Saturday, April 18, 2015

Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey

Trapped Under the Sea
One engineering marvel, five men, and a disaster ten miles into the darkness
5 stars - a non-fiction tale that reads like a thriller
ALR Blue - no animals

Boston Harbor. Once the dirtiest harbor in America, now a poster child for the importance of large scale environmental projects. Except for, well, things did not go without any hitches.

When Doug MacDonald took over the MWRA (Massachusetts Water Resource Authority), the Deer Island waste water treatment project was already behind schedule and over budget. When large government contracts total in the millions or billions of dollars, failure to meet the schedule affects the entire community. In this case, the community being the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, whose taxpayers were shouldering the expense of the massive harbor clean up project.

Trapped Under the Sea tells the story of the final stages of the project. A ten mile tunnel has been dug under the harbor. It's a dead end tunnel which will ultimately channel treated waste water out and into the sea where it can dissipate without causing the pollution which plagued Boston for so long. The tunnel has been dug and all that remains is removing the plugs from the pipes through the ocean floor which will ultimately serve as outtake. 

But how to accomplish it? With the light and ventilation systems already removed from the tunnel, there is no breathable air. The tunnel itself, while large enough to accommodate a vehicle for the first several miles, chokes down progressively to about ten feet in diameter, and the plugs themselves are at the ends of pipes a mere 30 inches in diameter.

The Deer Island waste water treatment facility is an engineering marvel. Almost in spite of the missteps along the way. This is a cautionary tale about the implicit danger in big, low bid government contracts. So many hands touching the project. Who is ultimately responsible for the safety of the workers? How much risk will a "working man" be willing to take just to put food on the table? When things to wrong, who is left holding the bag?

When you read this book, and I hope you will, don't just think about government contracts. Think about big business. Think about the next time you get competitive bids on a home improvement project. Because once you are locked and loaded, that low bid might not seem like such a bargain anymore. 

The prose is on the edge of your seat type stuff. Mr. Swidey did his homework and one is readily transported into that tunnel. There's plenty of information about the major players, how big contracts work, OSHA, oversight, professional divers, and the aftermath of when things go wrong.

His Epilogue is, perhaps, the most important part of the book. I won't spoil things for you, but he sums up what happened and how human nature can work against the greater good. Here's my favorite quote:

The more people do something without suffering a bad outcome, the harder it becomes for them to remain aware of the risks associated with the behavior.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure it was even more fascinating because it's so close to home for you. My grandfather used to talk about how the Naugatuck River in Connecticut was filthy when he was a child, and how much they'd cleaned it up by the 1970s. It is amazing how nature cures the woes we create once we stop offending behavior and clean up after ourselves. I'll have to look into this.