The state of Michigan has filed a civil suit against the engineering firms involved in the Flint water disaster.
The engineers’ defense, so far as I can tell, is that they were overruled by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.
“The attorney general has blatantly mischaracterized the role of LAN’s service to Flint and ignores the findings of every public investigation into this tragedy that the key decisions concerning the treatment of the water from the Flint River were made by the City of Flint and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality,” a LAN spokesperson said in a statement.
That appears, at least nominally, to be true. Recall this snippet from an Associated Press story a while back:
Mike Glasgow, the plant’s laboratory supervisor at the time, says he asked district engineer Mike Prysby of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality how often staffers would need to check the water for proper levels of phosphate, a chemical they intended to add to prevent lead corrosion from the pipes. Prysby’s response, according to Glasgow: “You don’t need to monitor phosphate because you’re not required to add it.”
Recalling the meeting Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press, Glasgow said he was taken aback by the state regulator’s instruction; treating drinking water with anti-corrosive additives was routine practice. Glasgow said his gaze shifted to a consulting firm engineer in attendance, who also looked surprised.
“Then,” Glasgow said, “we went on to the next question.”
That would seem to be that — but it’s a bit more complicated. Generally, engineers design and regulators merely review for compliance with regulations; regulators don’t specify anything. There are sound reasons for this. First, it is the engineer who has the relationship with the owner, and has discussed the design criteria and knows what the owner wants to accomplish. Second, the regulators are ordinarily kept arms-length from the design for the specific purpose of protecting the state from liability. Third, innovation is stifled if everything has to pass through one person, who will always favor the identical solution to a design problem.
There is something more to understand. In engineering, as in every other profession, there is an informal hierarchy, a sorting on ability — and the regulators are the guys who graduated at the bottom of the class, the guys who are never going to be allowed to design anything because anybody who is competent can tell in about 2-minutes that they’re the kind of bozos who would misread a regulation and serenely poison an entire city without a second thought.
In every jurisdiction in which I’ve ever worked — which includes Michigan, decades ago — there was a very definite process for identifying the person responsible for the design: The engineer signed and sealed the original of the final drawings and documents, and the act of doing so was held to be an affirmation by the engineer that he or she had personally superintended their preparation and, in every particular, they comported with both regulations and the prevailing standards of practice. I am the geotechnical engineer-of-record for about 3000 constructed projects; if you’ve spent any significant amount of time in Florida, southwestern Virginia, or central North Carolina, it is all but certain that your safety and well-being have been in my hands.
So, barring some irregularity in the Michigan statutes, or some peculiarity in the contracted scope of services, I’m hard put to see how these guys don’t get drawn and quartered, and I doubt very much that whining they were neutered will help much either.