Sunday, July 22, 2007

Who Needs Terrorists When We Have the Infrastructure?

The gigantic steam-pipe explosion in midtown Manhattan last week, which cost one woman her life from a heart attack and burned two people caught in the column of steam, makes you ponder the age-old question: Who needs terrorists when we have Con Ed?

Limiting it to Con Ed, however, is understating the problem. The real question is: Who needs terrorists when we have the infrastructure?

In New York City, 83-year-old pipes are a snooze. In the early 1990s--if I recall correctly--a construction dig in lower Manhattan unearthed a hollow log that had been in service as a water main since, possibly, the time of the Dutch.1 Hollow logs were still being laid down as water mains well into the 19th century.2 Who knows how many are still in use?

The threats are above-ground too. All over town there are electrified street plates and give-way sidewalk grates. A lethal street plate electrocuted Jodi Lane in 2004; a 30-foot fall killed a homeless man who was sleeping on a rickety grate in 1990. 3

One could argue that New York's historical culture of corruption and/or sloth is part of the city's infrastructure. That, too, has cost lives. Take elevator inspectors, who long extorted money from building owners. In 1995, a man was decapitated by a spasmodic welfare-building elevator; in 1996, then-mayor Giuliani suspended 42 inspectors, leaving only 16 to eyeball 54,000 elevators. Indictments followed, but apparently not much else, including inspections. By 1999, elevator accidents had increased nearly 69%.4

The problem isn't confined to the nation's oldest cities. Could anyone forget the August 2003 blackout that left swaths of the northeast and Canada, from Baltimore to Detroit and across Ontario, powerless for hours?5 Wikipedia notes--one suspects dryly--that "the Milky Way and orbiting artificial satellites became visible to the naked eye in metropolitan areas where they cannot ordinarily be seen".

Since January, according to the see-some, know-all New York Times,6 a third of the nation's refineries have gone off-line for breakdowns, fires, leaks, and power outages (as if an oil refinery couldn't have a backup generator). "When they shut down they are accused of gouging the system," whined Charles Drevna, a veep at the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. "When they don’t, they are criticized for overrunning their facilities.”7 Awwww. How could mere profits compensate for such abuse from the public?

Fact is, all these failures were human. For instance, the Con Ed pipe that erupted was inspected several times before it gave way because of changes tp the incredibly complex tangle of pipes under the street. In short, somebody blew it. Here's the true litany of causes:

•The steam pipe: Inspection failure.
•The electrified street plate: Maintenance failure.
•The collapsing grate: Political failure (why wasn't he sleeping in a warm bed?) or laziness (whose job was it to check the grate?), depending on your politics.
•The lethal elevator: Corruption.
•The power grid: Lack of cooperation.
•The refinery shutdowns: Greed.

In every case, an observant insider could have, or should have, seen, pointed, and screamed until preventive changes were made. Neither the press nor the public have the access to check these things ahead of time: We need the info from people who know. We need more human information leaks to have fewer steam-pipe leaks.

Blowing the whistle, even anonymously, has to be the right and duty of all employees who know the nuts and bolts of the infrastructure.

We can't expect people to commit career hari-kiri on behalf of the public. I hereby propose that some private zillionaire set up a reward fund for citizen heroes who point out threats to the safety of the infrastructure. Yes, even anonymous citizen heroes. As I understand it, the reward-for-information setup in a criminal case is that when the tipster calls, he or she gets a unique number that serves as an ID when it's time for the reward payout. It could work for whistleblowers too.

Of course, you won't see a fund like that set up by the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. But you might just see it from a zillionaire with a conscience.

1I've queried the New-York Historical Society on this point but have yet to hear back.
2Page 28, Phase 1a Archaelogical Assessment of Washington Square Park, August 2005. Prepared for the New York City Parks and Recreation Department through Thomas Baisley Associates by Joan H. Geismar.
3Jodi Lane, 30, died in 2004 when she stepped on an electrified street plate, was shocked, fell down, and was slowly electrocuted as she lay unable to move. At least one person, a policewoman, was herself shocked (but not killed) trying to rescue her. "Thousands" of street plates posed the same hazard. See; "Homeless Man Asleep on a Grate Dies as It Falls 30 Feet Into a Pit," New York Times, August 30, 1990.
4" Elevator Inspectors Indicted in Bribery," New York Times, April 25, 1997; "Elevator Kills City Worker In the Bronx," New York Times, January 7, 1995; "Council Faults Buildings Department Over Elevator Inspections," New York Times, May 18, 1999
5 Easily confirmed by a web search (and not just Wikipedia).
6Which is, nonetheless, the source of most of the info in this post.
7New York Times, 7/21/07 editorial

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