By Chris Clair
On one level, disaster is disaster, be it a hurricane, earthquake, or toxic spill. It happens, we clean up, we rebuild, and we move on. But man-made disasters are altogether different in one way: They almost always can be prevented.
Spills, explosions, and other catastrophic infrastructure failures don't have to happen. True resiliency in the face of disasters caused by man's action — or, sometimes, inaction — involves honestly and thoroughly assessing what went wrong and allocating resources to implement solutions or change.
Sometimes handing out the money is the easy part; it's the self-analysis that can be painful.
Digging for answers
In Roane County, Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority has spent the past six years and almost $1.2 billion cleaning up after the 2008 failure of a dike that had held back a coal ash pond at its Kingston Fossil Plant, sending a wall of gray sludge into the Emory and Clinch rivers and onto about 300 surrounding acres, burying nearby homes.
Pinpointing the physical causes of the dike's failure was relatively easy. John Kammeyer, vice president for civil engineering projects and coal combustion products management at the TVA, says the authority hired AECOM, an architecture, construction, and engineering firm, to perform a root-cause analysis. The resulting 6,000-page report, issued in 2009, identified four main physical causes for the dike failure: the amount of water and ash in the pond, the growing height of its ash pile, the way the dikes were constructed, and the presence of a layer of slime composed of loose ash and silt running underneath the part of the wall that collapsed.
As the amount of ash in the pond increased, and the pile grew taller, it put more pressure on the pond walls. Part of the wall began to slide on the slime layer, which put increased hydraulic pressure on the wall. Kammeyer says the wall eventually just gave out. According to the AECOM report, the construction flaw meant that the pond wall could have failed at any time.
The TVA took all the information about the physical causes of the pond wall collapse at the Kingston Plant and began looking at its 10 other coal-powered generation sites. Some of the retention ponds at the other plants had a few of the same conditions present at Kingston, but none had all of those conditions, Kammeyer says. Nevertheless, the TVA set to work resolving problems at the other ponds. Beyond that, the authority decided in 2009 to eliminate wet ash storage ponds altogether, opting instead for dry storage ponds across its system. It's a 10-year program that could cost up to $2 billion. Kammeyer says the TVA is about halfway through it.
But the most fundamental lesson to come out of the spill and the analysis of how and why it happened was that the TVA needed to change the way it was organized as a business, Kammeyer says. "Most failures, to be honest with you, come down to a management issue," he says. "The fact that [something] broke and nothing was in place to catch it and that a single failure could cause that amount of damage leads you to an organizational/managerial issue, which is exactly where we ended up."
Traditionally, the TVA considered the coal ash impoundments, as they're known, to be part of the business structure of the power generating station. So, Kingston's power plant and coal ash pond were managed together as part of the same entity, "the power plant." Kammeyer says there's a flaw in that logic: Power plants get limited funding and the priority is to generate power as reliably as possible. That means money gets spent on things that generate power. Supporting facilities such as coal ash ponds don't necessarily get the attention they need.
So the TVA carved out the impoundment ponds into business units separate from the power plants and placed them all under a new group within the TVA headed by Kammeyer. "My organization didn't exist before Kingston," he says. "We took the ownership of the impoundments away from the plants and put them under a separate [business unit]. We hold the money and we make sure the right attention [goes] to the important things and we're not putting safety issues in competition with generation issues."
The Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill remains the country's largest coal ash incident, with about 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge released.
Man-made catastrophes have led to mitigation actions elsewhere as well. The nation's largest offshore oil spill has been its most studied from a scientific standpoint. It has also mobilized one of the biggest environmental, ecological, and economic restoration efforts in history.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig, located about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico, suffered a blowout of its underwater well connection and a subsequent explosion. A mechanism designed to prevent such a blowout failed. The rig itself burned and sank, killing 11 rig workers. The damaged well connection, located nearly a mile below the ocean surface, leaked more than 210 million gallons of oil, as well as natural gas, into the gulf waters for five months.
Ultimately, three companies involved with the Deepwater Horizon were deemed responsible: BP PLC, which operated the drilling rig; Transocean Ltd., the drilling contractor from which BP leased the rig; and Halliburton Company, which performed the work to cement the rig's well casings in the well holes. A federal court judge in September 2014 determined that BP bore most of the responsibility for the disaster, and in July BP agreed to a settlement in which it would pay $18.7 billion to the federal government and Gulf Coast states. If approved by the judge, that would be in addition to the nearly $30 billion BP has already spent to pay damage claims and cleanup costs.
Because the disaster affected such a large area — the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas — and so many businesses, including the fishing and tourism industries, the response has been large-scale as well. Government entities ranging from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Interior Department to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation are involved in the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.
The spill spawned its own legislation — the RESTORE Act, passed in 2012 — tying together scientific, environmental, and economic responses to the spill in all five states. Money to pay for it all comes from billions of dollars in penalties paid by BP and Transocean. The RESTORE Act directs 80 percent of all administrative and civil penalties toward ecological and economic initiatives in the Gulf. The top priorities have been to clean up the oil, restore Gulf Coast economies hurt by the spill, and study the effects of the spill on the Gulf Coast ecosystem.
In April Samuel W. Plauché, chairman of the Deepwater Horizon NRDA Trustee Council, said in a statement that as a result of scientific research funded by settlements with BP, Transocean, and Halliburton, the NRDA has started 54 restoration projects totaling $700 million. The NRDA is a coalition of federal and state agencies that are studying the effects of the spill on natural resources, developing restoration plans, and collecting and distributing the money to pay for the plans.
One of the council's mandates was to issue guidelines for the five states to follow in putting together spending plans for money collected from penalties and fines. States can use the money for planning assistance, workforce development and job creation, promoting tourism and Gulf Coast seafood, implementing conservation management plans, and restoring and protecting natural resources.
On the policy front, the Interior Department and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement in April proposed a drilling safety rule that would, among other things, set minimum design, manufacturing, repair, and maintenance standards for blowout preventers like the one that failed on the Deepwater Horizon; require real-time monitoring for deep-water and high-temperature and high-pressure drilling; and outline additional guidelines for cementing wells.
Honolulu molasses spill
When a pipeline used to pump molasses onto ships bound for the U.S. mainland leaked 233,000 gallons of the heavy, sticky substance into Honolulu Harbor in September 2013, killing more than 26,000 fish and other sea life, analysis of the spill's causes revealed holes in oversight of molasses shipping and in the state's readiness to deal with such a spill.
Unlike oil, molasses does not float and it can't be cleaned up. It sinks to the bottom of the ocean and has to dissolve on its own. As it does so, it eats up oxygen, already in short supply at the ocean bottom. Fish and other marine life die for lack of oxygen.
At the time the incident occurred, Hawaii's Department of Transportation did not require shippers using pipelines that cross harbor property in Hawaii ports to file pipeline inspection reports or spill response plans. In September 2013 the DOT sent a letter to businesses that use the harbor's pipelines telling them to submit plans. A year later, the first plan filed came from Kahului Trucking & Storage, which pumps molasses onto ships for transport.
Kahului Trucking is a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin Inc., which used to own Matson Navigation Company, the company responsible for the September 2013 molasses spill. The Alexander & Baldwin environmental affairs department prepared the report for Kahului Trucking and submitted it on October 14, 2013.
Matson split off from A&B in 2012 to become its own publicly traded company. In January a judge ordered Matson to pay $600,000 in restitution for the spill plus another $400,000 in fines. Restitution money was to be given to the Waikiki Aquarium and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, according to news reports.
Additionally, Hawaii state legislators proposed several laws that would pay for an update to the University of Hawaii's plan for preventing and responding to oil spills, direct money from marine disaster fines and settlements to go toward coral reef restoration, mandate better communication between the state and businesses that lease port facilities, and force companies that pollute to pay for long-term environmental damage, not just cleanup. All of those bills have been referred to various committees.
Lake Champlain phosphorous
Sometimes a disaster isn't a solitary event; it's an ongoing problem that builds into a slow-to-develop disaster. In Lake Champlain, runoff from developed and agricultural lands, combined with discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants, have raised pollution levels — particularly phosphorus — threatening the lake's ecological health as well as recreational uses.
Lake Champlain is about 120 miles long. It straddles the border between New York and Vermont and empties into the Richelieu River in Quebec. It provides drinking water for about 200,000 people. Its tributaries drain about 8,200 square miles, including half of Vermont and part of the Adirondack Mountains in New York.
Phosphorous in the lake exacerbates algae blooms, which kill off other aquatic plants. The dying plants consume oxygen, leaving less oxygen for other plants and animals. Some algae blooms also release harmful toxins into the water.
Concern over phosphorous levels and their effects was a significant factor in the development of the Lake Champlain Basin Program, a comprehensive plan for reducing pollution and restoring Lake Champlain. By 2003, Vermont, New York, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Quebec government had all signed on to the program, which also loops in private organizations, local communities, and individuals to coordinate and pay for improving Lake Champlain water quality. Some have called it a model for cooperation between states and countries.
The program includes a plan to prevent and control pollution and restore the lake. One of the plan's eight goals is reducing phosphorous inputs into Lake Champlain.
In 2002 Vermont and Quebec pledged to reduce runoff into Missisquoi Bay, site of numerous blue-green algae blooms. Most of the phosphorous carried by runoff to this part of the lake comes from agricultural land. However, according to a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Vermont, runoff from developed land contributed up to four times as much phosphorous into the lake as agricultural runoff.
According to a June 2014 report from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, phosphorus levels in most of the lake have remained stable or risen slightly since 2007 after decreasing for about 15 years. Massive floods in 2011 brought phosphorous concentrations in many parts of the lake to the highest levels seen since 1990. "Much progress has been made in recent years to reduce phosphorous levels, but to achieve the desired water quality criteria in the Lake, further reductions are needed," says the DEC report.
The DEC is developing a Watershed Implementation Plan that will identify specific actions to reduce pollution. As part of that effort, the department has published a 39-page Phosphorous Reduction Plan.
I-35W bridge collapse
In August 2007, when the I-35W bridge spanning the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring dozens, it sparked intense discussion about the state of the country's infrastructure. Locally, the loss of the highway bridge meant thousands of cars had to be rerouted onto local streets while crews worked to replace the bridge. Doing so in a timely manner was critical to minimizing wear and tear on city streets and reducing traffic volumes in neighborhoods. Few thought it could be replaced in the roughly 17 months proposed, but the new bridge actually opened in 13 and a half months, and it came with a list of innovations that have drawn praise from engineers and others.
All of the lights illuminating the roadway are LED lights, which use between 40 percent and 80 percent less electricity and last five times as long as high-pressure sodium street lights, the orange-yellow lights commonly seen on streets and highways.
Contractors used self-consolidating concrete to support the bridge. SCC, as it's known, flows into place faster than traditional concrete and doesn't require a vibration shaft to be inserted into the wet concrete to remove air pockets, as traditional concrete does.
The new bridge has 323 embedded sensors that will transmit data to engineers at the University of Minnesota about how materials and construction techniques wear with use. In essence, the bridge is a functional laboratory.
The new bridge incorporated many design elements recommended by a design committee composed of community members and elected and appointed officials. FIGG Engineering, which designed the bridge, is selling a commemorative book about the
structure, as well as scale models. Proceeds benefit a local program for low-income students.
Sometimes resilience isn't an option. Take the area around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine. A series of explosions in 1986 rendered the area unsafe for human habitation for thousands of years (see below).
More recently, we are seeing what happens when neighborhoods are destroyed during incidents of civil unrest. In 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, outside St. Louis, the killing of a black teenager by a white police officer unleashed days of protests and nearly $5 million in property damage. And in April protests in Baltimore following the funeral of an African American man who died while in police custody turned into riots that caused an estimated $9 million in damage across nearly 300 businesses.
The Rockefeller Foundation is funding a program called 100 Resilient Cities, the goal of which is to provide a network of cities with tools to respond not only to natural disasters like earthquakes, fires, and floods, but day-to-day stresses like high unemployment, inadequate public transportation, violence, or food or water shortages that over time can stress communities to the point where violence breaks out.
St. Louis joined Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Tulsa among U.S. cities named Resilient Cities by the Rockefeller Foundation. So far 67 cities around the world have made the list. They get funding and guidance for creating a chief resilience officer position, support for developing a resilience strategy, and membership in a club of other cities to share ideas with.
"Resilient systems withstand, respond to, and adapt more readily to shocks and stresses to emerge stronger after tough times and live better in good times," according to the Rockefeller Foundation.
Chris Clair is a freelance writer based in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Image: I-35W Bridge, Minneapolis. Among its innovations: LED streetlights, which are more energy-efficient and longer lasting than high-pressure sodium lights, and embedded sensors that send usage data to engineers. Photo by Saibal/Getty Images
A court-approved information clearinghouse for the Deepwater Horizon spill: www.deepwaterhorizonsettlements.com
Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council: www.restorethegulf.gov
Lake Champlain Basin Program: www.lcbp.org
I35W bridge rebuilding: www.dot.state.mn.us/i35wbridge
Rockefeller Foundation resilient cities program: 100resilientcities.org
A Crucial Year for Chernobyl
By Nicola Davies, PsyD
Chernobyl: site of the world's worst nuclear accident and a chilling example of what can happen when nuclear power goes wrong. The disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was initially contained, back in 1986, by the hastily constructed concrete sarcophagus that covers reactor number four. The cover was intended to last for 15 years but it has not yet been replaced; 28 years later, it remains the only barrier between us and the highly dangerous nuclear waste it covers.
Now a massive engineering project is under way to create a "new safe confinement," known as an NSC, to cover the original concrete sarcophagus. It is an international initiative budgeted at €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion in 2015 U.S. dollars). It is apparent that it will cost much more.
Work started in 1998, when engineers began laying the groundwork for the project. First, they had to stabilize the existing concrete sarcophagus covering the stricken reactor. Key elements of working infrastructure were also needed for construction to commence. A huge, concrete-lined construction site for building the new structure, just 600 feet from the plant, was created on a cushion of soil that was trucked in from uncontaminated sites.
That structure consists of a massive steel arch: 360 feet high, 820 feet wide, and 492 feet long. The 30,000-ton structure, once complete, will be moved into place on vast metal tracks. It would have been too dangerous to build it in situ because of remaining levels of radioactivity, so the "safe containment" will be the largest movable structure in the world. The concrete piles on which it is to rest have already been prepared.
The highest portion of the arch was built at ground level and then jacked 98 feet into the air — to limit workers' radiation exposure (which increases with elevation). Huge "legs" were swung into place to support the structure, and construction continued until the entire arch ultimately reached its final height of 360 feet.
Workers on-site are monitored regularly for their level of radiation exposure, despite experts' claims that the site is safe enough to allow for a 40-hour work week. Thanks to the decontamination of the construction site and the construction of a concrete barrier, workers' exposure is supposedly equivalent to a chest X-ray.
Construction began in 2010 and is approaching its final stages. However, the European Bank for Construction and Development says that overspending resulted in a funding shortfall of €600 million ($669 million) by the end of 2014, and currently amounts to €85 million ($95 million) despite additional funding from EU countries.
Although the NSC won't be ready in 2015, as initially hoped, some say 2017 is likely. Jochen Flasbarth of the German Environment Ministry predicts it may take another four to five years. The EBCD expects that the funding will be forthcoming and that the project will be completed, despite Russia's decision to withhold its share. (The Chernobyl plant was built in 1977, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.)
The NSC is designed to shield the surrounding environment from radiation for a century. The interior of the arch will house huge, remotely controlled cranes, which will be used to dismantle the old concrete shelter while the gigantic shell will protect the site from the elements and prevent radiation leakage.
Worldwide environmental safety is at risk because the reactor's existing housing is crumbling. An estimated 200 tons of extremely radioactive material remain, including the fuel rods that are still within the damaged reactor. Without the NSC, there is serious danger of a second Chernobyl catastrophe.
Another structure, the Vektor Radioactive Waste Storage Facility, is being built nearby. It will be used to store up to 75,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste that will result from the deconstruction of the Chernobyl plant. Once this waste has been safely disposed of, Chernobyl will no longer be a ticking time bomb, and the monumental arch of the NSC facility can be left to rust.
The ghostly exclusion zone, or so-called "zone of alienation," that spans a radius of 18 miles around the site of the reactor, was opened to tourists and the media in 2011. More than 53,000 people had been evacuated from the surrounding areas. The entrance is still guarded by armed soldiers, and a Geiger counter allows visitors to assess their radiation exposure levels.
Although people are moving back into the exclusion zone, formal resettlement could be delayed by decades. The informal resettlers — average age 65 — were initially told that the evacuation would be temporary. Now they either don't believe in the harmful effects of radiation or no longer care.
Ivan Ivanovic, 77, a former plant worker, lives in his neat farm cottage outside Pripiyat, a city built to service the workers at the Chernobyl plant and their families. Ivanovic's mother and both his sisters died as the result of the disaster. He has returned home to live out his days in the shadow of Chernobyl. He believes that he can sense radiation without a Geiger counter.
Mickhail Masanovitz and his wife, a couple in their seventies, are also among the few that attempt to scratch out a living here. They keep chickens and a pig for meat and eat the vegetables they grow in the contaminated soil. Despite their attempts at self-sufficiency, they depend on food brought to them by charitable organizations.
Animals seem scarce here. There is a complete lack of birdsong. Trees seem to be thriving, though, as the forest reclaims Pripiyat and its surroundings. Nature is taking back the land and the melding of two worlds — natural and man-made — seems to form a ghostly interaction. For a few minutes, it makes me wonder which of these worlds is real.
The Chernobyl incident has been costly — financially, environmentally, and in loss of human life and health. Secrecy and a lack of disaster preparedness led to delayed evacuation of local inhabitants — and then to deaths, illnesses, and deformities. Two people died during the incident, while 28 people died from acute radiation sickness in the weeks following the evacuation and cleanup. The death toll is impossible to calculate accurately as the illnesses and deaths resulting directly from radiation exposure cannot be determined and may not be reported. According to WHO, only 50 people had died as a direct result of the explosion up to 2005, but scientists estimate that roughly 4,000 people may die as a result of illness caused by radiation.
Initial attempts to contain the disaster proved ineffective, leading to the deaths of firefighters and construction workers. Scientists who studied the disaster after evacuation lived in Pripiyat without taking any special precautions, and they too died. Although the cause of the disaster can be traced to poor Soviet reactor design and deadly errors by the plant's operators, Chernobyl's greatest lesson is that disaster preparedness counts.
Nicola Davies is a doctor of psychology and freelance writer who enjoys dark tourism. She visited Chernobyl in March.
Images: Top July — 2015: Chernobyl New Safe Confinement project. Photo ©EBCD. Bottom — March 2015: The Exclusion Zone. Photo by Nicola Davies.
The NSC, expected to be complete in 2017, will encapsulate the failed nuclear reactor four and its original containment shell, preventing the release of contaminated material. To protect workers, the massive structure is being assembled near the site and will later be put into position. Meanwhile, in the 29 years since the disaster, wilderness has overtaken the apartment blocks and other facilities built for the nuclear power plant's workers.