Big Leaks

Engineers are asked to prevent failures, and in the event that a failure does occur, they are called upon to find a fix. In both instances, designing a leak is a common solution.

In civil, mechanical, and environmental engineering the prevention of releases of volatile, combustive, or hazardous materials often involves the design of a leak that might otherwise result in the escape of a dangerous substance. In other words, the idea is to create an infrastructure of leaks to avoid a catastrophic big leak.

When a massive failure happens, engineers are hurried in to design a response. Apart from the emergency act of containment, where the immediate spread of the seepage is impeded, most often a designed leak is implemented to divert or dissipate the material as part of the process of recovery and remediation. Instances such as Love Canal, Bhopal, and Warri plainly show that it is when these latter leaks are not introduced that harmful substances remain, causing further contamination.

In the American movie Volcano (1997), the environment, in this case the city of Los Angeles, is repurposed as a system of leaks. After lava bombs catapult out of the La Brea Tar Pits it is discovered that the molten discharges stem from an active volcano that threatens to burn off the entire west side ('the coast is toast'). An emergency management engineer played by Tommy Lee Jones averts an eruption by using the urban infrastructure (subway tunnels, thoroughfares, flood channels) as a network to drain the magma flow into the Pacific.

As likeably implausible as the movie is in general, it is conceivable to operate at the scale of a city or regional environment using extensive means and manpower to engineer a fix in the face of disaster. Of course the stuff of Hollywood action thrillers is not real life. An overview of recent destructive big leaks reveals a world map of wide-ranging geo-political contexts in which there is a profound insufficiency of designed leaks.
-Jeffrey Inaba

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Jeffrey Inaba