A Tale of Two Failures


While the world's attention has been focused on the spreading oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, we here in Boston have had our own little brush with engineering failure. A massive water main that carries much of the drinking water for the Boston metropolitan area ruptured on Saturday, sending millions of gallons of clean water into the Charles River (which, local wags might tell you, hasn't seen that much clean water for years) and triggering a boil water order for nearly 2 million people that ended, mercifully, this morning.

Officials don’t yet know why the pipe – which is only eight years old – failed so spectacularly. But what is apparent is that the government’s response to the crisis has been superb.

The Boston water crisis - while far smaller in scale and impact than the Gulf oil spill - is a perfect example of why worst-case scenario planning is so important. As it turns out, in the wake of 9/11, the Boston-area water authority gamed out scenarios for the worst possible disaster, developed plans for how to deal with that scenario, and then trained its workers effectively. As a result, when the water pipe blew, public health officials were ready to get the word out to the public on how to protect themselves, an entire backup water system was thrown into action (generating enough water pressure to make sure that no one in Greater Boston had to go without a drop for even a minute), and immediate repairs were undertaken that resulted in the broken pipe being fixed in 48 hours, and the boil water order lifted shortly thereafter.

It’s a telling contrast to what has taken place in the Gulf, where BP clearly underestimated the worst-case scenario, had no plan for dealing with it, and has been scrambling to pull a coherent response together from Day One.

The cost of BP’s failure is going to be massive – both financially and for the ecological health of the Gulf Coast.  Let’s hope the disaster results in the adoption of safer, more environmentally sound solutions to our energy challenges than offshore drilling, AND in new efforts – not only for oil rigs but also for other risky technologies – to protect the public and the environment from the potential consequences of failure.