The builders of the great cathedrals had history, wisdom, and an innate understanding of gravity to guide them. They erected edifices of such magnificence that today we are still inspired and directed to a reverence for God. How can such simple things as stone-on-stone, glass of crystal clarity, and paintings & statues still inspire us? Is it simply the genius of the builders? Or the edifices they created? Or is it innate admiration of great works that defy the conventions of nature?
Today, as engineers, were are blessed, or is it burdened, by a plethora of equations and codes that we are expected to solve and run before we can construct even the simplest structure. But are the resultant works any better than the cathedrals built in the absence of slide-rule and computer codes? And in the absence of professional registration that involves passing an examination in ethics?
For what is ethics? Wikipedia has the final say, thus:
Ethics, sometimes known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct, often addressing disputes of moral diversity. The term comes from the Greekword ἠθικός ethikos from ἦθος ethos, which means “custom, habit”. The superfield within philosophy known as axiology includes both ethics and aesthetics and is unified by each sub-branch’s concern with value. Philosophical ethics investigates what is the best way for humans to live, and what kinds of actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances. Ethics may be divided into three major areas of study:
- Meta-ethics, about the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions and how their truth values (if any) may be determine.
- Normative ethics, about the practical means of determining a moral course of action
- Applied ethics draws upon ethical theory in order to ask what a person is obligated to do in some very specific situation, or within some particular domain of action (such as business)
As engineers, we most often encounter the concept of ethics as applied ethics–what is one obligated to do in a specific situation?
I first faced these questions as an engineer on the UMTRA Project. Here are some recent Google Earth pictures of the structures we built.
This is a view of the three radioactive waste disposal cells on a mesa above the Uravan site, Colorado.
A view of the Cheney site in Colorado. We moved the tailings some 45 miles from the center of Grand Junction to this, the best site we could find. Note that it is still open, for they are still removing radioactive tailings from vicinity properties in Grand Junction.
This is Tuba City, Arizona. Still my favourite. Note the large diversion structures upgradient of the pile.
The Shiprock, New Mexico site. High on a mesa above the river and town. Now there is much vegetation growing on the cover and some call this the Shiprock National Forest.
The Estes Park, Colorado cell. We moved the tailings from the river besides Durango. This is the only cell that includes a GCL in the top deck cover.
On the UMTRA Project, we engineers and geologists had absolute veto over the selection of a new site to which to relocate the tailings. On fourteen of the twenty-four sites, we relocated the tailings to a new site. The procedures we employed are well documented in the Technical Approach Document, that I had a hand in writing. You can get a copy from the Grand Junction UMTRA office, or email me, and I will send you a copy.
My belief is that any project that does not do what we did in selecting a new site for mine waste relocation, is acting in defiance of best practice and will inevitably have to deal with failure of their choice.
We were blessed on the UMTRA Project with prudent clients, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). We were blessed by Jacobs Engineering project managers of intelligence and judgement sufficient to support the dictates of engineers and geologist in saying what is a good and what is a bad site to take the tailings to.
The point is, I believe, that we all were able to act, advise, and decide ethically. We used history, judgement, and instinct to choose. For we did not have MAAs, FMEAa, or any of those other glitzy risk assessment methodologies to guide us and document justification of our choice and decision. We probably did it the old-fashioned way: examine a wide radius for alternative sites; walk the sites to understand their geomorphology; define the site’s deep geological history; characterize the soils & groundwater of the site; and hence select on the basis of reason and rationality.
On the simplest basis, we avoided sites in flood plains, sites with artesian groundwater, with surrounding populations, and with weak foundation soils. We would never have chosen a site underlain by karst or open bedrock fractures. We could not always avoid sites with some upgradient area. When we selected such site, we constructed diversion facilities lined with durable rock able to withstand erosion by the probable maximum flood.
Today, some thirty years later, our cells endure. Some have concluded they will last forever as we intended. Some say the covers of rock will become a mixture of soil and rock and vegetation—but still erosion resistant and infiltration-controlling. I now know that we got some things wrong. But I know the overall result was good: stable facilities that will endure for more than a thousand years.
It can be done: namely close a mine waste disposal facility in a way that the resultant works will be stable for a thousand years and well beyond. It takes money; it takes humbleness in the face of the forces of nature; it requires copying precedent; and it involves the skill of the old cathedral builders—for there are no absolute equations of computer codes that provide the final solution. In the end it is patience, humbleness, and consultation with co-experts.
Yet these lessons are still not learnt. There are still projects that deprecate what we did; that ignore what we did; and that are speeding to failure.
Are we ethically obliged to support such projects? My response is NO. Let ‘em fail, if that is their arrogance, ineptitude, and lack of perspective, history, and ethics.