off on a project for which the consequences are uncertain, unstudied or potentially damaging the public health safety and welfare, like fracking wells, or oil/gas pipelines across the arctic (or Keystone)? Engineers design with the best codes and intentions and clearly the goal is to design to protect the public, but she has a great point – when you know there are uncertainties, and you know there are unknowns that could impact public health, safety and/or welfare, or which could create significant impacts, should we be signing off? I am not so sure. What are your thoughts?