Vermont's forgotten petro spill

Recent petrochemical-related events at latitude 28, longitude 88 bring to mind a somewhat similar-but smaller-in-scale-event some 25 years ago at latitude 44, longitude 73.

Both spills involved petroleum, regulations, leaks and the quintessential governance question of our times: pursuing your chosen enterprise, you must do everything in accordance with the applicable regulations, obtain official approval for equipment design and installation, and pass all operational inspections. And if there's a failure-whose fault is it?

From the regulator's past and present behavior, we can see that the answer would be: even if you meet all our requirements and there's a failure, it's not our fault.

This existential question was already under examination in the construction industry before the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill-actually in Williamstown, Vt., although not in its own little "gulf", and actually involving benzene and related petroleum-based volatile organic compounds, although not crude oil and methane.

Architects and builders had already come to realize that there's a better way to get the building you want than writing it all out, in stupefying regulatory detail-in the project specifications manual which traditionally had been intended to control every aspect of materials and installation.

The better way had already come to be called performance specifications.

It was already beginning to replace the prescriptive specifications method we had been taught in university vocational-trade schools.

For example, in concrete work the objective was in-place concrete strong enough to support the building-a target strength usually described as 3,000 pounds compressive strength per cross-sectional square inch; architects like me wrote the specs to describe and control every detail of the materials: the mixing, and the placement.

Somewhere near the last page of the manual there was mention of the 3,000 psi target (how it would be tested for, and when removal and replacement would be required).

Understandably, the concrete contractors didn't like that heads-we-win-tails-you-lose approach; they defended themselves by demanding that we designers approve, separately and specifically, each aspect of materials and installation.

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