Dean Barber

Acts of Man: Stories of Faltering Infrastructure

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on January 24, 2016 at 7:39 am

They are commonly referred to as “acts of God” — earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Winter Storm Jonas,  a historic blizzard which buried much of the Eastern Seaboard and left at least 19 dead, would be a prime example.

These are natural catastrophes that man cannot prevent, and which frequently result in considerable property damage and loss of life.

These “acts of God” are trying to the soul, but it is our nature to accept them for what they are and put our hands to the plow and move on.

It is more difficult for us, however, to accept circumstances when the “acts of man” put our health and safety at risk. Then we want redress, a wrong set right.

I can think of three communities in the past month in which I have read published reports showing public safety jeopardized because of aging, deteriorating and substandard infrastructure.

Leave it to say, this is not unique to these three places alone, but is commonplace throughout the United States, in both rural and urban environments.

The Foundation to Our Economy

Infrastructure is the foundation that connects the nation’s businesses, communities, and people, driving our economy and improving our quality of life.

It is your water main, the power lines connected to your house and the street in front of your home, as well as the national highway system.

Once every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s major infrastructure categories in the form of a report card.

The last report card in 2013 (the next one is due in 2017) gave America a cumulative grade of D+ for infrastructure.

In the executive summary, the ASCE said this:

“For the U.S. economy to be the most competitive in the world, we need a first class infrastructure system – transport systems that move people and goods efficiently and at reasonable cost by land, water, and air; transmission systems that deliver reliable, low-cost power from a wide range of energy sources; and water systems that drive industrial processes as well as the daily functions in our homes.

“Yet today, our infrastructure systems are failing to keep pace with the current and expanding needs, and investment in infrastructure is faltering.”

Flint, Michigan

This is a city where 40.1 percent of the city’s population is living in poverty. In April 2014, as part of a cost-savings move, Flint opted out of Detroit’s water supply and began drawing water from the Flint River.

Big mistake. It turned out that the water from the Flint River was highly corrosive to the lead pipes still used in parts of the city. In the fall of 2015, researchers discovered that the proportion of children with above-average lead levels in their blood had doubled.

Lead in water is measured in terms of parts per billion (ppb). Some samples taken by Virginia Tech researchers came in at 5,000 ppb, the level at which EPA considers the water to be “toxic waste.”

The city reconnected to Detroit’s water system in October, but it remains unclear how long the old pipes will continue to leach unsafe levels of lead into the tap water supply.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who has apologized for what has become a scandal to his administration, resulting in firings and resignations, says he will “fix it.”

Certainly, he is speaking of the water system itself and not the bodies that have been poisoned. In children, lead can cause irreparable brain damage. For adults, high blood pressure and kidney damage. In pregnant women, miscarriages, stillbirths and premature births.

In past blogs, I have praised Gov. Snyder for being what I thought was the best economic development governor in the country.  Certainly, he changed the culture of economic development in his state.

And now it is the very culture of his own government that he is decrying and blaming for the crisis in Flint.

Speaking on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe” on Friday, Gov. Snyder complained about public agencies lacking a “culture of asking the common-sense questions,” adding there’s “a huge bureaucratic problem and it’s part of the problem with culture in government.”

Keep in mind the governor is speaking about decisions made by people that he appointed, blaming those who answer to him.

Which leads me to this question: Just where does the buck stop?

Gov. Snyder, who has faced intense scrutiny in recent weeks from state and national news media, has hired two public relations firms to help his office deal with the crisis.

Not Far Away in Detroit

At the same time that Flint was garnering national headlines, teachers in Detroit held a mass sickout last week to protest the physical conditions of schools there.

In some schools, students have had to wear coats in class for the lack of heat, along with evidence of black mold contamination and a general state of disrepair.

Michigan was in the news last week for all the wrong reasons, exemplifying how deficient infrastructure can and does hold us back. Not great for economic development.

Porter Ranch, Los Angeles County

For months now, a methane gas leak from an old oil well has been disrupting life in Southern California.

Since the leak was detected on Oct. 23, the Southern California Gas Co. has relocated 3,112 households to temporary homes and hotels outside of Porter Ranch, a community of 30,000 whose northeast border is about a mile from the leaking Aliso Canyon well in Los Angeles County.

Another 2,571 households are awaiting relocation, the company said.

Health officials say hundreds of residents have reported health problems such as nausea, headaches and nosebleeds due to additives in the natural gas.

While a cause of the leak has not been determined, experts believe the age of well probably plays a major role, as its pipes, having channeled oil, gas, and water, are 61 years old.

SoCAlGas is in the process of drilling a relief well and expects to locate and enclose the leaky pipe in cement.

When will the leak stop? Maybe next month. Maybe. In the meantime, the old well is spewing 1.6 million pounds of methane each day into the atmosphere.

The Lewisville Dam, North Texas

The age of the leaking well Los Angeles County is about the same age as that of the Lewisville Dam, a six-mile-long earthen structure completed in 1954 and about 22 miles northwest of Dallas.

Work is under way to repair a 161-foot-long slide on the upstream face of the dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detected safety issues at the dam in August, while saying the landslide occurred in June, which strikes me as a bit odd.

Now the Corps insists that the dam is not at risk at failure, despite having issues. But a Dec. 12 story in The Dallas Morning News entitled “The Dam Called Trouble” paints a different story, one of a Corps that is trying to sugarcoat a real and existing threat.

How big a threat? In 2005, the Corps started screening every one of the 694 dams under its jurisdiction. The goal was to expeditiously identify and classify the highest risk dams requiring urgent and compelling action (Dam Safety Action Classification Classes I and II Dams).

The Corps rated the Lewisville Dam as a Class II. Now I quote the Corps’ definition of a Class II from its own website:

DSAC Class II (High Urgency) – “Dams where failure could begin during normal operations or be initiated as the consequence of an event.  The likelihood of failure from one of these occurrences, prior to remediation, is too high to assure public safety; or, the combination of life or economic consequences with probability of failure is very high.”

In short, what the Corps tells itself about the Lewisville Dam is quite different from what it tells the public.

I am that public. I live an uncomfortable 10 miles below the dam, so this is quite personal for me.

The Lewisville Dam holds back 2 million acre-feet, or 2.5 billion tons, of water when the lake is full. If it failed, the magnitude of all that water unleashed would dwarf the worst dam disaster in American history.

Today, every state but Alabama have dam safety regulatory programs. Since 1998, the number of high-hazard-potential dams has increased from 9,281 to more than 14,700 in the 2013 update of the National Inventory of Dams.

The Cost of Failure

The common denominator to all these stories in Flint, Los Angeles County and North Texas is old infrastructure that is in dire need of improvement if not total replacement. In all three cases, the public safety has been proven to be at risk. These stories are part of a much bigger story.

Certainly, robust infrastructure is of great importance when I consult with a company on location analysis for a future site of operations. It is something that I will focus on when I advise economic development organizations. This is foundational stuff that cannot be ignored.

Aside from the human cost, there are huge economic considerations if we fail to act and fix what needs to be fixed, according to ASCE in a 2013 report:

“Overall, if the investment gap is not addressed throughout the nation’s infrastructure sectors, by 2020, the economy is expected to lose almost $1 trillion in business sales, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million jobs. Moreover, if current trends are not reversed, the cumulative cost to the U.S. economy from 2012–2020 will be more than $3.1 trillion in GDP and $1.1 trillion in total trade.”

Infrastructure built by man, so too, can be maintained, repaired and replaced by man. It’s what we must do to remain a competitive and safe nation.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. He can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-767-9518.

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