Should we be afraid of Michigan’s waters?

Should we be afraid of Michigan’s waters? Lead and copper, toxic algae, polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), cryptosporidium, the next grim chemical to be discovered in our water: how concerned (afraid) should we be? The consensus seems to be very afraid.

 

Today’s technology allows us to detect chemicals at increasingly lower amounts. In the 1960s, we identified pollutants in parts per million—that’s one tiny grain of sand in a 1 foot by 1 foot by 1 foot high sandhill. Today, we identify many chemicals in parts per billion—one grain in a 10 foot by 10 foot by 10 foot high sandhill, or in parts per trillion—one grain in a 100 foot by 100 foot by 100 foot high sandhill. Some chemicals can even by detected in parts per quadrillion. This means we can now “see” chemicals in our water that were once “invisible”.

 

Just because we can “see” a chemical—one grain in a billion or trillion—doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, that we should be afraid. Though zero is a useful number in mathematics, in the physical/natural world, zero is unattainable. So what questions should we ask if something is detected (“seen”)? Is it a chemical of concern, or grave concern? Is there more than the regulated amount? Is there more than the amount that can cause problems with repeated exposure—not just a sip here or there? Does the amount pose an imminent danger (a chemical spill)? Unless the “seen” chemical is subjected to these questions, we could be afraid for no rational, evidence-based reason. Without asking such questions, everything becomes a crisis, and when everything is a crisis, it’s hard to focus on what’s important.

 

Home and workplace water treatment technologies have advanced rapidly, so a problem at the water source needn’t mean a problem at the tap, even if the water treatment plant isn’t equipped to handle it. As for the big picture, human health and wildlife protection, Michigan’s waters are cleaner than they’ve been in over 100 years. Just because we can “see” more chemicals in our water doesn’t mean water quality is deteriorating, or we’re in danger. With rare exceptions, exposure to Michigan’s waters poses far less risk than driving a car, smoking tobacco or pot, bicycling, extreme sports, tattoos, prescription medications, or being sexually active.

 

Shall we rely on consensus, or the evidence? It’s good to be concerned about Michigan’s water quality, but we need not be afraid.

What Could Go Wrong…And Why It Often Does

“Of course, we consider risks.”

 

That’s the response from governmental agencies and companies when the subject of risk preparedness is introduced. Then, why do we so frequently experience disasters like the compromised Fukushima reactor, British Petroleum oil spill, and Flint water contamination, or threats like the Kaspersky software “surprise”?

 

“Unpredictable events.” “Black Swans.” “A natural disaster.” “Limited human and financial resources.” “The perfect storm.” “Human negligence…malfeasance.” Plenty of explanations and excuses.

 

Here’s one more: the lack of a What Could Go Wrong process.

 

I can hear the objections: we have time-tested standards, a quality control process, risk officers, risk-based checklists, a project management program, experienced reviewers.

 

We can do a better job with threat identification and prevention. Different levels of risk require different approaches. For adhering to standards and design norms, checklists are okay, and most organizations do a good to very good job with this category of risks. Most do a fair to good job with conventional risks—how to prevent spills, what if a fire breaks out? Where we do a poor to awful job is with “barrier-free threats”, that is, risks that fall outside an organization’s scope of work or competency, or outside conventional risks, and have the potential to drastically affect a project, product performance, or a policy’s effectiveness.

 

A water treatment plant with a scope of work to produce treated water that meets drinking water standards at the plant’s fence line, and a community that doesn’t understand, or neglects, the consequences of unstable water conveyed by lead pipes outside the fence line. Kaspersky software, where a What Could Go Wrong process would have started with this question: Knowing what we do about Russia, what if this company is a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the Russian government. A new state-of-the-art German frigate that wasn’t designed to counter traditional threats—as a January 2018 Wall Street Journal article puts it: “(The) frigate was determined…to have an unexpected design flaw: It doesn’t really work”. And that’s highly regarded German engineering. The Fukushima nuclear reactor that wasn’t able to resist a tsunami, though it’s located on an island in an earthquake-prone region. Instead, we struggle with after-the-fact accusations, “patches”, litigation, and PR initiatives.

 

Such threats aren’t Black Swans—an asteroid strike, a Los Angeles magnitude earthquake in Michigan, nuclear war. Nor is the standard perfection. Rather, identifying unconventional risks—threats—by employing a disciplined, barrier-free What Could Go Wrong process.

 

The essentials of such a process are:

  • Activation as early as practical, before project initiation or policy definition
  • A leader who drives big picture What Could Go Wrong questioning, discourages small picture problem solving, and doesn’t allow “What if” questioning to be shut down by statements such as: “That’s outside our scope”, “There isn’t budget for that”, “We’re following all the standards”.
  • Engaging one or more subject-matter experts (“rabble rousers”) with no formal role in the enterprise and no incentive to tell the organization what it would like to hear.
  • 1-2 days is long enough to identify big-picture threats if the right people are present; not a costly or time-intensive process.
  • Concise and clear documentation of the big picture threats, for action as deemed appropriate by top leaders, not just the project team

 

If an organization doesn’t have a process along these lines and thinks that such disasters can’t happen to them, they’re kidding themselves, and while such a process wouldn’t protect against all possible threats, they could be better identified and might be mitigated. Just as important, risks could be communicated to the public, company leaders, etc., in an audience-appropriate manner, and considered in planning and decision-making. Such a process, done well, could have prevented the Flint and BP debacles, and could have mitigated the Fukushima disaster.

 

Lawyers often warn us that if we don’t know something we may not be as liable as if we knew ahead of time. The problems with this legally protective approach: 1) We have an ethical, if not legal, obligation to investigate and address threats, especially risks to health and public safety, and 2) How did this legally protective approach work for the principals in the Flint, Fukushima, and BP disasters? Addressing such threats appropriately ought to be one of a leader’s most important jobs. Far from being an assault on private enterprise or interference with government experts, such a process safeguards the interests of these entities because it helps them avoid disasters and grave harm.

 

How much time and money are organizations willing to spend on public relations and remediation in the wake of disasters, while neglecting big picture What Could Go Wrong questioning ahead of time? We can do better. We have the talent. We need the will and the process.

Why We Can’t Build Infrastructure Like We Used To [Mackinac Center]

Regulatory burdens just as much to blame as political gridlock

Source: Why We Can’t Build Infrastructure Like We Used To [Mackinac Center]

WSJ: Pollution used to Mean More Than Just CO2

I had the opportunity to comment on a recent Wall Street Journal article by Bjorn Lomborg about climate change, CO2, President Trump, China, and India.

A regrettable outcome of the media-hogging climate change debate is that the measure of pollution by nations has been reduced to carbon dioxide emissions, a rather benign compound apart from its relationship to climate change. In “The Charade of the Paris Treaty” (Review, June 17-18, 2017), Bjorn Lomborg succumbs to this myopic view when he states, “He (President Trump) failed to acknowledge that global warming is real and wrongly claimed that China and India are ‘the world’s leading polluters'”. Mr. Trump is actually on to something if we were to broaden the definition of pollution, as we once did, to include polluting chemicals that contaminate water, air, and the land, including habitats. Nations like China and India are among the most egregious polluters when this more liberal, and comprehensive, definition of pollution is applied.