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Your View | Floods, fracking and physics

York floods 2015

This week your responses to our stories tackle government inertia on flood resilience, the pitfalls of fracking and continue to focus on the need for key skills in the industry.

Flood fudge 

I read your article, Failure of flood defences causes strategy rethink’ and agree entirely with the comments made. 

I find myself bemused that every time there is a flood issue the profession and the government trigger a strategy rethink but then no action is taken.

I would draw your attention to the attached report of the ICE presidential commission to review the technical aspects of flood risk management in England & Wales, published in 2001, entitled Learning to Live with Rivers.

I had the privilege of chairing that commission as a Past President and the conclusions and recommendations clearly gave the view of the experts in the field who included: Lewes District Council director of planning and environmental services Lindsay Frost, HR Wallingford managing director Stephen Huntington, University of Birmingham professor of water and engineering Donald Knight; Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s Frank Law and Mott MacDonald director Charlie Rickard.

The conclusions of the report remain as valid today as they did 15 years ago but no action was taken by the then Labour government or successive governments to implement the strategy articulated in that report.

Perhaps New Civil Engineer should publish an article that clearly makes our profession aware that we do know the solutions to the problem but we need the government to implement them.

In another article, in the same issue, by Keith Clarke, ICE vice President and Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon chair, he draws attention to the need to address climate change.

Unfortunately, the same mantra is expressed, that is – radically different carbon intensity – in relation to our urban infrastructure.  For most engineers this is a vague solution and does not address the impact of climate change on our national infrastructure both urban and rural.

We have seen a rise of carbon tax with it the rise in energy prices. We have not seen a linkage between carbon tax and infrastructure renewal to address climate change and that to me is one of the elements of the strategy that we should adopt for the way forward.

Low on energy?

We seem to be shedding generation capacity far faster than we’re replacing it, yet we went into this winter with National Grid saying the margin of reserve was lower than ever.

Can someone convince me that the Department for Energy and Climate Change and others actually have a grip on an energy strategy that will maintain a sensible level of capacity excess over demand – or is it all to be left to the market?

Favour renewables over fracking

In response to Fracking - Is it safe? , the thing about fracking is that in the US almost 100% of any proposed court legal proceedings against the companies involved are settled out of court with a non-disclosure agreement.

So the truth is no one really gets the true picture of all the problems: not unless you did deep.

There are several situations in which a complainant will not shut up. Those are the ones you need to listen to. Plus those that cannot bring legal proceedings, but live next to the plants. They have a sad story to tell too. 

The thing about the geology is that it is always more complex than you know. Pathways that appear when you don’t expect them and a bunch of earthquakes in the areas associated with fracking.

The other thing is not knowing the true cocktail of toxic chemicals that get pumped into the holes. 

Given the fact that the planet is getting so warm, is this the right direction to go in? Methane has a 10x the green house gas effect to CO2. And leaks from the ground are not uncommon. The thing is, from the recent case in California, they are difficult to plug. 

And then we pay for companies to shove CO2 into the ground in the form of carbon capture Initiatives.

All in all my preference would be to leave the gas in the ground. Head for renewables. Its the ultimate end game. 

Don’t be shortsighted on the classics

Mechanics may be a useful branch of mathematics, a tool, not a science, but is it a substitute for physics? I know of no physical structure, or mechanism, built entirely of abstract mathematicalsymbols.

All that I can think of are made of materials, physical substances subject to the ravages of physical and chemical wear and tear over the course of their lifetime.

I should have thought a reasonable knowledge of the inherent physical and chemical properties of engineering materials, and the possible effects that physical and chemical agents might have upon them, could be of some value.

Is there need to attract persons of so limited interest and foresight?

As for distinguishing between mass and force, that one could be so mentally lazy as to implicitly rely upon what appears on a smartphone or tablet at the touch of a key, blind faith in the provenance of the source of the answer, beggars belief.

Knowledge, which, to an enquiring mind, should always be suspect, is no substitute for a clear, in-depth understanding of the concepts under question.

For engineers, the clear differentiation, I believe, should be between mass and energy. We live in a continuously evolving world – if not universe – due to the continuous effects of the kinetic energy of matter and the radiant energy of space upon matter.

As to A level requirements, I can recall when for C&G it was four stipulated A levels: maths, app maths, physics and chemistry just to be considered; and, if accepted, on the understanding that probably only half of some 70 under-graduates would make it through to the second year. How times have changed.

Give non-graduates a go

Getting the right people into the right jobs – for example graduates away from CAD and technicians as a strong base to the workforce – is something that has been an issue for the industry for too long.

There are employers that have been working to change the balance but it takes time and investment. 

Kids that don’t have the aptitude for university (I was one) need to be directed to alternatives of work and day release so that they can develop their expertise within an excellent career path.

This industry of ours gives opportunities to those who want them from the day we start out to the day we retire.


Site work vital

We have to establish a proper career structure for site staff to give people a belonging to the industry. 

To hear that there is a skills shortage means we are not training as required.

The government is about to levy civil engineering contractors to support the cost of training, with this in place there would be no need to supervise the work. and save money.

The tradesmen I worked with certainly did not need to be told what to do because they were properly trained having served a five year – now reduced to three year – apprenticeship.

Make no mistake, the most important people are those on site enduring the difficult working conditions.

Site staff will see the long term prospects and realise there will be good financial support, and superannuation when the day comes to retire.

There are few 65 year olds working on site.

The introduction of superannuation is a major step forward. Thanks to the ICE for all the work undertaken to influence Government, huge advances in recent years.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Joined up Engineering

    Regional Infrastructure planning has a problem, there is nobody at the wheel of the ship who knows where it should be going.

    On the 13th February the Prime Minister said of the Somerset Floods that "we cannot let this situation happen again". Two years later on the 10th of March 2016 the Bridgwater Tidal Barrage was presented to the public re-launching the original 2009 tidal surge barrier. Under the title Flood Management Risk it is as if the January 2014 floods never happened with no mention of fluvial conveyance in the river. We can probably agree that there has now been a clear demonstration that both fluvial and tidal surge are valid design conditions and it is surprising that they have not been given equal importance in assessing the scheme.

    It is also particularly unfortunate that our sound bite politicians are confused by the difference and believe the proposed tidal barrier will somehow fix fluvial flooding and have seemingly conveyed that message to the public.

    Bearing in mind that we still have the same Government in charge it is unfortunate that they seem to have lost sight of the issues and the money in Somerset, hopefully Cumbria will fare better. It really is time that there were Independent Regional Engineers with sufficient authority to have an overview of how best our money and resources should be spent and the authority to amend proposals as needed. It would also provide our politicians and decision makers with the best independent advice. Perhaps the proposed devolved administrations might have the foresight to recreate the old district engineer on a regional basis. We sorely need experienced engineers with local knowledge and large project experience based in the regions. This is not a role for a consultants seeking yet another term contract but decisions makes.

    Steve Trowbridge CEng MICE MIStructE

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