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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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.


How safe is safe enough?

November 20, 2009

  

We don’t do very well at dealing with risk and uncertainty. Maybe because it’s so darn scary!  Risk means danger, and uncertainty only adds to our fear, even if the risk, as a quantitative value, is very small!  Here we have an example of small risks attacked with big solutions that cost lots of money!

The marvelous water supply system of New York City brings some of the best tasting and safest drinking water in the world to nine million people, mostly in the city’s five boroughs.  It directs nearly 1.5 billion gallons per day (bgd) from a reservoirs system in upstate New York,  90% of which from the Catskill-Delaware systems about 90 miles from Manhattan.  The City is now spending approximately $3 billion to build an ultraviolet disinfection plant for the water supply, and to build a cover over the Hillview Reservoir, one of the last holding points for the supply.  That’s a lot of money, even in NYC!  What are we getting for it?

Except for the 10% from the East-of-Hudson reservoirs just north of the city, the water is unfiltered.  It is of such high quality, and spends so much time in enormous reservoirs, that it does not require cleaning.  Cities that draw their water from the ground or from rivers, gaaaggg!, must carefully filter the water.  The water is disinfected with chlorine to kill harmful bugs (pathogens), like the ones that used to cause cholera and typhus epidemics.  The water is safe!  Why the UV plant?

With the advance of public health science, new “disease vectors” have been identified.  In water supply, the latest are cryptosporidium and giardia, two very tiny critters that can cause intestinal disorders in humans, and if the victims have compromised immune systems, possibly lead to death.  These bugs are not killed by chlorine, but people can protect themselves by drinking boiled water.  They are very rare in NYC water.  There has never been a documented outbreak of any public health risk in NYC due to these bugs.  They can be serious risk in many small and improperly run water suppliers, especially those in agricultural areas, where farm animals produce lots of manure with the bugs that may get washed into water supply areas.  UV sterilizes the tiny bugs, preventing them from reproducing, which is as good as killing them.  Nobody has found a good way to kill them, other than boiling them, which is obviously impractical for 1.5 bgd.

So, we are spending $1.4 billion on a UV plant to eliminate a bug that is rare and impossible to monitor, which has never caused a disease outbreak in NYC, and from which the few at higher risk can protect themselves by drinking boiled water?  There was a serious outbreak about ten years ago in Milwaukee, but that system had a malfunctioning filter (which would normally capture the bugs) and happened during an extreme weather event that would not have a similar effect on NYC’s huge system.  In addition, NYC has a strict watershed protection program in place, which is why the US EPA does not require it to filter most of its water. 

Well, if you were at risk, you would certainly want to have that UV plant online!  But then, looking at it from the public health perspective, $1.4 billion would buy an awful lot of work in preventing TB, AIDS, veneral disease, and other sourges that are killing people now.  What’s the cost-benefit?

The story with the cover is much the same.  Birds pooped in the reservoir, the presence of E coli bacteria spiked, the EPA noticed it in the report and ordered a cover.  The problem was pretty much eliminated with other programs to frighten away and discourage birds, change the way water was withdrawn, etc, but the ruling was kept in place.  No exceptions.  $1.6 billion to build a cover for a reservoir that will not appreciable improve the lives of anyone but engineers and contractors working on it. 

Ahhh…but we can all breathe so much easier, knowing that at least the risk has been reduced to nearly zero!