Too Late To Wait for Covering Infrastructure Vulnerability, Resilience

September 5, 2018

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Backgrounder: Too Late To Wait for Covering Infrastructure Vulnerability, Resilience

By Joseph A. Davis

Nowadays, “infrastructure” seems more of a political buzzword than something that makes your life, well, possible. But better pay attention — that could change at any moment. And then infrastructure, and its failure, could become the definition of disaster.

Power plants, powerlines, sewage plants, drinking water plants, dams, pipelines, roads and transit, refineries, transportation hubs, etc., are essential to modern life as it is understood in places like the United States.

Yet all of these infrastructure systems are vulnerable to disruption by natural disasters, deliberate attack, pollution and engineering failures.

The big question is how soon and how well they can come back. Call it infrastructure resilience. That means many different things for all the different systems. The environmental implications are huge. Ask Puerto Rico. Ask New Orleans. Ask Houston.

It’s potential news in almost every U.S. community. So let’s look at some of the environment-related implications.

Drinking Water Systems: A large fraction of U.S. municipalities rely on public drinking water systems, which include surface water intakes, wellfields, treatment plants and distribution pipes. Clean, safe drinking water is essential to public health.

An example of how source waters can be a point of vulnerability is the catastrophe in Charleston, W.Va., in January 2014. A little-known and fairly toxic chemical called MCHM spilled from a private company’s storage tank on the bank of the Elk River, not far upstream of Charleston’s drinking water intakes.


The even worse news is how few journalists

write about local source water protection.

It’s only boring until it’s a crisis.


The resulting contamination shut down water service for hundreds of thousands of customers for weeks. Since there was no available treatment for the MCHM, the only way to fix things was flushing the pipes.

Ground water is a source of vulnerability also. Communities like Merrimack, N.H., have found the toxic chemical PFOA not only in private wells but also in the wells that supply public drinking water systems.

The good news is that under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires states to have a “source water assessment” program if they hope to win authority to regulate drinking water. The bad news is that some of these programs are lax and hazy (exhibit A: Charleston).

Perhaps the even worse news (since the assessments and utilities’ plans for protecting their water are public documents) is how few journalists write about local source water protection. It’s only boring until it’s a crisis.

Source water comes to a treatment plant to be purified and disinfected. The treatment may typically include screening, settling, coagulation, filtering, chemical conditioning and chemical disinfection, as well as the key component of testing.

Yet all these things must be working well and reliably for water to be safe. Each component of a treatment plant can be a potential vulnerability.

One of the weakest points in many drinking water systems is the distribution pipes. Some drinking water systems in the U.S. are more than 75 years old.

Forget for a minute about the “biofilm” inside them, or the lead service connections. Such pipes are prone to failure and leakage. When there is a drop in system pressure, contaminated water from outside (e.g., leaky sewer pipes) can infiltrate. Hence the common emphasis on keeping pressure up and pushing adequate chlorine levels out into the distribution system.

Now think what your utility would do when a pumping station fails, or an earthquake challenges pipe integrity.

Aerial photograph of an industrial tank farm along the Elk River in Charleston, W.V., identifying the tank that leaked a chemical into the river in 2014, contaminating the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians for weeks. Photo: Commercial Photography Services of WV via U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Click to enlarge.

Just for a minute, try not to think about terrorists. Far likelier threats to drinking water treatment plants are things like extreme weather, floods, droughts, earthquakes, storm surges and the like.

In some municipalities, often for historical reasons, treatment plants may be on the banks of water bodies — making them vulnerable to floods. Floods in fact will challenge any plant using flood-prone waters as a source.

Thoughtful engineering can improve plant resilience in many ways. What would it take to harden your plant against a hurricane? Is the treated water in your system stored in reservoirs vulnerable to recontamination? What happens at your plant during a prolonged regional electric power outage? What happens when the river the plant depends on dries up? What if there is an oil or chemical spill near your intakes?

In the scare following the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, which required drinking water plants to do security assessments and offered grants to help them do it.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the public is not allowed to know about the assessments — they are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act under 42 USC § 300i–2(a)(3) — or whether they are being implemented, or whether they work.

It may be good news, however, that many of the security threats are obvious (are the fences around your plant higher than seven feet?) and that many reporters are at least as clever as terrorists.

Need hints? Check out EPA’s “A Water Security Handbook,” its top ten list for small ground water suppliers, or its pages on water security resources for small drinking water systems and risk assessment and reduction for drinking water and wastewater utilities.

Bottom line: Don’t let them fool you. Writing about this is good for public safety.

Sewer Systems: Systems for handling sanitary and industrial wastewater are essential to public health because many deadly and terrible diseases are spread when people ingest water contaminated with human or animal waste. Sewage systems vary widely in scale and complexity. In many municipalities they are interconnected or combined with stormwater management systems.

But many of these systems are quite old — which not only makes them leaky and creaky, but makes them difficult and expensive to fix. Under the Clean Water Act, a major federal public works program in the 1970s and 1980s helped local governments clean up via billions in grants.

One unique aspect of sewage treatment plants is that they are mainly powered by bacteria, which digest the solid wastes and reduce their pollution potential.

That makes these bacteria a vulnerable point. A gout of some harsh chemical or toxic substance in the sewage can kill or weaken them so they can’t do their work. These “upsets” take a lot of time and effort to recover from. A good industrial pretreatment program is a must (both practically and legally) if a sewage system is to be resilient.

Another unique aspect of sewage treatment plants is that they are often sited near water bodies and close to water level. There are many good and bad engineering and historical reasons for this, but one of them is that the water in sewage systems flows downhill.

Thing is, this makes them vulnerable to flooding. When precipitation-induced high flows happen on the river your plant sits next to, the treatment works itself may be flooded, knocking out its treatment function and causing major pollution.

EPA has offered some guidelines for making plants more resilient. The next time this happens near you, check in with EPA, your state water agency and your local sewage utility to see how things are going. Ask how long it might take to get the plant back online after a flood-related outage.

Now ask about storm surges. What has the utility done to harden its plant against flooding? What are its response plans? Now ask whether it is planning for sea level rise from climate change.

One more unique aspect of sewage systems is wet-weather flows — or overflows. In many older systems, the pipes for collecting stormwater from city streets are combined with or connected to the pipes for carrying away sanitary sewage. Normally, it all goes through the sewage treatment plant.

In a heavy rain, however, the volume of water may overwhelm the sewage plant, which is then forced to discharge partially treated or untreated human waste into receiving waters. This is bad, and usually results in health advisories.

Separating storm and sanitary sewers is expensive, so many cities avoid it. But fortunately, there are many less expensive engineering measures that can improve the system’s resilience.

Examples include retention ponds that delay the flow of stormwater into the systems (you need zoning and building codes for this). Another example is creating huge underground tunnels to delay the water, as has been done in Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C.

Flood Control. Too much water from flooding can cause death and damage.  Flood control systems exist, but they present a large and complex set of issues.

As a journalist, ask what will happen if floodwaters exceed what your community has planned for. Houston didn’t before Harvey.

Look around at stormwater systems, farm drainage, dams and reservoirs, levees, floodways, floodgates and waterfront development, and ask what they were designed to handle. Then think about climate change, severe weather, sea level rise and storm surge. How good are the management plans for your local flood-control dams? Does your community qualify for flood insurance — and will that really help?

Power Grids. Try to keep Puerto Rico in mind, where the power grid destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017 is still not completely restored a year later. Residents of other parts of North America have lived through shorter, but still prolonged outages. They may be caused by windstorms, ice storms, bad engineering, equipment failure, operator error, overload or many other things.

Now think about the Russians. The Department of Homeland Security revealed in July that Russian hackers had penetrated the control rooms of hundreds of U.S. electric power plants.

So, yes, it seems feasible that the Russians could turn out the lights across much of our country if they wanted to. President Donald Trump’s plan to cooperate with the Russians on fixing cybersecurity doesn’t seem a promising fix.

There are ways to make our grid more resilient. Rebuilding a wires-on-poles system based on huge power plants may not be ideal. Big distribution systems rely on transformer-based subsystems, and when the intermediate transformers fail, restoration can take lots of time.


The very interconnectedness of

big regional grids can harm resilience

when failure cascades through the system.


The very interconnectedness of big regional grids — while it can often improve overall reliability — can also harm resilience when failure cascades through the system (such as the Northeast Blackout of 2003). Engineers have been working on this problem for a long time.

The key mechanism for continental grid reliability is a structure of organizations known as the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC. Its whole purpose is to anticipate and prevent blackouts, large and small. The structure includes participation by the major regional grids. Much of its work is very technical, and much of it is not disclosed to the general public (but a lot is disclosed here). The 2005 Energy Policy Act (following the 2003 blackout) strengthened NERC’s authority and put it under the oversight of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The concept of distributed generation is hardly new. Visionary engineer Amory Lovins wrote a book about it (“Brittle Power”) back in 1982. But the concept has evolved to seem less like science fiction as renewable energy and smart grids have become economic realities.

The notion of microgrids, which can use renewables and storage to function independently in an emergency, has come into focus as a real solution.

Pipelines. While pipelines are often essential to our modern energy economy, they are also points of vulnerability. It’s a big subject, which is often politically distorted as pipelines become surrogates for other issues, such as climate.

Do they make our energy systems more or less resilient — or both? For example, pipelines carrying newly abundant supplies of cheap natural gas may even make some electric power plants more reliable — despite the carbon consequences. Petroleum pipelines may improve the reliability of refinery outputs like gasoline.

But pipelines generally, whether above ground or buried, are very hard to defend against determined terrorists (or even drunken rifle owners). This is because long stretches are remote and unguarded. There is only so much technology that can help ward off disastrous leaks. Now think about Russian hackers and earthquakes.

Refineries. The price and availability of gasoline is believed by some political analysts to sway election outcomes in the United States. So it is worth remembering that there are only about 135 operable refineries in the U.S. and that they are producing gasoline at a rate of about 97 percent of capacity.

There is no leeway. This helps keep prices up, and limits regional supply resiliency. Also, refineries can be knocked out by disasters like hurricanes — not to mention accidents caused by operator error or rusty valves.

Hospitals. We don’t often think of hospitals as infrastructure, but they are essential in a crisis. And vulnerable. One of the worst consequences of the Puerto Rico blackout after Maria was that hospitals lost power and then lost backup power.

It’s a lesson about resiliency most communities have not yet learned well enough. Resilient hospitals have emergency plans and access to drugs and equipment like ventilators. A variety of environmental disasters demands resilient hospitals to save people’s lives. For example, a catastrophic release of hazardous gases like chlorine, a nuclear release or an outbreak of contagious disease.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's Issue Backgrounders and TipSheet columns, directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet and also compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 31. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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