26 January 2014

Lessons from the Elk River Chemical Spill; Just Not the Ones You Thinkee

To set the stage: A company called Freedom Industries operates  a facility on the Elk River, upstream from Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital. That facility is part of the coal recovery and distribution process.  To do its work, the company has a lot of chemical products stored there.

The confluence of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers is located right in the middle of downtown Charleston. (A bit of nickel knowledge: That was the site of a winter camp of the noted frontiersmen, Simon Kenton.)

At the Freedom Industries facility, early in January, at least one of the above-ground chemical tanks leaked. About 7500 gallons of one (or possibly two) little-understood chemical were released into the Elk River. Aerial photos taken shortly thereafter showed the sheen on the water as the chemical spill flowed into the Kanawha.

Freedom Industries is upstream from the intake for the water treatment plant of Charleston. Of course, there are also lots of other water plant intakes down downstream from there. Around 300,000 people who depended on municipal water systems were without potable water to drink for more than a week.  The water in the system could not be made safe by boiling or any other common means.

The lawsuits have already started and Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy.

Let's dispense with the question of fault quickly. Freedom Industries is liable. It is liable using the same reasoning used by Gerry Spence in the Karen Silkwood case, where the issue was a spill of radioactive materials.  If you keep a tiger, and the tiger gets out of the cage, you are responsible for the harm the tiger does. Period.  Because a tiger is so dangerous, you have a duty to use extraordinary efforts to keep the tiger caged.

Just so, chemical users have a duty to use extraordinary efforts to keep chemicals secure from release into the water or otherwise loose in a way which will endanger the public.

Freedom Industries screwed up big time. It let the tiger out. 

But before we feel all shocked, offended and morally superior, let's see the first lesson from the Elk River spill:

There are lots and lots of tigers out there in flimsy cages. We profit from having the tigers and as long as nothing goes wrong, we don’t think about whether or how they can get out of the cage.

A random example: Most communities have some sort of large public swimming pool.  Most pools use chlorine as an agent to keep the water clean. Anyone who swims (or does laundry) knows that the odor of chlorine is harsh and uncomfortable even in minute concentrations. Anything more than a minute concentration of chlorine is a health hazard.  Chlorine was one of the first chemical agents used in warfare, seeing action in World War I. When the wind was right, the "chemical soldiers” took cylinders forward, opened the valves, and let a heavy and deadly gas cloud spread to the enemy. The inhalation of chlorine was often fatal and when not fatal, often caused grevious and permanent respiratory injuries.

The cylinders used in war are just like the ones which contain the chlorine at big swimming pools. So - Do you know how secure the chlorine is kept as your local public pool? Do you have any idea of the degree of danger of an accidental release?  Do you know how - or if - the pool staff has been trained to handle the chemicals?  How about the security of the chemical from someone who wants to release it with a malevolent intent?

I didn't think so.

In a typical "Band-Aid" fashion, the West Virginia legislature is "taking action"!  We have seen new proposed legislation which increases the oversight of above-ground chemical tanks.


The Band-Aid approach is hardly unexpected. It shows how deeply the Political Class Cares (so keep those votes coming). Because it is aimed at a very small part of the problem, we can say that it's not that expensive. Besides, they'll figure a way to tag the chemical industry with the cost.

. . . and conveniently forget that the people pay for everything anyway.

This illustrates the main de facto function of the Political Class, to decide how to spend other peoples money so they themselves look good.

The best lesson from the Elk River Spill is that we should look beyond the immediate cause and realize that the above-ground chemical tanks are a tiny part of the danger. 

Obviously, those tanks were a problem – Freedom Industries failed to keep the tiger caged. That violated the industry standard of redundancy: If the tiger escapes first cage, there needs to be another cage between the tiger and the people. Or, in the case of chemical storage, there has to be some secondary method of containment.

So we have to deal with the fact that there are lots and lots of bad things which can happen which have the potential for widespread public harm. And when meeting that harm exceeds the capacity of the local responders, we have what's 
called a disaster.  (Actually, that’s one definition of “disaster.”)

Generally, we have little or no redundancy in our entire infrastructure. But this is an infrastructure upon which we depend for day-to-day functioning and in many cases for basic sustenance. 

We as individuals are so dependent on public services – infrastructure – that when any of them go out of service, we as citizens often perceive ourselves weak and unable to cope. And so we look at Big Daddy government to ride in and save 
the day.

Like Hurricane Katrina - “You’re doing a great job, Brownie!”

Bad things can happen. There are 200,000+ chemicals used in industry.  As to most of these chemicals, the levels which people can tolerate and the effects of long-term low exposure are only poorly understood. We do know that some chemicals – e.g., PCBs and dioxin – are dangerous or lethal in extremely small concentrations.  Indeed, dioxin exposure at “safe” levels has led to illness and death of lots of Vietnam veterans.  (Including my now-deceased brother.)

Elk River, one incident, took away the clean water source for 0.1% of the American population. That was with one tank. A simple (and inaccurate) extrapolation would say that 350 tanks of the same product could take out the entire nation’s supply of drinking water.

Another infrastructure where there is little redundancy is the power grid. The power grid is a patchwork controlled in many places by antiquated equipment.  There is insufficient profit in the power industry to upgrade to robust and redundant control systems.  As long as the primary system works, as long as the lights, computers and TV’s are on, the public doesn't notice and wants to keep their power bill down.

Our entire "just-in-time" delivery system is another large infrastructure. To keep shipping costs down, businesses receive products and materials just when they are about to be used.  That cuts down drastically on warehousing.   Indeed, at WalMart distribution centers, the ideal is that nothing gets stored.  Products come from the receiving dock to a sorting area, where they are paletted for immediate shipment to stores.

The disruption of the transportation system will lead to immediate shortages of food and other products upon which we heavily depend. The kinds of things that can take down the transportation system are legion: Deteriorating bridges, weather phenomena, earthquakes, terrorist/aggressor action, and those are just the ones immediately come to mind. Of particular concern are the weak points in the system which can be exploited by humans with a bad intent.

The response to Elk River was immediate and reasonably effective, but it has within it the lesson of inadequate response. This was 0.1% of the American population affected. The effort put in to supply this one commodity, drinking water, to that part of the population was very large and expensive and covered used the disaster response/materials of most providers east of the Mississippi.

Even so, there was a drumbeat that aid was not coming in fast enough or in enough quantities and that the government wasn't doing enough.

All in all, we got lucky this time.

So: What are the answers? Surely there has to be an answer.

Gotcha – Complex problems seldom are solved with simple answers. Certainly, legislation regulating one minute part of the problem is nothing more than a little Band-Aid with a lot of brass band.

The truth is, nobody, no government, no NGO, no private agency has the guts or the insight to forecast the threats, organize them for probability of occurrence and extent of potential harm, and then do what it takes to prepare for them. On so many occasions, we depend on "good old American know how" to come up with ad hoc responses to problems.   An ad hoc response (or, in the industry vernacular, picking a plan out of  your ass) seldom works.   Multiply Elk River by an order of magnitude, then you might exceed the national ability to keep people safe.

This whole lack of planning reminds me of that old song about fixing the roof.  The roof leaks when it rains and that's bad, but during the rain, we can't get on the roof. On sunny days, we can can get on the roof, but we really don't need to because it's not raining so the roof is not leaking.

We have a leaky roof.  As long as we are unwilling to plan realistically and make the sacrifices in advance, we are going to be subject to disruptions which we can scarcely imagine. Individually, these are improbable in any given year.  Taken together, a very bad event is inevitable in any decade.

I wish I could predict a happy ending. But that would take finding a new mindset, or what would look like one everybody except the very old, and to find a spirit of sacrifice 
that nobody shows these days.  And, worst of all, it would also require guts and truth from the Politcal Class, which have long been AWOL.

23 January 2014

The Webster County Ambulance; and Other Nobility

There’s a dandy social commentary waiting.  It’ll have to wait.  Tonight is free-form writing time. 

It’s cold in West Virginia.  Damn cold.  Well, it’s winter, what do you expect?  And citizens here and all over the north and east are staying away from the outdoors as much as they can.

As I was driving from Morgantown yesterday, I was reminded that this isn’t possible for everyone.  There is a Fellowship which goes extra hard in the cold or the heat or the deep snow.

I was passed on the Interstate by an ambulance with some of my brothers and sisters from Webster County.  Presumably, they made an inter-hospital transfer to Ruby Memorial, one of the large teaching hospitals in WV or to Monongalia General, which specializes in some particular kinds of care.  The R-mobile has various insignia on it, including the “Star of Life” - the universal emblem of the Emergency Medical Services - front & rear.  So as they passed, I gave them a sincere thumbs-up and they gave me a breath of the air horn.  That’s just a simple acknowledgement in that Fellowship.

And I know that back in Webster County, more EMS crews were either in stations or out on calls.

And in every other county - ditto.  For that matter, this goes for all 2,000+ counties in the United States, and in provinces, shires and so forth around the world.

The people of the emergency services - fire, ems, police - don’t have a choice about their work load and don’t have an appointment calendar.  When the alarm comes in, a crewed station will be out the door in 45 seconds or the next due station is put on the call.

Consider that.  Folks are at work.  There's not a lot of sitting around, there is vehicle prep, house maintenance and training, training, training going on all the time.  Those who have called emergency services see fairly calm people in the midst of chaos.  That’s because those professionals seldom see something unfamiliar.  In the worst of times, they can say, “Do it just like in training.”

So from the warm station, they find themselves out in sub-zero temperatures 45 seconds later.  Then there are long walks, long treks carrying heavy equipment, and moving from outside to inside and back over and over.  For the fire departments, the “inside” may be several hundred degrees worth of warm.  For police, usually there is some level of threat or violence.  Among other things, they cannot wear warm gloves because their hands have to be free to defend others and themselves.  

The 45 seconds is the rule on midnight shift, too.  There, they go from a warm bunk into the cold or the heat or the rain or whatever is out there.  

I used to love those calls at night.  A fellow I knew, Jim Page, wrote a book on the subject, “The Magic of 3 AM.”  Everyone is focused on the call, the location, the problem.  But they also have time to feel the different pulse of the city or countryside.  In the fog, they see the red lights popping reflections from the mist back toward them.  They feel the road through the floorboards and the big breath inhale of the large truck engine as it runs up the gears.  On a long response, they have time to reflect -- on the call, on themselves, on picayune stuff perhaps.  “What are you doing after we get off?”  “Gonna hit the grocery store and then try to catch some zz’s.”  That sort of thing.

If they are volunteers or have a second job, the “zz’s” have to wait until the evening.  These are dedicated people.  Through fatigue, they will function.

I remember one of those fatigue days.  I was at the end of trying a murder case that had gone for a week.  (That’s a long case in WV.)  It was August, hot, and during the trial, I would take a midnight motorcycle ride just to get some perspective and fresh air.  We finished the evidence and the argument, and the jury was out for a couple of days.  I needed a change of scenery.  So after the first day of waiting during deliberation without a verdict, I called my buddy and we found a volunteer station in the county that needed coverage that night.  This was in a small town, and it was nearly a “retirement” station at night, a place that you could count on getting a good night’s sleep.  At midnight, we had a snack and turned in.  At 0010 or so, a call came in for a long response to back up some other crew.  We pulled out at 0010:30.

And we pulled back in promptly at 0600, when the shift ended, after running all night on half a dozen long calls.  Our principal reaction was, well, we asked for it, and it was kind of funny.

Oh, I got to snooze on a courtroom bench for a hour or two before the jury came back.

This is natural for these people.  They do not complain and they find these things funny.  There is a certain pride - no, a darn GREAT pride - in doing these jobs well under all sorts of adverse conditions.  These are the people who this week have noted that the school systems are raising sissies by calling off for a little bit of bad weather.  They have a point: children cannot count on getting easy lives handed to them.  Fatiguing stuff, scary stuff and wildly disgusting stuff HAS to be done in our society.

Someone has to clean up shit.  Both figurative and literal.

One of the better lessons I learned was from a Chief named John Green.  He was a hell of a man.  We came back from a call where we’d used a couple of body bags and they needed cleaned out.  That’s part of the job.  A couple of new guys were there and we asked them to help.  They were unused to this and expressed some reticence.  John then explained the “code” of service.  “Boys,” he said, “it’s OK to get sick.  Go ahead.  Go loose your lunch.  Cry.  Curse.  Wave your arms around.  And then get back here, because we have to clean out the body bags.”  

What a wonderful lesson: SOMEBODY has to do the shit jobs.  They only get worse if you wait.

I hope that the brothers and sisters from Webster Springs got home and got to go relax at home.  You can be guaranteed that if they were called later that day, they went in 45 seconds.  That is what the Fellowship does.

Maybe all of us who bitch now and then about our hard lives - the traffic, the kids, our “unfair wages,” the cable going out - need to remember and ACKNOWLEDGE the people who clean up the messes.

Just thinkin’.

03 January 2014

Whimpering Redux: This Awful Weather; or Why We Look Like Idiots to the Canadians

Weather remains a traditional and (allegedly) interesting subject of discussion.   Despite the fact that we cannot alter the weather, it may be a useful and positive discourse topic. That’s not because we need to care about people's opinions of weather, but because those discussions reveal a lot about personalities and cultural trends.

We can conclude tonight:  The current cultural trend is that America has become the Land of the Whining Sissies & the Home of the Cowardly Lions. Let's see Francis Scott Key find fit that into song lyrics.  (“Oh, the rockets’ red glare; Flushed the patriots from there . . .”)

Government offices stay tuned to CNN so that they will know what's going on in the world. That may explain things about how inefficient government is. I caught CNN Thursday afternoon when the big "news" was that a winter storm was coming.

On No. 3 EquityCourtTV, the story would have been "Hey, there's a storm coming.  It’ll snow.  And it'll be cold - Duh.”

Then No. 3 EquityCourtTV would go to some REAL news.

Not so CNN. The announcers were breathless. The "reporters" were giddy. I would have sworn that we were hearing from a couple in the back seat of a car on Lovers’ Lane.

The prose was priceless:

". . . the massive storm barging across the U.S. . . ."

". . . slam headlong into another storm system . . ."

". . .100 million people in the path of the storm . . ."

". . . horribly cold in Chicago . . ." [Possibly windy, too.]

"A snow emergency in Boston…"

["I'll respect you in the morning(?)"]

And, naturally, the storm was named. It was not just any old name, not Bob or Ted or Carol or Alice. This storm is Hercules!

The storm is so big that it merits a handle of mythical proportions. (Did we need to find someone to cut Hercules’ hair and take away "his" power? Wait, I may be confusing my mythical boogy-men.)

The assumption is that if we survive Hercules, it will be because our wise leaders acted boldly.  You know, mere CITIZENS cannot deal with snow and cold!

Oh, now I can hear the howls of laughter from Saskatchewan and Alberta.

I have to wonder why weather doom is played up.  I’ve thought of a few possible explanations:

- The weather is easy to report, and even easier to exaggerate. It’s exciting.  OK, to some people it's exciting.  It's not as if this is real news, which requires analysis and may be subject of disagreement.

- Stories of horrific weather pander to the malignant progression of softness of the American body and spirit.  Give us a reason to be afraid and then it's OK.  It's okay to be scared! After all, Wolf, Robin and "the most trusted names in news" tell us to be scared even though they're not scared. And then, after we have cowered in the storm and it passes, we can pretend that we did something really brave – We survived the attack of Storm Hercules!

I cannot help but picture some Japanese monster movie from the 1960s.

May be we need to strike 100 million little medals, with the legend "I cowered courageously!"

- And, finally, talking about this awful weather avoids the necessity of filling time with news that's hard to gather, harder to analyze and which would be thought-provoking with good reason.

After all, do we really want to hear that 10 members of the American military were killed and 30 injured in Afghanistan this week? What a downer! Besides, if we think of the people actually handling an Afghan winter in the midst of armed enemies, that makes our bravely cowering in CONUS a little bit of weak tea.

Do we want to hear that the Affordable Care Act has attracted less than one half of 1% of the population? Nah.

And how about the annual Congressional extortion racket? Congress just let 55 tax saving provisions lapse. Oh, they will reinstate them, but only after solons have milked interested donors for contributions (tribute?).  It's an old congressional scam that’s part of the Let's-make-a-deal-and-score-some-bucks methodology of that Great Marble Whorehouse in Washington.

It's easier to talk about the weather. We do not want a discontented public. We certainly don't want to tell anybody any uncomfortable truths.  We never want to hear any "I'm mad as hell and I won't take it anymore" from just people.

So for Heaven’s sake, let's talk about the weather!

Oh, the weather flabbling also gives public "leaders" a little sychophantic boost. If Boston has a snow "emergency" that results in anything other than post-salted-earth Carthage, the mayor, the governor and their cronies have proved themselves bold and brave.

One worry that is been expressed by a number of news outlets is that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio just took office and so is facing his "first big test of leadership." Commentators hope that the new mayor can "guide the city of 8 million through the crisis."

The truth is, should Mayor de Blasio have any trouble guiding the city through the snow, Hizzonor has chosen the wrong line of work. 

It won't be the Mayor out driving the Department of Sanitation trucks which are plowing snow and spreading salt. That will be the thousands of sanitation employees who are working 12 on and 12 off as long as there is snow to be cleared.  If the Mayor makes any decisions more complicated than "Yes, there’s still snow, so keep plowing," then he is part of the problem, not part of the solution.   The plans for something like snow are already in the "cookbook."  The emergency managers – the people who do the real work and who wrote the plans – simply will execute the plans.

This is not a situation like WTC, where Mayor Giuliani was praised for leadership in an unprecedented and unplanned-for emergency. But if even something with 3000 casualties were to happen today, it’s now covered by emergency plans. The city would not need and sure as hell would not want the Mayor fiddling with the plans.  The people who actually need to respond are doing their jobs.  They already know what the plans are and practice them regularly.

But if you need to be a victim, now’s your chance.  You have Third Estate approval to cower, whine and whimper at the feet of Storm Hercules.

I think I'm going to read a while. This whole weather thing is just way too boring.  I just can't get my Cower-Power in gear.