Tragic Reminders

May/June 2016

Tragic Reminders


Engineering is in the national spotlight—but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. Flint’s devastating water crisis, the unprecedented Washington, D.C., metro shutdown, and the toxic Gold King Mine spill are just a few recent incidents related to engineers’ areas of focus. Unfortunately, these are not isolated events that can be chalked up to happenstance. Elevated lead levels have been found in water systems across the country; many US transit systems face aging infrastructure challenges; and the need for PEs in responsible charge of engineering services, including in the federal government, has been a longstanding advocacy issue for NSPE.

With each of the recent incidents, among the finger-pointing and blame, serious and important questions have arisen. How can governments maintain and replace outdated infrastructure with limited funds? And whose responsibility is it to ensure that engineering work is both competent and ethical? PEs have long been familiar with these concerns, but awareness is growing publically. However, another question should be included in these broader conversations—one that is, unfortunately, usually left out: How do we make sure professional engineers are involved in the design, operation, and maintenance of engineering projects that affect the public health, safety, and welfare?

The Long History of Disaster and Licensure

In 1919, a 25-foot wave of molasses flooded Boston streets after the collapse of a steel tank holding two million gallons of the sticky stuff. Although this sounds like the setup for a bad joke, 21 people died and more than 100 were injured. The incident, believed to have been caused by faulty design, led to one of the first engineering licensure laws and greater awareness of the importance of licensure to public safety.

A 2006 PE article explains that—in circumstances that bring to mind the cyclic nature of history—the man hired to build the tank had neither engineering nor design experience but was a treasurer for the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. He was under pressure to get the tank built quickly (the molasses would be used in explosives for the US government); so he cut corners.

Other states enacted licensure laws after their own disasters were attributed to engineering oversights. California created its state board of examiners after the 1928 failure of the St. Francis Dam killed more than 500 people along the Santa Clara River. And Texas launched its state board in 1937, months after hundreds died when a school in New London exploded due to a natural gas leak attributed to faulty engineering. As a 2007 PE article explains, “these were just two incidents that underscored the vital role the engineering profession plays in protecting the welfare of the public, while at the same time making clear the need for standards regulating the practice.”

Unfortunately, however, such violent incidents are still occurring, as the 2013 explosion at a fertilizer facility in West, Texas, highlights. Fifteen people died in the explosion and hundreds were injured, leading the Environmental Protection Agency to consider a rule to require PEs as part of the audit team in third-party certifications. NSPE and state societies have filed comments in support of these provisions, which would ensure the involvement of competent, ethical engineers who can perform unbiased work (read more).

This is just one of many examples of NSPE’s determination to advocate for professional engineer oversight, to provide competency and accountability in protecting the public.

Mike Conzett, P.E.Licensure “forces the engineer to exercise their ethical muscle every time they place their signature and seal on a drawing.” In addition, with the license, the engineer has something to lose.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

In Flint, the facts are still coming to light; however, attempts to save money were one factor in the tragedy that unfolded. After water quality complaints began, cost considerations counteracted suggestions to stop using the Flint River as an interim water source, according to the final report of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, which was commissioned by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to conduct an independent review.

The task force further found that the Flint water treatment plant and treatment technologies were not adequate to provide safe, clean drinking water. “Flint’s lack of reinvestment in its water distribution system contributed to the drinking water crisis and ability to respond to water quality problems,” the report states.

A host of other players and factors helped create the issue (such as lack of proper corrosion control). But the previous examples point to an axiom that PEs know well: When engineering decisions are made on the basis of upfront cost, disastrous consequences can result.

Attempting to save money in the short-term without regard to the long-term consequences is an approach that NSPE President Tim Austin, P.E., F.NSPE, calls penny wise and pound foolish. People often look for instant gratification solutions and don’t worry about the longer term, he says. For instance, you can delay and defer infrastructure maintenance but “sometimes you don’t realize the true cost until a number of years have passed”—or a disaster results.

However, professional engineers offer the ability to balance considerations such as proper design and maintenance along with cost, explains National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying President Mike Conzett, P.E., an environmental engineer who retired as a vice president from HDR.

“A lot of it is the ‘ethical chip’ that the engineer has,” he says. PEs are ethically bound to do the right thing and not cut corners, he points out, which could impact the end users’ health and safety.

Licensure “forces the engineer to exercise their ethical muscle every time they place their signature and seal on a drawing,” Conzett explains. In addition, with the license, the engineer has something to lose.

He adds that it’s not that a licensed engineer is necessarily smarter than an unlicensed one or that a PE would never make mistakes, but that “even though they may work for the city, EPA, state, or a private client, by being a licensed professional, they have a client that’s called ‘the public’ that needs to be paramount in doing their work.”

The PE’s Value

In Flint, state-appointed emergency managers made key decisions, including switching to the Flint River for water. As the task force explained, “Emergency managers charged with financial reform do not have, nor are they supported by, the necessary expertise to manage non-financial aspects of municipal government.”

Further, the report noted a failure “to adequately appreciate (or signal) the complexities involved in treating Flint River water, or the potential implications of water chemistry changes to the city’s water distribution network.”

As Michael Ellegood, P.E., senior consultant for PSMJ Resources Inc., and former public works director for Maricopa County, Arizona, explains, “Too often we make decisions in the country that have significant technical implications without including qualified engineers as part of the decision-making process.” The mandate to the engineer is, “We’re going to do this, now make it happen.”

Austin also notes the need to involve PEs more fully in public policy decisions. “They have a lot to offer but they aren’t consulted when they should be,” he says. As to whether they’re listened to when they are involved, “It depends on who’s doing the listening. In some cases, the people doing the listening maybe don’t understand the value that a PE plays. While PEs are not infallible, they give the public the best opportunity to understand the consequences of complex technical decisions.”

The greater the complexity of an issue or problem, notes Austin, the broader the net of people that need to be involved—including professional engineers.

A Sewer Ceremony?

PEs provide a long-term perspective, Ellegood explains, while officials may focus on the next election.

He offers an analogy of a municipality that has a $3 million surplus and is faced with the choice to replace an aging sewer system or build a new library. “Put yourself in the position of the elected official who says, ‘Gee, who’s going to the groundbreaking of when they tear up the street and screw up traffic to replace the sewer system, or who will go to the groundbreaking ceremony for a new library in a disadvantaged part of town?’”

We not only need elected officials who have the guts to make tough decisions, Ellegood emphasizes, but also PEs need to develop relationships of trust with them to help them make such choices.

Professional engineers have a responsibility to get more actively involved, Ellegood believes—for instance, warning officials of the dangers of not properly maintaining older infrastructure.

That means becoming more visible and speaking about issues in ways that don’t alienate officials. “You’re not the opposite party,” says Ellegood. “You’re simply trying to explain the laws of physics.”

Get to know your elected officials, he advises, particularly those at the state, county, and municipal levels. Understand who they are, what they stand for, their knowledge base, and their limitations. Then, when giving advice, talk to them in a way that’s respectful and not accusatory. “These are people like you and me,” he stresses.

Awareness and Appreciation

Citizens also need to be educated about the expertise and ethical mindset that PEs provide.

“Sometimes the public doesn’t appreciate or realize the difference between engineers and licensed engineers,” says Conzett. “They need to know there is a difference.” Licensing, as NSPE members know, means engineers have met the standards of education, experience, and testing.

The NCEES president says he’s thought often about the best way to raise public awareness. More disasters will bring more attention—but that shouldn’t be the answer. Communications by societies such as NSPE can help when there is a disaster, he says, incorporating tools such as social media to reach the younger generations.

Ellewood suggests PEs become frequent bloggers and contributors to local news media, keeping content objective and without political slant. “We’re not going to become respected if we stay invisible,” he says.

NSPE President Tim Austin explains that communicating the role of the professional engineer is “an integral part of what we’re trying to do within NSPE: build the public awareness and appreciation for the licensed PE.”

The Society’s advocacy for the involvement of professional engineers in autonomous vehicle development is just one manifestation of this.

Austin believes PEs have to find opportunities to communicate their value, and do so with some humility. “We have to do it in a manner that helps build public trust,” he says. That starts at the individual level, he believes—perhaps person by person.

Michael Ellegood, P.E.Become more visible and speak about issues in ways that don’t alienate officials. “You’re not the opposite party. You’re simply trying to explain the laws of physics.”

Constant Vigilance

All 50 states, US territories, and the District of Columbia have engineering licensing laws on the books. Unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee the use of professional engineers in responsible charge of projects. Certain areas are exempt from state licensure laws (industry and the federal government, for example). And challenges to licensure and other important issues such as qualifications-based selection occur regularly.

Any given month, NSPE’s website highlights actions the Society has taken against such efforts. In March NSPE submitted a letter against a Louisiana bill that would weaken licensure requirements in the state, and in February took action against efforts to erode qualifications-based selection in Kansas. (See Executive Director Mark Golden’s Outlook column, for more on threats to licensure and the need for aggressive advocacy.)

The vital PE role of “protecting the public health, safety, and welfare” is repeated so often it can start to lose its meaning and feel cliché. But both recent and historic examples demonstrate how relevant the phrase remains.

In 1995, NSPE’s Engineering Times interviewed Roger Boisjoly, P.E., one of the engineers who warned of the possible O-ring failure prior to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. The engineers’ recommendations were overruled by senior managers, and seven people died as a result.

Boisjoly wasn’t licensed at the time, but he earned his PE afterwards. As he said in the interview, “Now picture the scenario of me having a PE license when this happened, and me taking the Code of Ethics and … saying, ‘Look! This is what the Code says, this is what I’m obligated to do.’ That’s a powerful threat, especially if my colleagues also have PE licenses.”

After the Challenger events and fallout, the professional engineer was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But later he used the experience to speak to others about engineering ethics.

As he explained in the interview, “I believe in the philosophy that you need to tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear. [Engineers] have got to stand up and fight for what they know is right.”

The stakes were high then, and they remain so now. Real human lives depend on such action.

Read Michael Ellegood’s NSPE Blog post on the Flint crisis at

Go to for a link to the Flint Water Advisory Task Force report and other updates from the Virginia Tech team of engineers and others who uncovered the issue and are now working toward solutions.

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