CARS HOMES JOBS

With advancements and technology come acceptable risks

Sunday, February 23, 2014
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I read with interest the article in the Feb. 13 paper over a proposal to upgrade the oil terminal at the Port of Albany.

Hundreds of people came to the meeting expressing fears that the oil terminal would endanger their safety. Representatives from the local political class, sensing the concern from the people, spoke in opposition of the proposal and were rewarded with applause.

How did we become so fearful?

The fear of development, or redevelopment in this case, has risen to a point of hysteria. It encourages our political leaders to overrule governmental agencies that have the technical capability and responsibility to carefully evaluate a proposal and permit an action that will not endanger the public.

The unseen results of such poor political leadership is inefficiency in governmental services, slow economic growth and higher product and service costs to the public.

Can we step back, take a deep breath, and think for a moment that we do not and never will live in a risk-free world?

Accepted risks

Let us consider a few risks that we take for granted that greatly enhance our lives. We realize that automobile travel is hazardous. We know that vehicle deaths approach 40,000 annually in our country. Roads are constantly being upgraded to reduce the hazard of driving. But no road upgrade or law will prevent a sleepy, inattentive or drunken driver from causing horrible harm on the highway system.

I remember when the Thruway bridge over the Schoharie Creek collapsed in April of 1987. Ten people lost their lives in that flood-related event. More recently, during August of 2007, an interstate bridge failed in Minneapolis, killing 13 people.

These bridges on the interstate highway system were built to the highest standards at the time. But they both failed, with loss of life. The Thruway bridge was rebuilt to an even higher standard and that bridge withstood a much greater flood from the Irene event two years ago.

Bridge failures happen. A little research found that hundreds of bridges have failed since the development of the automobile, resulting in the loss of many hundreds of lives.

No one is asking why the automobile was developed, requiring the construction of countless bridges to accommodate our vehicles. We readily accept the risks when we climb into our vehicles and assume every bridge that we pass over will support the vehicle.

I occasionally travel by air. I remember the plane that went down in west Albany, killing a resident in the home in the late 1960s. A little research found that in each of the five years from 2008–2012, there were between 117 and 156 air crashes, causing between 794 and 1,115 fatalities every year!

I suppose we could stop those losses but we would need to stop all air travel. Obviously, our modern life rejects such a thought, so we readily take the risks and board planes to Florida or wherever.

Failures of dams

Let us focus on dam failures for a moment. There are thousands of dams throughout the country that are rated as “high-hazard dams.” They are used for water supply, flood control and power generation. Recreation is a side benefit. We do not think of dam failures, as we assume the appropriate governmental agency will do what is necessary to protect the public. But failures do occur.

The failure of Hadlock Dam in Warren County a few years ago caught our attention. There were property damages, but no loss of life with that event. However, the 1976 Teton Dam failure in Idaho resulted in 11 fatalities. The worst dam failure in our country occurred in 1889 near Johnstown, Pa., where more than 2,200 people lost their lives.

There are a few hundred high-hazard dams in New York. Tens of thousands of people live downstream from high-hazard dams and probably are not even aware of that fact. But we accept such risks, as we assume the governmental agency, such as the dam safety people in the Department of Environmental Conservation, will protect us.

So why do so many people distrust the governmental agency that has the technical resources and the responsibility for protecting the public, and then put their trust in the political class that usually has no expertise on the issue?

Pipeline case

The redevelopment of the Port of Albany facility to handle energy resources is only the latest issue.

The Constitution Pipeline proposal to improve the natural gas infrastructure faces similar opposition.

The delay in modern natural gas development in New York is the best example of where the technical studies have been ignored and laid aside while the political class pursues its own agenda. In my opinion, that trust in the political class is misplaced.

Russ Wege is a retired engineer who lives in Glenville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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