Annals of Environmental Lawsuits

April 24, 2015

long-key-viaduct

I have commented before on some strange lawsuits generated by environmental concerns, so this one, centered on the “Overseas Highway” that linked Key West, Florida to the mainland, came as an amusing surprise:

1926 – Monroe County citizens overwhelmingly approve a $2.5 million bond issue to launch construction of an “Overseas Highway.”

1927 – A severe winter, followed by a cool summer in northern Europe, causes charges that dredging and filling for the Over-Sea Railroad bed had caused a change in the path of the Gulf Stream. Europeans charge Flagler with displacing their climate control, but the U.S. Hydrographic Bureau and the Weather Bureau find no reason to believe the Key West Extension has shifted the Gulf Stream in any way.

I found out about this while reading Water to the Angelsa history of William Mullholland and the aqueduct he built.  The Times gives it a tepid review, but as a civil engineer who was inspired to enter the profession by men like Mullholland, I found it a good read.  And then there’s that bit about the film Chinatown…  No surprise, but the historical facts are a bit different.  “Forget it Jake, it’s Hollywood.”  Still a great film though…

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Learning the Lessons of Drainage, Again!

November 30, 2012
Click for Article

Click for Article

The picture is from an article in the New York Times on the havoc wrought on Nassau County’s sewage treatment plants by Hurricane Sandy.  Readers of this blog who have attended to the warnings of the original Lichanos, source of my nom de plume, will not be suprised.

A few excerpts from the Times piece describing what happened when the system went down, my emphasis:

In less than 30 minutes, engines for the plant’s main pumping system were under 12 feet of water, and sewage began to back up and overflow into low-lying homes. In one low-lying neighborhood, a plume of feces and wastewater burst through the street like a geyser.

During heavy rains, there are occasional sewage leaks, particularly in low-lying areas, residents say

For the residents of Barnes Avenue in Baldwin, a low-lying stretch about three miles from the Bay Park plant, the failure during the hurricane was the culmination of their worst fears, though hardly a surprise. …After Tropical Storm Irene sent human waste splashing onto lawns and front porches last year, residents said, the county bolted manhole covers shut to prevent them from opening.

And now, for those of you too lazy to go the source, I reproduce here the most probing and relevant section of Drainage:  The Wine of Life in which Professor Hilton Korngold summarizes The Drainage Crisis.  I have added some emphasis:

… in the probing monograph, “Towards an Interpretation of the Drainage,” . . . Hilton Korngold, describes with disturbing calm the widespread deterioration of urban drainage systems in the Western World. In this work, Korngold writes:

We must arm ourselves with all the material and spiritual forces at our disposal to ensure that this crucial epoch is one of the transcendence into unity of Drainage and Drained or else our culture is doomed to destruction. Extrapolation from our present condition along the lines of Revelation yields a vision of Busting sewer mains and all waters of the world made as wormwood, unfit to drink.  Mankind would be reduced to a primitive state of disunity, neighbor isolated from neighbor by vast surging cataracts of fluid, while the monument of our era’s accomplishments would gradually be submerged beneath festering pools of stagnant runoff. In this hell on earth all laws of sense will be overturned, men will go mad for lack of water to drink, sinks and cisterns will back up onto your floor instead of efficiently disposing of your wastes, and the Power of the Plumber will be null. Men in their frenzy of despair and disbelief will turn the evil upon themselves, building houses at the bottom of hills, in marshes, and along oozing gullys, while the Few Who Know will be the object of arrogant derision. And it is the folly of human inaction which will bring down on us this recapitulation of The Flood.


Political Oracles

November 4, 2012

Cuomo:

Lo, the oracles of science have spoken!  Andrew Cuomo (D) and Michael Bloomberg (I? R? D?) have announced that climate change is responsible for the destruction in metro NYC…er, will be responsible for similar destruction in the future if we don’t act…er, no, contributed to this destruction…etc.

Some have dubbed this sort of media treatment “Tabloid Climatology.”  Most are not interested in what scientists such as Klaus Jacobs and Radley Horton, both associated with GISS and Columbia University have said: that it is difficult to make any credible case that this hurricane/storm was the effect of human contributions to CO2 in the atmosphere over the last hundred years.

As for these politicos who have suddenly got religion, where have they been during the last twenty or thirty years while some of these same scientists, and many engineers and geographers, have been pressing the point that NYC and the region are vulnerable now and not because of climate change, but because of our inaction, bad policy, poor development decisions, and aversion to spending money on capital assets that voters don’t clamor for? Bloomberg in particular, has done nothing, and now he makes a great show of endorsing the right candidate for president for the wrong reason.  I wonder how he feels about Obama’s tax program??  As Pielke observes on his blog:

Yet, Mayor Bloomberg is also an elected leader. What is he going to do about the fact that his city was less prepared than it should have been for a disaster that was expected and one of a sort will certainly recur, climate change or not?

It is a sad reflection of the state of the media and its treatment of science that this excellent piece by Roger Pielke, Jr. could never see the light of day in the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, but must appear in that Rupert Murdock organ, the WSJ. Here’s the intro:

Hurricane Sandy left in its path some impressive statistics. Its central pressure was the lowest ever recorded for a storm north of North Carolina, breaking a record set by the devastating “Long Island Express” hurricane of 1938. Along the East Coast, Sandy led to more than 50 deaths, left millions without power and caused an estimated $20 billion or more in damage.

But to call Sandy a harbinger of a “new normal,” in which unprecedented weather events cause unprecedented destruction, would be wrong. This historic storm should remind us that planet Earth is a dangerous place, where extreme events are commonplace and disasters are to be expected. In the proper context, Sandy is less an example of how bad things can get than a reminder that they could be much worse.


Calatrava White Elephant?

June 27, 2012

I am a civil engineer, so I cannot help but be thrilled at the sight of the Calatrava PATH terminal taking shape (the elliptical foundation in the middle of the photo) beneath my window at World Trade Center site – it will be amazing!  And the memorial park itself is pretty nice too – I visited it for the first time last week.

Of course, the base of the Freedom Tower looks disturbingly like Godzilla’s foot stamping on Bambi, but no matter.  They’ll fancy it up…a bit.

In the end, as I gaze down at the massive construction site, with more people and money moving in and out of it than some entire countries no doubt, I wonder about that PATH building:  let’s forget the money-losing tower for now.  What is it for?  Penn Station handles more than seven times the number of passengers, and this terminal will do nothing to increase capacity.  It will simply look fantastic.  Is it worth $3.5 billion, and counting?  That would buy a lot of nitty-gritty upgrades for the cars and tracks that actually move people around the city.

I have to conclude that it’s a colossal waste of money, what used to be known in architectural circles as a ‘folly’.  All those bridge and train tolls gonna rise…$3.5 billion and counting.  We will pay for the megalomania of the PA NYNJ directors.  From the Wiki article:

A large transit station was not part of the 2003 Memory Foundations master plan for the site by Daniel Libeskind, which called for a smaller station along the lines of the original subterranean station that existed beneath the World Trade Center. Libeskind’s design called for the space to be left open, forming a “Wedge of Light” so that sun rays around the autumnal equinox would hit the World Trade Center footprints each September.

In early 2004, the Port Authority, which owns the land, modified the Libeskind plan to include a world-class transportation station downtown that was intended to rival Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.

For a little perspective, consider that Grand Central, completed in 1913 for $80 million, $1.9 billion today, has 44 platforms, on two levels, and 67 tracks.  It was built with private money, and marked a tremendous advance in the design of complicated rail terminals, besides being a Beaux Arts monument.  The PATH terminal will have, uh…four tracks?

If I go back to using the PATH, I will go from Hoboken, left and center, to NYC, at the right, in the photos below.


The Canal

September 7, 2011

In southwest France, dans le pays Cathar, lies the Canal du Midi, an engineering marvel of the 17th century built by Pierre Paul Riquet.  It was built in only fifteen years (no machines, of course) when Riquet was in his sixties, and despite the backing of Louis XIV and his minister, Colbert, many thought it would never be done.  The motivation was simple:  connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and cut out the part of the sea route that requires sailing around the entire Iberian peninsula when shipping goods.  It starts near Narbonne on the sea, and moves roughly west to Toulouse, where it meets the Garonne Canal that was built earlier.  Once it was complete, it became a tremendously important link in the commercial network that was retired only with the coming of the railroads.

Canals often have to have locks to allow barges to negotiate the drops in elevation that can’t be avoided on route, and in the 1670s, the design of locks had approached what is used today.  What was unusual about the Canal du Midi was the that is followed a course with a pronounced peak along its course (see below) so that water in the channel would be flowing in two directions at once:  to the Mediterranean; and to the Atlantic.  That meant that there had to be a constant source of water at the summit, not an easy thing to supply in a region that is often parched in the summer.  This is why Riquet’s proposal met with such scepticism.

Riquet solved the problem by capturing the flow from the Montagne Noire, where there were several large streams that became torrents in the winter.  He built a large dam and created a huge reservoir at Naurouze that keeps the water flowing nicely all the year ’round.  If you’re into this sort of thing, you can learn all the details in From Sea to Sea by L.T. C.  Rolt.

Today the canal is just for leisure:  walking, biking, and exploring on boat and barge trips.  Here’s a picture of where we rented bikes, a picturesque spot in la France profonde (deep France).

There are places where it a stream crossed the route of the canal, so a pont canal, a canal bridge, was created to carry the water road over the water!  The images below show the canal from the level of the tow path, and on the right, from the stream.  If you look closely at the second picture, you can just make out a boat crossing the stream at the midpoint of the bridge.

Here’s a better view of a barge crossing the water bridge over the stream.  This one happens to have been built by Vauban, of fortification renown, after Riquet had died.

There are many lovely structures on the canal, including bridges like this one that, more conventionally, carry roads over the water.  When I was there, kids were doing backflips into the water off of it.


Good morning, Irene

August 27, 2011

Too late, now!

click for info


Philly Water Works

March 27, 2011

W. C. Fields famously composed a humorous epitaph for himself:  “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”  I found myself there this weekend, a beautiful, cold crisp Saturday of a murderous weekend.  I was in town for a family affair and I had a few free hours, so I decided to pay a visit to the art museum.  The huge temple front in the image above is the museum,  which I think is known to millions from the film, Rocky, which I have not seen.

The museum sits on the former site of the city water supply reservoir.  The buildings in the foreground are the Fairmont Waterworks that pumped fresh water from Schuylkill River (pronounced Skool-kill, I think) to the old reservoir, from which it flowed by gravity to the city.  Philadelphians of the early 19th century did not share Fields’ disdain for fresh water (I never drink water.  Fish fuck in it), and the waterworks was a much heralded addition to the city.  In fact, it became an international tourist attraction, which says something about the state of urban life in those days.  A large city with a steady supply of clean, fresh water!

Today, we tuck our essential, life-giving infrastructure out-of-the-way, in dull, nondescript, anonymous architecture.   The Fairmont works are housed in a glorious Palladian ensemble, and are backed by landscaped grounds and terraces that have recently been restored.  The views from the rock heights as you walk the cliff side promenades are fabulous.

An interesting technical note about the water works is that the pumps were originally powered by steam engines, but these were taken out of service, and replaced by water wheels.  In the 1850s, water turbines were introduced to power the pumps.   So often the progression goes in the opposite direction!

The city fathers were quite far-sighted about their water supply.  They knew that urban development could lead to the fouling of the Schuylkill, so they purchased large amounts of land to prevent the establishment of industrial facilities along the river.  These areas become Fairmount Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world.  Nevertheless, development did occur further upstream, and the inevitable industrial pollution and raw sewage found its way down to the water works, destroying the purity of the source.  Philadelphia suffered from a horrific cholera epidemic in the 1890s, and in the early 20th century, the works were decommissioned and water was taken from the river and fed into a sand filtration system.  A few years later, chlorination was introduced, and the cholera bug was beaten.

The waterworks fell into a dilapidated state.  When my wife was a girl, she took free art classes in the engine house which was used by the parks department.  When I visited the site many years ago – making a pilgrimage to a civil engineering landmark – it was derelict, but now it has been wonderfully restored.

After making my professional pilgrimage to the waterworks, I proceeded to the museum where I had a enough time to race through the corridors to the Duchamp room for a different sort of homage.