Water treatment

Many communities that have issue with older infrastructure may suffer from loss of economic opportunities (Flint, Detroit, Cleveland).  This compounds the problem with local capacity for maintenance and report of infrastructure. Many of these issues result from the lack of funding due to the unwillingness of local officials to raise water rates and address hidden infrastructure. Others may feel limited due to the loss of economic activity – Rust Belt cities and the northeast are older; inner cities may be more impacted.  Different areas of the country will have different needs and maybe different magnitudes of need.  Rural communities may not have funding to replace infrastructure.  The first community that abandoned their system was rural.  Newer communities with newer pipe will have far less needs today, but few are taking steps to avoid the infrastructure pitfalls that have hit older communities.  Ultimately these conditions make for a huge backlog of deferred infrastructure investments, mostly in pipe and service lines beneath roads. The only good news is that by correcting the piping, much of the roadway base issues could also be resolved concurrently.

A concurrent problem in the communities hardest hit with infrastructure issues is often that there is pool of skilled labor, but said labor may not be skilled in areas to address their own infrastructure problems.  Likewise youths may be challenged to find work local. The solution to both issues may be similar to that posed by the CETA programs in the late 1970s. In those programs local and state governments were given funds to hire staff to be trained for certain jobs, with the intention that these trained workers would become part of a permanent, expanded workforce.  A similar solution today as a part of an infrastructure bill could be to provide local and state governments for funding for personnel to be trained to perform such work.  The workers could receive training on safety, OSHA issues, and equipment from a local community college or university that would be paid for by the infrastructure bill.  These same people would then be hired by local governments to perform rehabilitation and replacement work, fully funded initially by the federal government s but with an anticipated transition period where by 10 years out, the workforce could be demonstrated to have been expended as a result of the program.

Note that hiring by local governments is a key.  Private sector hiring tends to be job specific and the jobs disappear when the activity moves or ceases.  Hence finding the private sector likely leads only to a temporary increase in labor development.  Local government hiring would more likely increase permanent employment.  The local agencies would need to be given an incentive to encourage this since far too many elected officials see government employment as a negative thing.  This is partly why we have the infrastructure quagmire today.  That attitude needs to change.

The private sector will want their share, and privatization is a confounding issue because people get laid off through privatization and indications are that the middle class gets hurt by privatization (lower wages for the same job).  But the public sector does not manufacture pipe, equipment like backhoes and rollers and other materials would be paid to private vendors in accordance with local and state bid rules.  That would move monies for capital to private vendors.  For large projects the work rules could be applied to contractors much like the ARRA funding requirements – shovel ready and US materials and newly trained staff making up a portion of the work force.  That would meet the tenets of local jobs, fixing local problems with federal dollars for a period of time, perhaps as a mix of grants and low interest loans.

At least 20 years of infrastructure needs exist.  Hence the longer term program could be sustained.  A funding mechanism is in place via state revolving fund programs for a portion of the effort, much like the water, sewer and stormwater funds were channeled through the SRF programs under the ARRA program.  WIFIA and other programs could be used as a dispersal agent, so new bureaucracies would not need to be created.   A prior pattern for implementation is in place and would just need to be “dusted” off an updated.  Bi-partisan support enacted these program in the past and it would seem this would be good for all.

The potential for concern would be raised by private utilities (power, cable, telephone and private water and sewer utilities) which would be effectively shut out of funding, but they are private entities and they have the ability to raise funds on the private equity market.  Capitalism will work well for these organizations, but it does not for most local public works infrastructure systems.  That is why they are public, not private.  Some local governments would resist the requirement to expand the workforce – but that is their choice – a requirement to participate is not implied just as it is not with SRF funds.  Local business communities would likely drive the effort to be involved.

So now we wait and see if anything happens……

Summer Kids – Get them early

FAU sponsors summer camps for middle schoolers on campus. The camps are a week long.  The kids come it and learn about some aspect of civil engineering.  I did two summer camps for civil engineers – I call it the make it and break it camps, because that is what we do.  Make stuff, then break it.  The kids love the breaking part.  We tried out a series of project – dropping eggs from 2 and 5 stories, concrete Frisbees, concrete cylinders, geotechnical fill made of recyclables, did a little surveying, made bridge. Then broke stuff!  They had fun, but it really speaks to a larger issue.

I see the University of Miami recruiting an 8th grader for the football team.  College and pro sports do this all the time (recall they were scouting LeBron James in middle school or earlier).  Why do we not do this in our industry?  Getting middle schoolers on campus is great; they think it is really cool, but we need to keep in contact.  Future camps, seminars, invitations for research participation, helping with clubs, offering classes, mentoring.  All things we need to do to track the kids right into the college and the industry.  If an FAU professor mentors you and puts your name on a paper, you think that kids is going elsewhere?

Sports sees money in athletes, but because only the athletics are spending money, it makes the athletes seem more important than other professions.  But we all need water.  We all need sewer.  We all need many things we take for granted.  So perhaps the colleges and industry needs to think about how we elevate our profession to those kids we want to have become part of our organization.  Most do not have the talent to play sports, so get left out.  But I am convinced that middle school is the place to start recruiting them our way.  High school is too late and they are too distracted by “life.”  Middle schoolers can be “formed” into future water professionals.  Let’s think on that.

Meanwhile enjoy their work….



For your Reading Pleasure….


For those wondering what the big report was going yo say, interesting reading, and a lot like Walkerton – plenty of blame to go around.

Click to access FWATF_FINAL_REPORT_21March2016_517805_7.pdf

And some related articles:

How to Predict the next Flint?

IMG_4803In the last blog we talked about Flint’s water quality problem being brought on by a political/financial decision, not a public health decision.  Well, the news get worse.  Flint’s deteriorated water system is a money thing as well – the community has a lot of poverty and high water bills, so they can’t pay for improvements.  They are not alone.  Utilities all over the country have increasing incidents of breaks, and age related problems. So the real question then is who are the at risk utilities?  Who is the next Flint?  It would be an interesting exercise to see if a means could be developed to identify those utilities at risk for future crises, so we can monitor them in more detail as a means to avoid such crises.

So what would be the measures that might identify the future “Flint?”  These could be things like age of the system, materials used, economic activity trends, income, poverty rate, unemployment rate, utility size, reserves, utility rates, history of rate increases, etc.?  Could these be developed into a means to evaluate risk?  If so, who would use it and how would we address the high risk cases?  I suggest that lenders have means to evaluate this using many of these same measures, but from a risk of events, this method has not been applied.  So I think this would be a useful research project.  So if anyone has some ideas, time or ideas for funding, let me know.  Let’s get rolling!

I was at a recent AWWA technical and Education Council meeting in Denver. One of the major discussions was the issues with lead service lines as highlighted by the current problem in Flint, and how many utilities are now fielding questions about and dealing with lead in their services lines, research that will come for lead, and regulatory requirements for upgrades. One issue that remains unanswered is what happens on the customer’s side of the meter, which may also be lead piping. So removing the utility’s lead service would not solve the lead issue completely, but it will help. But why has lead not been an issue in 25 years? Did it suddenly arise?
While the lead has arisen again as a public health topic, the lead and copper rule has been in effect for nearly 30 years and much of the lead and copper testing was conducted in the early 1990s. Most utilities made water treatment upgrades based the findings from the testing, and utilities have been required to continue to monitor their system ever since. Normally lead levels, even when present, were not a health issue because the zinc orthophosphates and other treatment methods kept the pipe
encapsulated. Others like Cincinnati, Lansing, Madison, Boston and others had ongoing programs to replace lead pipes. 30 years ago in North Carolina we changed out lead goosenecks and galvanized lines rather than replace them – it was just easier.
Most of the folks in the room agreed most utilities have or have such programs and that the number of lead service lines and lead goosenecks on the utility side is
limited. So I suggested that maybe the lesson we should learn from Flint is not about lead service lines, but instead the risks we incur with decision-makers who only look at money when making decisions. Flint’s decision to change water sources was driven by money, not public health.
In fact the report just published indicates that public health was not a real consideration at all. But decisions based on money impacted not only Flint, but Alamosa, CO in 2008, where disinfection was not practiced, and Walkerton,
ONT in 2001 where a Flint like set of decisions cascaded into contamination that killed people. There are utiity systems who contract operations and their contract operator makes decisions based on money, and now there is a distribution system problem. This is a repetitive pattern that has less to do with personnel operating these systems, than decision-makers, who tend to look more at the business case or money as opposed to public health. The lesson we need to learn is that money cannot be the
deciding factor when operating public water and sewer system. And to reduce the chance it happens in the future, perhaps there should be penalties if it does.

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!


So everyone is doing their Top 10 questions for 2016 (although with David Letterman off the air, perhaps less so), I figured why not?  So it the vein of looking forward to 2016, let’s ponder these issues that could affect utilities and local governments:

  1. How wild, or weird will the Presidential election get? And part b, what will that do to America’s status in the world?  Thinking it won’t help us.  Probably won’t help local governments either.
  2. Will the economic recovery keep chugging along? Last time we had an election the economy tanked.  Thinking a major change in direction might create economic uncertainty.  Uncertainty (or panic) would trickle down.  Status quo, probably keeps things moving along.  .
  3. What will the “big” issue be in the election cycle and who will it trickle down to local governments and utilities? In 2008 it was the lack of health care for millions of Americans and the need for a solution. Right after the election we got the Great Recession so most people forgot about the health care crisis until the Affordable are Act was signed into law.  And then ISIS arose from a broken Iraq and Arab summer.  None helped local governments.
  4. What are we going to hear about the 20 richest Americans having more assets than the bottom 150 million residents? 20 vs 150,000,000.  And while we are at it, the top 0.1% have more assets than the bottom 90%, the biggest disparity since the 1920s.  While we will decide that that while hard work should be rewarded, the disparity is in part helped by tax laws, tax shelters, lobbying of politicians, etc. as Warren Buffett points out, indicate a discussion about tax laws will be heard.  Part b – if we do adjust the tax laws, how will we measure how much this helps the bottom 99.9%?
  5. What will be the new technology that changes the way we live? Computers will get faster and smaller.  Phones are getting larger.  Great, but what is the next “Facebook”?  By the way the insurance folks are wondering how the self driving car will affect the insurance industry.  So reportedly is Warren Buffett.  Watch Mr. Buffett’s moves.
  6. Along a similar vein, will the insurance industry start rethinking their current risk policies to look at longer term as opposed to annual risk? If so what does that mean for areas where sea levels are rising?  The North Carolina coast, where sea level rise acceleration is not permitted as a discussion item could get tricky.
  7. Will unemployment (now 5%) continue to fall with associated increases in wages? Will that help our constituents/customers?  Will people use more water as a result?
  8. Where is the next drought? Or flood?  And will the extremes keep on coming?  Already we have record flooding in the Mississippi River in December – not March/April?  Expect February to be a cold, snowy month. IT is upper 80s here.  Snowing in the Colorado Rockies.
  9. Will we continue to break down the silos between water “types” for a more holistic view of water resources? We have heard a bunch on potable reuse systems.  More to come there, especially with sensors and regulations.  But in the same vein, will we develop a better understanding of the link between ecosystems and good water supplies, and encourage lawmakers to protect the wild areas that will keep drinking water cleaner?
  10. Will we get water, sewer, storm water, etc. customers to better understand the true value of water, and therefore get their elected official on board with funding infrastructure neglect? And will that come as a result of better education, a better economy, breaking down those silos, drought (or floods), more extreme event, more breaks or something else?

Happy New Year everyone.  Best to all my friends and followers in 2016!

As technology advances I have an observation, and a question that needs to be asked and answered.  And this could be a pretty interesting question.  Back in the day, say 100 or 150 years ago, there were not so many people.  Many activities occurred where there were few people and impacts on others were minimal.  In some cases ecological damage was significant, but we were not so worried about that because few people were impacted by that ecological damage.  In the 20th century, in urban locations, the impact of one’s activities on others became the basis for zoning laws – limiting what you could do with your property because certain activities negatively impacted others.  And we certainly had examples of this – Cuyahoga River burning for one.  Of course this phenomenon of zoning and similar restrictions was mostly an urban issue because there potential to impact others was more relevant in urban areas.  We also know that major advances in technology and human development tend to occur in population centers (think Detroit for cars, Pittsburgh and Cleveland for steel, Silicon Valley, etc.).  People with ideas tend to migrate to urban areas, increasing the number of people and the proximity to each other.  Universities, research institutions, and the like tend to grow up around these industries, further increasing the draw of talent to urban areas.  The observation is that urban areas tend to have more restrictions on what people do than rural areas.  So the question – do people consciously make the migration to urban areas realizing that the migration for the potential financial gain occur with the quid pro quo of curbing certain freedoms to do as you please?  Of does this artifact occur once they locate to the urban areas?  And is there a lack of understanding of the need to adjust certain activities understood by the rural community, or does it become yet another point of philosophical or political contention?  I have blogged previously about the difference between rural and urban populations and how that may affect the approach of utilities, but read a recent article that suggests that maybe urban citizens accept that financial gains potential of urban areas outweighs the need to limit certain abilities to do as you please to better the entire community.  They are motivated by potential financial opportunities that will increase their standing and options in the future.  So does that mean urban dwellers understand the financial tradeoff differently than rural users?  Or is it a preference issue.  And how does this translate to providing services like water to rural customers, who often appear to be more resistant to spending funds for improvements?  While in part their resistance may be that their incomes tend to be lower, but is their community benefit concern less – i.e. they value their ability to do as they please more than financial opportunities or the community good?  I have no answer, but suggest that this needs some further study since the implications may be significant as rural water systems start to approach their life cycle end.

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?

photo 4IMG_6527 (2015_03_08 17_53_48 UTC)

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