The Danger of Isolation
Immediately prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Benjamin Franklin famously told the delegates to the Continental Congress, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately”. The notion of us all being in a situation together has many applications in the realm of environmental policy, not the least of which are policies governing coastal areas in an era of climate change and sea level rise. The acknowledgement of that fact could be our collective salvation as surely as the failure to recognize that our fates are all tied together will eventually lead to our individual demise. Not only do we have a common interest in addressing environmental threats, there is also a need for a concerted course of action to meet them.
Similarly, the story of the blind men and the elephant brings a related lesson to our approach to policy making. Making decisions based only on a limited perspective can lead to miscalculation and misunderstanding of the nature and scope of the problems or circumstances that we face resulting in a failure to appropriately address the threats that exist. After all, describing an elephant as a snake or a rope may be accurate based upon your limited view of the world, but it is hardly an appropriate description of what you’re facing. This proverb provides no more apt a lesson than for coastal communities that face hazards with systems-based origins but respond with solutions that are only focused on what is right in front of them.
The dangers that coastal communities are facing from the combination of a gradually increasing sea level and flooding and damage from strengthening storms requires a response that looks at the bigger picture. The problem is, that in many areas, our policies and actions are controlled at the local level. This leads to measures being taken that fail to look at real root causes of the hazards. Putting aside, for a moment, the global scale of climate change, the failure to address the expected effects on a regional or systems basis leads to ineffective or inappropriate response measure that continue to put people, property and infrastructure investments at risk. The inability (or unwillingness) to see that what we may be facing at any particular place or point in time is just part of a much larger picture and use that perspective to drive our response is a serious and dangerous shortcoming.
The Need To Act On A Regional Basis
In 1972, Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act in an effort to manage the nation’s coastal resources and provide a balance between economic development and environmental protection. Section 307 of the Act encouraged coastal states to implement their own management programs by providing for integrated federal and state permitting in coastal areas for states that were deemed consistent with the CZMA. This led to the adoption of coastal management programs in every coastal state along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts as well as in the Great Lakes states. The theory was good. The practice-not so much.
States took different approaches to managing their coastal resources and the definition of what was deemed consistent with the Federal Coastal Zone Management Act had a fairly liberal interpretation. Some states, like California and North Carolina were very aggressive in managing growth in coastal areas and created powerful commissions with both regulatory authority and the technical capacity to support land use decision making. Other states, like New York and New Jersey, passed regulations, but left left much of the decision-making power in the hands of local government. Additionally, New Jersey’s regulations were written in a manner that saw the bulk of typical “Jersey Shore” development fall outside the purview of the restrictions. It’s interesting to note that when North Carolina’s governor signed that state’s coastal management regulations into law he made a statement to the effect that it was to prevent coastal North Carolina from becoming the New Jersey shore.
We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning – Werner Heisenberg
The politics of regional authority and stronger land use regulations can be very difficult to navigate. However, we can no longer afford to approach coastal land use in the same manner, nor can we continue to manage land use in a piecemeal fashion. Whether its Dauphin Island, AL or Duck, NC or Ortley Beach, NJ, how we recover from the last weather event or prepare for the next storm must have some level of consistency. I’ll leave the methodologies that need to be applied for another day, but the underlying principals need to be based on reduction of vulnerability and hazard reduction and avoidance. Responses cannot be based solely on the interests of any single community or particular interest in isolation. A fragmented approach to a regional problem will never work.
A sea wall that protects one community at the expense of another, an expensive beach replenishment project for the benefit of a small number of people, or an infrastructure investment that supports an unsustainable or vulnerable community are just some examples of the results that a fragmented approach to coastal management can bring. It will not get any easier going forward as difficult decisions will need to be made. Just looking at Sandy recovery, it becomes obvious that there are places that can be re-built, there are places that can be re-built with modifications, but most importantly, there are places where we cannot or should not rebuild. Yet, I can almost guarantee that we will rebuild things right where they were before the storm, that we will favor one community over another, that we will use public funds for infrastructure that is unsustainable and that we will continue to make decisions on a local ad hoc basis. It doesn’t make Sandy recovery any different than Alabama after Frederic in 1979 or Louisiana after Katrina in 2005, but that’s the point; you’d think we would learn by now.
Before the next storm, and there will be a next one, coastal states need to assess their land use management and infrastructure investment practices. Dunes, wetlands, floodways and no-build or buy-out zones have to be a part of the equation and you will not achieve this on a town-by-town basis. The evaluation of vulnerability and resource protection needs to be done regionally. Engineered solutions like jetties, dikes or sea walls all have impacts beyond the project areas that must be assessed. If you don’t look at the big picture, it becomes the old arcade game whack-a-mole. Solve a problem here, it creates another someplace else, and the problems just keep coming. This doesn’t even touch on the resource limitations that individual towns face having to take on a tremendous effort to re-think their footprint without adequate support. Political will, resources and the right perspective are the elements necessary to succeed. Unfortunately, these seemingly simple ingredients are all in short supply. However, not taking the political risk or making the proper investments now will only result in real risk and unaffordable expenses in the future.-Ben Spinelli
‘Tis The Season-For Climate Change Debate
Well, Winter is coming and along with the cold winds, falling temperatures and snowfall comes the annual blizzard of rhetoric from climate change deniers. “It’s cold!”, “It’s snowing!” and “Where’s your global warming now?” are refrains that are about as predictable as shorter days and bitter winds. America is truly a remarkable country. How can we be the most advanced nation on Earth and at the same time home to a robust anti-science movement that has managed to hijack political discourse and public policy? Perhaps if we pray to some stone gods we can stave off disaster.
The notion that we can close our eyes to changes in the world’s climate, and the consequences of those changes, and just continue with business as usual has about as much promise for redemption as idol worship. Nothing to see here folks. Just move along. Sea level rising. Polar ice melting. Unprecedented severe weather events. All just a part of the natural cycles of things. The fact that it all coincides with record levels of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Just coincidence. Chest pain, dizziness, tingling of the hands and arms. Not a heart attack, just a little indigestion. No exercise, bad diet, overweight. Just a coincidence. All is well.
The purpose here isn’t to debate whether or not climate change is real or even if it has origins in human activity. The point is to illustrate how irresponsible and foolish politicizing a scientific debate is and how dire the consequences of making national policy based upon politics rather than science are. Why do 30% of Americans persist in denying that climate change is real? Why do we allow national policy to be held hostage by the refusal of a significant, but nevertheless minority, portion of the populace who refuse to accept what an overwhelming majority of members of the scientific community have accepted as fact? If we can’t come to terms as a society with this disconnect between policy, politics and reality we will remain paralyzed. Inaction in the face of the mounting evidence that climate change is not only real, but accelerating, is a dangerous course.
If It Ain’t Happenin’ Here-It Ain’t Happenin’
As a country, we have come to view ourselves as the center of the universe. No doubt that the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians all had similar world views in their times. That was somewhat understandable for ancient civilizations with limited technological capabilities. For the United States in the 21st Century, this is myopic at best. So when there is a predicted increase in the intensity of Tropical Cyclones in the Indian Ocean basin or Typhoon Haiyan devastates the Philippine Islands it doesn’t create a ripple in public opinion in the U.S. After all, events that happen elsewhere in the world don’t really happen do they. It’s very easy for us to turn a blind eye to circumstances that exist beyond our borders, especially if they barely garner a mention on the evening news. By the way, the rest of the world absolutely believes in climate change.
However, when the strongest tornado ever recorded strikes Oklahoma, or the worst drought on record strikes central Texas or a record high storm surge inundates lower Manhattan, all within a 12 month period, you might think this series of events would begin to draw the attention of policy makers in the United States . Yet we remain unmoved. Real progress is elusive. This includes taking action on two fronts-reacting to the current and anticipated effects of climate change and taking steps to mitigate or eliminate our contribution to continued impact on the climate. That is how rational people would behave in the face of a serious threat. Instead, we allow the lowest common denominator to drive our policy action, or more accurately, inaction. We tolerate a failure to address one of the most important issues facing both our nation and the world based upon a phony debate fueled by special interests that profit from this gridlock.
It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept – Bill Watterson
Even in my home state of New Jersey, the power of special interests to unduly influence public policy on climate change is evident. A popular and secure Republican governor in a progressive state should be in a position to take some degree of political risk to move climate change policies forward. This would presumably be an imperative in a coastal state, vulnerable to the effects of climate change and sea level rise, that had just experienced the most destructive natural disaster in its history. Instead, Governor Christie withdrew the state from the multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), slashed spending on green energy programs and is balking at requiring changes in the development footprint in vulnerable coastal areas of the state when rebuilding after Sandy. The governor is the same person who said, “climate change is real and it’s impacting our state” in 2011 and “I don’t think there’s been any proof thus far that Sandy was caused by climate change” in 2013. If politics can bring climate change policy to a standstill in New Jersey, there are few other places that offer hope of progress.
Meanwhile….In A Parallel Universe
Right next door in New York its a different world. Similarly impacted by Sandy, and the year before by Hurricane Irene, a much different approach is evident. Governor Andrew Cuomo said “I understand budgets are tight, but we can’t be short-sighted either… people too often ‘politicize’ climate change while avoiding the supporting hard science. Ocean temperatures are rising and we’re feeling it here in New York state.” The laws of physics remain constant on either side of the state line but the politics are quite different. This is an unacceptable way of governing. This is not an issue of Democrat vs. Republican, Conservative vs. Liberal or playing an issue for political gain. This is an issue of taking responsibility and governing in a rational and conscientious manner. I always had a saying as mayor,”take care of the future and the present has a way of taking care of itself”. That would seem to have as least some application to climate change policies.
So, if you are in a policy-making position- I’m talking to you! End the mental gymnastics necessary to continue governing without acknowledging climate change and sea level rise. When you jump off of a 50-story building, it isn’t credible to deny the existence of gravity as you pass the 20th floor. Your repudiation of science will come to a hard end just a few floors below. Tell your corporate contributors to figure out a way to make money from climate adaptation instead of desperately obstructing progress. And if you really don’t believe in climate change-say it loud and clear so the 69% of us (and the nearly 97% of climate researchers) who acknowledge the existence of climate change can hold you accountable. Denial of science is no way to govern and it is up to us to insure that our representatives are not allowed to lead without acknowledging reality any longer.
The Hidden Damage of Coastal Storms
When Hurricane Irene headed north late in the Summer of 2011, there was a lot of talk about the effect the storm would have on the nation’s gas prices. Irene’s track put 10% of the country’s refining capacity directly in the bulls eye as the category 2 hurricane steamrolled towards landfall on the New Jersey coast. Disruption of gasoline production at refineries in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey was a major concern. Irene turned out to be more of a rain-maker for the mid-Atlantic region with modest winds and a storm surge between 6 and 8 feet. While the storm produced record inland flooding resulting from rainfall of up to 15 inches, much of the oil industry’s infrastructure in coastal locations was spared.
The economic damage and turmoil that coastal storms can cause are certainly noteworthy, however, temporary interference with gasoline production is a minor concern compared with the more lasting impacts of severe weather hitting our nation’s industrial production centers. The combination of a changing climate and rising sea-levels is creating the potential for a public health disaster anywhere a tropical cyclone or nor’easter affects the U.S. coastline from Texas to Maine. While the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster makes headlines and raises fears of a similar incident here in the U.S., a much different, but still highly dangerous, threat lurks below the radar. Oil refineries and petrol-chemical facilities dot the coast along this stretch. The anticipated onslaught of more frequent and more severe storms superimposed upon a higher base sea level places these installations at ever increasing risks of flooding. But the real damage isn’t to the economy or the infrastructure itself, it is to the environment and the population living in proximity to these locations. Additionally, a disproportionate number of the people living in these areas are economically disadvantaged raising issues of environmental justice.
When Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, a little over a year after Irene, it brought a storm surge of up to 16 feet to the New York metropolitan area. Unlike Irene, Sandy inundated refineries and chemical plants in New Jersey. There were an estimated 630 storm-related oil spills in New York City. However, New Jersey took the worst blow regarding oil contamination after a significant diesel fuel spill at the Motiva Refinery into the Arthur Kill. According to New Jersey environmental officials, 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the waterway after a storage tank ruptured from the storm surge. Major sewage treatment plants were disabled resulting in the discharge of an estimated 11 billion pounds of untreated effluent into the harbor and surrounding tidal rivers and bays. As the floodwaters spread inland, they carried large amounts of chemicals and petroleum products with them. When they receded they left behind a toxic residue that covered the ground, coated homes, and fouled the region’s wetlands and waterways.
In Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, an area of the city that hosts both industrial plants and a vibrant and ethnically diverse residential community, Sandy’s storm surge pushed the waters of Newark Bay and the Passaic River into areas that had never experienced tidal flooding before. The water carried, not only highly contaminated sediments from these waterways, but chemicals from Superfund sites and industrial plants located along the shoreline. Compounding this, the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission’s main treatment facility, the nearby Newark Bay Pumping Station that handles sewer effluent for much of northern New Jersey, was shut down after being overwhelmed by the storm’s tidal surge.This resulted in 3.1 billion gallons of untreated sewage being released into the water. This noxious brew poured into basements, homes and businesses.
Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.- Jacques Cousteau
Following the storm, once the flooding had receded, people were cleaning, trying to get back into their homes, unaware that there was much more left behind than just water. Information on what people were being exposed to was very difficult to come by. New Jersey’s environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Protection, provided little or no information to residents. Meanwhile, folks were pumping water and cleaning muck that was laden with PCB’s, Dioxin and the residue of raw sewage including high levels of E.Coli and coliform bacteria. Similar issues arose in Louisiana in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. Just as in Sandy, oil refineries, petrol-chemical installations and Superfund sites were flooded. Sewage treatment plants were knocked off-line and flooding was not just flooding. The damage to the environment and the threat to public health were not immediately recognized and under-reported until well after the storm and people had already been exposed. The National Academy of Engineering released a report in 2006 detailing many of the issues that arose.
The USGS is sampling water in Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath to develop an understanding of the changes in water quality across impacted regions. Contaminants such as pesticides and E. coli in water affect both human and wildlife health. On a longer time scale, excessive nutrients introduced to waterways by increased runoff from the land due to Hurricane Sandy has the potential to cause algal blooms across the region leading to the degradation of ecosystems and increased costs to treat drinking water. Lower oxygen levels caused by bio-degradation of petroleum products can lead to fish kills. There is also the potential for many of these contaminants to become caught up in the food chain. The New York Harbor region is a rich nursery for fish, shellfish and migratory birds and there is a strong likelihood that they will persist in the ecosystem for years. Many of these effects were observed in the Gulf Coast region following Katrina and are likely to be found in the mid-Atlantic now.
The real questions, however, aren’t about what happened. The important issue is what are we going to do to avoid a repeat of these conditions. Storms like Katrina and Sandy are going to happen again. With higher sea levels, even lesser storms may create similar conditions. The next one may make landfall in the Chesapeake region or perhaps along the New England coast. Wherever it may be, there will be sewage treatment plants, industrial facilities and contaminated sites in vulnerable locations. So, while a temporary spike in gas prices will dominate the news in advance of an impending storm, there are much higher costs to be paid in terms of public health and environmental damage.
We can’t make the argument that we didn’t know what could happen. We go to great lengths to protect against industrial accidents or terrorist attacks at many of these facilities. Yet we do little, if anything, to reduce or avoid vulnerability to the much more likely threats of extreme weather events. Requiring refineries and treatment plants to be retro-fitted and hardened against flooding hazards, putting stronger building codes for these installations in place or even moving them out of harm’s way is a relatively minor investment compared with the potential damage that will result from a failure to act. Further, these are not theoretical or perceived dangers. Something like this will occur again. We need to overcome our reticence to invest in infrastructure and prevention (and a significant portion of Sandy recovery money must be spent towards this end) because there is a much higher cost that will result from inaction. -Ben Spinelli
And oh yeah-don’t forget to listen to this!
The Long Road to Recovery
I’ve taken a break from this site for the past 8 months. I spent that time working for the President’s Hurricane Sandy Task Force as a Senior Policy Adviser on issues of local government and land use planning. My duties took me to Washington, DC and New York City, but more importantly, to every corner of New Jersey that was impacted by Sandy. I spent a great deal of time speaking with policy makers, government officials, scientific experts, business leaders and ordinary people from the shores of Delaware Bay to the Hackensack Meadowlands regarding their views and experiences both before and after the storm. That work has provided me with a perspective on the complexity and difficulty of dealing with the challenges that recovering from a disaster like Sandy presents. Of even greater significance is the necessity of undertaking these daunting tasks while confronting the reality of a changing world climate and rising sea-levels.
There is a strong urge in human nature to seek comfort. We like familiar surroundings and feel disoriented by change. These instincts are brought to the forefront following disasters. Homes are destroyed, landscapes are altered and lives are changed by major destructive events. Its only natural to want a return to “normal” when major disruptions, like Hurricane Sandy, take place. We want to get back to where we were as soon as possible. In terms of Sandy we can describe this feeling as we want the world of October 27, 2012 back and we want it now. However natural this feeling may be, it’s not a reasonable expectation, neither in terms of how long it will take to re-build or how we should rebuild.
Storms on the magnitude of Sandy have certainly happened before. There are a number of lessons that can be learned from past recovery efforts that are applicable in the aftermath of Sandy to assist in guiding rebuilding. What was unprecedented was the scope of the disaster. The density of the population, the value of property and the existing (and now vulnerable) infrastructure in the storm’s path was on a far different scale than anything that had been seen in the U.S. before. Two things were immediately evident; recovery from this storm was going to take a long time and building things back the way they were was not an option.
There is a basic premise that we must accept first before embarking on the monumental task of rebuilding. That is, we need to fundamentally alter the manner in which we occupy vulnerable areas of the coast, particularly in the densely populated northeast. The long-standing patterns of development established in an era where climate change and sea-level rise were not recognized threats have placed people, property and infrastructure in harm’s way. Before we put another shovel in the ground, before we spend another dime of public money, before we issue another permit for construction the question needs to be asked if we are simply wasting our investments and creating unreasonable exposure to risk by failing to take this disaster as an opportunity to remake our footprint in these at-risk areas.
If we don’t change direction soon we’re going to end up where we’re going- Professor Irwin Corey
It may seem like a fairly common sense way of approaching things. However, nothing is ever as simple as it looks. Back before Sandy, the USGS had been modeling the risks of sea level rise for over a decade. In the Spring of 2012 they released a report warning that sea-level rise was actually accelerating beyond their original projections. Then Sandy hit and the theoretical impacts became all too real. People got a first-hand look at what an increase of sea-level in terms of several meters was really like and the devastation and disruption it would bring. This should have been enough to make decisions easy. But it wasn’t. There are politics and economics and generations worth of investment in existing development patterns and the social and emotional impact on people’s lives to contend with. These factors, legitimate or not, exist and they make the path to recovery even more difficult and complex.
Evaluating our decisions going forward requires that we look at the full equation-that means looking at the full cost of everything we do. This includes assessing the cost of infrastructure investments in terms of the price of having to rebuild it again. Looking at the sustainability of the service area of infrastructure. Putting a value on a healthy intact environment. Assigning an appropriate cost measurement to human safety and lives that we might put at risk by failing to change. Accounting for likely conditions that we will face as a result of climate change and sea-level rise. These are the just some of the elements that need to be measured and quantified in order to chart a course forward. Political expediency and narrow selfish interest have no role in the calculation.
This discussion barely scratches the surface of the important policy issues we face. Even so, the important questions that exist are clear. As we proceed to rebuild in the wake of Sandy will we be ready to do things the right way? Will we make the right decisions that will reduce vulnerability and avoid future risk? Will we take the long-term view to insure that where and how we build will be sustainable? It won’t be easy. The right way rarely is. If we fail to act responsibly future generations will judge us harshly.and rightfully so.- Ben Spinelli
It’s been 6 months since my last post here on Politics of the Environment. During that time I’ve been busy working on the President’s Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some of the nation’s leading experts on disaster recovery on some of the most important issues facing our nation today. It has been a tremendous experience.
The Task Force has released its rebuilding strategy document, which you can access here. Please take the time to review this report that discusses the difficult issues facing, not just New Jersey, but all vulnerable coastal areas of the country as we confront a changing climate and rising sea levels. The strategy document addresses, not just how to recover from a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, but how to rebuild in a manner that will reduce or avoid the vulnerability of people, property and infrastructure to the threats of future extreme weather events. It is a thoughtful and comprehensive evaluation of the challenges posed as the Northeast continues the long process of recovery in the wake of Sandy.
Sandy revealed the necessity of improving hazard mitigation efforts to alter how vulnerable coastal
areas of the densely populated northeast are occupied. Long-standing land use patterns have placed
people, property, and infrastructure in locations that have significant risk of flooding and storm surge
and that will become more vulnerable as sea level continues to rise. Municipalities need to build
the capacity and expertise to take the steps necessary to reduce that risk. Hazard mitigation and
risk reduction must be a primary goal of recovery efforts in the region even if fragmented land use
authority and governance make this a difficult proposition.-Page 125 Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy
It has been a privilege to work with my talented and dedicated fellow Task Force members as well as with the scores of public stakeholders who generously gave their time to provide the perspectives and insights that helped shape the strategy document. I am so grateful that I had the chance to be a part of this undertaking. It was also an honor to serve New Jersey and the United States by participating in this important effort. I will continue working with the Task Force until the end of September and will resume posting here then. Until that time I wanted to drop a quick note to bring the Task Force strategy document to the attention of readers of Politics of the Environment. I hope you find the report interesting and informative. I’ll be back in October with plenty to say.- Ben Spinelli
One of These Days
On a warm spring day in April 2008 I checked in to the New Jersey State Police Disaster Response facility in West Trenton. The weather was about as nice as it gets around here with temperatures in the low 70’s, beautiful blue skies and a slight breeze. Inside the building, which as far as I could tell was built to withstand a simultaneous nuclear blast and asteroid impact, it was quiet. The command center, with its banks of desks and computer monitors, was dark and empty. The walls were ringed with high-tech data displays and HD television screens that were blank, save for a single T.V. tuned to the Golf Network showing one of the early rounds of the Master’s. This was not the kind of day this facility was built for.
I spent the afternoon meeting with the state’s disaster response coordinator as part of the background work for creating a new version of the New Jersey State Plan. A long-term assessment for the state, the State Plan was designed to steer decisions on land use, infrastructure investment, capital projects and resource conservation and protection. A large portion of the research involved meeting with each of the state’s agencies and departments to obtain their input and to try to align each agency’s programs with the State Plan to the greatest extent possible. This session focused on two aspects of disaster response: the vulnerability of infrastructure to potential disasters and the nature and direction of recovery efforts. No responsible long-term plan could ignore these issues.
If you want to make enemies-try to change something- Woodrow Wilson
The updated State Plan was going to contain a new section on Climate Change and recommendations for a comprehensive response, from the way we contributed to continued greenhouse gas emissions to preparation and response for the inevitable effects that climatologists, including the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist, warned we were facing. From hardening our infrastructure to handle the likely flooding, to protecting roads and bridges to, perhaps most importantly, planning to rebuild differently after any disaster, these issues were all explored and incorporated into the long-term outlook for the state. A plan that was eventually buried by the Corzine Administration and outright rejected by the Christie Administration because it contained some hard truths that may not have been politically expedient, it addressed getting ready for the inevitable. Four years later, on October 29, 2012 to be exact, the day the disaster response center was built for arrived. It really didn’t take a crystal ball to know this was coming.
Time for a Change
While the State Police were preparing for every sort of potential disaster from terrorist attacks to chemical spills to nuclear reactor accidents, we knew what the main threat to New Jersey was-the state’s vulnerability to coastal storms. Whether a nor’easter or a hurricane, a strong storm moving up the east coast or making landfall somewhere along the Jersey Shore was clearly the most likely danger facing the Garden State. Rising sea levels made damage from flooding more likely, even from ordinary storms. Bridges and causeways were prone to inundation, cutting off escape routes for residents along the shore. Infrastructure, such as water and sewage facilities, electrical transmission equipment and other necessities of modern life were at risk. Homes, businesses and people in the path of such a storm were in danger. Hurricane Sandy was the first of what will probably be many tests of the resiliency of our infrastructure and the communities it serves.
The effects of sea level rise have been studied. Mapping, like the interactive map that can be found here, clearly indicated where the largest risks existed and continue to exist. Yet we took little or no action. This is as much an environmental issue as it is an economic and social issue and, not the least, an issue of public health and safety. As shore towns undertake rebuilding efforts, the question becomes are we taking the necessary steps during this process to avoid being right back in the same predicament when the next major event occurs. In a rush back to “normalcy” and trying to recover economically will we make the same mistakes again? We never had the excuse that we didn’t know this would happen and we certainly can’t say it now. Sea level will continue to rise, storms will increase in intensity and frequency and the ocean will go where the ocean wants to go. Even though he didn’t really say it, we like to quote Einstein as saying insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Whether Einstein said it or not, its a good way to look at things.
The response to events like Hurricane Sandy will say a lot about us as a society. Our ability to make hard decisions. Our capacity to plan ahead. Our commitment to future generations. The nature and character of our political leadership. All of these things are subjects for consideration and evaluation. These are not abstract or theoretical issues. They have a real-world effect and we have a responsibility to demand that we cease senseless political debate and start to do things differently-and better. There is a lot on the table here. We’ll continue to come back to this topic because of its importance and because it says so much about how we operate as a society. My mission for 2013 is to motivate visitors to this site to take action and hold our leaders accountable. Come back and check in often for discussion of ways to accomplish that. We can make a difference. There are two ways to deal with hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer. The first is to put some ice on it after you hit it. The other is not hitting yourself in the first place. This was one shot on the thumb. Let’s try not to hit it again. -Ben Spinelli
The Dirty Work of Government
Now that the election is over, its time to get back to the business of governing. One of the prime functions of government is to provide the infrastructure that makes our society work. Roads, bridges, electrical distribution networks, and water and sewer facilities are all vital components of a healthy society. When it comes to the environment there are two essential elements of infrastructure that have a direct impact- water in and water out – our drinking water supply system and sewage treatment facilities. Infrastructure is probably one of the least interesting subjects to read about, but it may be one of the most important.
Talking about infrastructure may not have the cache’ of other environmental issues but it is the foundation of how our built environment interacts with the natural world. Where and how we obtain the drinking water that is essential to a functioning society is the hub for most environmental policies. What we do with that water and the impact of our methods of disposal of the by-products of our use of this resource is just as important an issue. When you start talking about water lines and sewage treatment plants, most people’s eyes start to glaze over. That’s unfortunate because the time has come (or has it really passed) for a serious discussion about infrastructure investment.
You may delay, but time will not-Benjamin Franklin
Time to Invest in Infrastructure
We get so lost in discussions of taxation and fiscal policy that we have forgotten basic principles of investment and re-investment in society. We are currently living off of the investments made by past generations and we are ignoring or refusing our obligation to pay those investments forward to the next generation. What’s the big deal? Well aside from kicking the can down the road and saddling our children and grand-children with an almost impossible task of renewing the nation’s infrastructure, we continue to inflict enormous damage on the environment. Over drawing aquifers, outstripping the capacity of water supplies, and disposing of improperly treated or untreated sewage effluent in the country’s waterways is taking a toll. In the current economic climate, nobody wants to discuss investing hundreds of billions of dollars into the unglamorous world that largely lies beneath the ground, out of sight and out of mind.
The Narragansett Bay Commission recently undertook a massive project to solve the issue of CSO outflows that were seriously impacting the health of the bay. Their solution was to build a huge underground storage tunnel to store storm water until it could be safely released into Narragansett Bay. The cost for Phase I of this project was $350 million. The construction of this 3 mile tunnel underneath the City of Providence eliminated the discharge of 2.2 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the bay each year. An expensive endeavor, but was it worth the price? If you care about the health of the environment it certainly was. However, this isn’t the kind of investment where you get something that you can look at or score political points with. It’s just good sound government.
This is a political issue because this is a government responsibility. This is an environmental issue because every day we fail to address deficient infrastructure is one more day that we continue to foul our waterways or dangerously over-draw our water supplies. Every time there is a heavy rainfall, Combined Sewage Outflows (CSO’s) pour millions of gallons of raw sewage into streams, rivers, coastal bays and the ocean. Inadequate and outdated sewage treatment plants dump under-treated or poorly treated effluent into our waterways every minute of every day. The problem is that there is no constituency for this issue. As long as water comes out of the tap and the toilet flushes, nobody pays much attention to why these things actually happen. Meanwhile, we are oblivious to the self-inflicted looming threat that the failure to modernize the lifelines of our society represents. Without advocates, without a well of campaign cash behind it, without a compelling narrative, and with an expensive solution, infrastructure investment is the most important issue that nobody cares about. Good luck trying to get political leaders to address this unwanted step-child of public policy.
Do The Math
The infrastructure issue is, at its root, a math problem. Capital investments, by their nature, are long-term propositions. Large expenditures that are paid for over a period of years. The theory underlying these undertakings is that projects with multi-generational life spans and multi-generational benefits will be paid for over multiple generations. It makes a lot of sense. The scope of the necessary investment can be assessed and a rational financial plan for renewing and paying for a modern infrastructure system can be put in to place over a period of years. However, it takes someone to make the initial investment and set the wheels in motion. The problem is that nobody wants to take on the political risk of fulfilling this obligation. If it’s a 30 year undertaking and we waste a year, it’s just become a 31 year project. If we wait another year, it becomes 32 years.
I wish I had some pithy one-liner or a dramatic story to tell you to pique your interest. The problem is that this is just the real nuts and bolts of governing a modern society. Nothing exciting. Nothing glamorous. Unless you’re a water engineer or a long-term planner, you will never give a thought to these issues. Besides, our politicians are just so much more entertaining when they talk about things like taxes, abortion and guns that we forget to demand that they fulfill the real obligations of governing officials-make sure society works and make sure we plan for the future. Unfortunately, we can measure the costs of action fairly accurately. We have a very difficult time assessing the penalties for inaction in terms of dollars. So we obsess about the price of fulfilling our obligations, frightened by the financial investment needed, and in the end, do nothing.
Living on the Edge
There are places where environmental infrastructure is being addressed. Aside from the Narragansett Bay Commission’s CSO project, New York City is in the home stretch of a construction project that started in 1970. The massive Water Tunnel Number 3 is scheduled for completion in 2020. A 50-year, $5 billion project that will insure the delivery of clean drinking water to our nation’s largest city. In all 50 states money from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) is leveraged with state funds for local infrastructure projects that address both drinking water and waste water treatment. Unfortunately, its just a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done. In reality, even the Water Tunnel Number 3 project was only undertaken because planners and engineers realized that they couldn’t even perform routine maintenance on the existing water tunnels without turning off the tap to 8 million people. We’re just living on the edge when it comes to infrastructure, just one failure away from serious problems.
So, no, this is hardly the most compelling story to tell when it comes to environmental issues. However, its one that we need to drag from the shadows of policy wonkism and out into the daylight for discussion. The next time you hear some politician droning on about taxes and deficits, ask them what they plan on doing about our pending infrastructure nightmare. What will it take? A massive sewage spill? No, we’ve had those and they have hardly raised an eyebrow. The failure of a major city’s water system? That might get some response. The notion that we need to see a major catastrophe before we act is a sad state of affairs, but also an apt commentary on the current state of our politics and our government.
What can we do? Start demanding answers to questions about infrastructure spending. At the very least you will force political leaders to do some research into an issue they would much rather ignore. This is a ticking bomb. Don’t wait until the tap is dry or the toilet doesn’t flush or you notice that a local waterway has taken on a distinctive new odor before asking for action. Politicians won’t react to this issue unless you compel them to. They need to drink clean water too. Give your state or federal representative’s office a call. Maybe we can start a movement.- Ben Spinelli