Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Helping Our Future Remember Its Past

As we look to rebuild our infrastructure better and adapt to the challenges of rising seas, one challenge we’re not talking about is helping our future remember its past.  Buildings we’re erecting now may last a lifetime, but eventually must be torn down.  The conduits that carry our water, the pipelines that deliver our gas, our electric generation facilities all will be replaced many decades from now.  And they will be replaced by someone other than those who built them.

This post was sparked by a talk I heard earlier this year by resilience planners from the Miami area. They are making huge investments in their infrastructure in response to sea level rise. Many of these significantly change how they have done business in the past (e.g., building large storage tanks for chlorine for water purification instead of relying on just-in-time delivery). It is almost a certainty, though, that the future the city envisions is not the one it will face when these must be replaced. New challenges, new materials, new ways of building will force our future infrastructure workforce to reconsider the decisions we’re making today.  How can we help them to do that?

One of the ways is to ensure that those decisions are documented – but that brings its own problems.  On what media do we put the records and hope that they will be accessible 30-50 years from now? How do we ensure that the future knows the records themselves exist, and where? How do we ensure that those records are accurate?  Having been involved in projects that required finding pipes (containing radioactive material) laid in the ’40s and ’50s, I know that even “as-builts” are often woefully inadequate.

And there are larger issues – motivation is one.  Earlier this month, a tunnel containing radioactively-contaminated equipment collapsed at the Hanford reservation in Washington state because of nearby roadwork.  Instead of seeing this as a harbinger of further deterioration of timber and concrete tunnels erected decades ago, the decision apparently has been made to dump 50 truckloads of dirt over the 40 m2 sinkhole.  Yes, it would be enormously expensive to clean up this mess once and for all, but is it too much to ask to send in a robot or two to check the condition of the tunnels?  Or to document the basis for the decision?

Another important issue is competence.  Three years ago, over 300,000 West Virginians lost access to their water supply due to the incompetence of the owners of a chemical storage facility.  A noxious chemical had been contained in an aging storage tank.  In spite of an earlier report indicating that the tank’s integrity was suspect, the owners never inspected the tank (After the fact, significant pitting corrosion was found, that had actually gone through the tank’s bottom.).  During a cold snap the chemical started to leak out of the tank’s bottom.

Compounding their incompetence, the facility’s owners somehow were unable to detect the noisome smell while residents of the area soon became aware of it – and actually were the first to report that something was wrong.  The owners then directed the spill into the river which serves as the water supply for the surrounding region.

We take our infrastructure for granted; but it has a finite lifetime.  Our future workforce will be at risk if we do not provide them with accurate records of the decisions we made and the bases for those decisions.  If they are not motivated to find those records they are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.  And if they are incompetent they won’t care and will put everyone else at risk.  Thus, helping our future to remember its past is another major challenge we must face as we refurbish our infrastructure.