Reflections on “Crossing the Imaginary Line”

Early September, Environmental Science & Technology, a prestigious journal of the environmental engineering field, published an editorial titled “Crossing the Imaginary Line.” The editorial, written by Editor-in-Chief, Prof. David Sedlak, argues that environmental engineering academics should not cross the “imaginary line” that separates the “dispassionate researcher from the environmental activist” as it threatens the objectivity of research and discourages funding for basic research. Or in other words, by advocating for a certain environmental position, the researcher risks academic integrity, and retaliation from funding sources and political entities. The question of not only the researcher’s, but the engineering practitioner’s ethical responsibility to the public has long been debated within the engineering community. The appearance of this editorial in such a major publication has sparked much debate between environmental engineering researchers across the country.

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Despite my lack of experience and not being a researcher, I wish to express my thoughts regarding this topic from the perspective of a student still very much in the nascent stages of his career as a practicing engineer, as the ethical responsibility of engineering is often skimmed over in engineering coursework, and always deserves more attention. In addition to my own thoughts, I will include in my discussion the written responses from Prof. Marc Edwards and the Flint Water Study, Prof. Charles Haas, and Ph.D. student Maya Carrasquillo. These responses, along with the original editorial, offer an array of perspectives and help inform my own as I attempt to shape an opinion.

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Bringing out the Best

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Mouth of the Gowanus Canal (Source: wikimedia.org)

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. Located in Brooklyn, NYC, this mile and a half long Canal was used as a commercial and industrial waterway for the numerous industries and businesses in the surrounding area. Large ships carrying coal, cement, machines and tanks of natural gas and oil sailed through every day. During the industrial revolution, environmental regulations were near non-existent, and many industries simply deposited their waste into the waterway, polluting the water with heavy metals, pesticides and organics. Additionally, many of New York City’s combined sewers flowed into the Gowanus Canal, meaning that during periods of heavy rain, when the city’s wastewater treatment plants could not handle the combined flows of sewer water and stormwater, the sewers directed flows into the Gowanus – untreated. As the lowest point in the immediate area, any water that landed in the surrounding six square miles flowed into the Canal, picking up all sorts of pollutants on the way.

Currently, the Gowanus is undergoing a $506 million clean-up, which should be complete by 2022. With Downtown Brooklyn less than half a mile away, relators and other investors are beginning to realize the potential in the Gowanus neighborhood.  Gowanus by Design, a community-based urban design advocacy group, hosted its third annual Axis Civitas international design competition to invite design firms to envision a possible future for the Gowanus Canal, based on its rich and complex history. Entries had to have two components: 1) Conduct research on the current economic, environmental, or social conditions of the area and 2) use this research to provide a new community “Urban Field Station” to enable sustainable development and growth.

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Nerdcon: Stories: A Review

At first thought, many people would not consider themselves storytellers, or even interested in stories. But as NerdCon: Stories proved to me – we are surrounded by, and are made of, stories. Conceived by Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame, NerdCon: Stories, in short, was meant “to be a celebration of the story, and the ways we tell stories, and the people who tell stories, which is really all of us” (Hank Green). Stories are powerful tools in which we communicate messages that cannot be told, only experienced.

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Any color, as long as it’s black

WEFTEC Exhibition Floor

WEFTEC Exhibition Floor

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Water Environment Federation’s Technical Exhibition and Conference 2015 (WEFTEC) down in Chicago for a day. As this was the first professional conference I have ever attended, I was looking forward to the experience and learning about the latest and greatest in Water Technology. WEFTEC is North America’s largest convention for water professionals, and I was immediately impressed (and overwhelmed) by the size of the exhibition floor (although I was later told that this year’s conference appeared smaller than last year’s). There were vendors from all over the world – China, South Korea, Germany, France, Norway. There were even areas where teams competed in events such rescuing a dummy worker in a confined space, or patching up a 6 inch pipe. To someone not interested in the water profession, this sight would be slightly comical, if not boring, but to a newly-minted engineer like myself, the sight was overwhelming.

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Birthday Fundraiser!

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The aesthetic of water is just as important as it’s quality. (The Beebe Lake Falls at Cornell University)

As you’ve probably noticed through my Twitter feed or my personal blog, I am greatly interested in water and how we as humans interact with water through policies and the built environment. For the most part, I try to bring awareness of water use and technology among the “developed” world to prove to everyone that water is still very much a topic of concern for those of us who enjoy such pleasures as hybrid cars and 4K televisions. Water infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating, and modern society has to re-think how we interact with and manage water resources if we hope to continue and improve our lifestyles.

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Water is used heavily throughout all kinds of agriculture. (Rice fields in Japan)

My focus on the “developed” world is by no means an attempt to detract attention on water and sanitation issues in the “developing” world. I strongly believe in the power of improving lives by providing reliable, clean and safe drinking water. But while everyone is aware of the problem, I think constant bombardment of facts and figures can desensitize us to the issue. Even if we don’t know the exact statistics we all know that lack of safe water impacts health, keeps children from attending schools, and traps millions of people in a cycle of poverty. I’ve always thought that if I could make water “cool” to people by showing them all the interesting technologies in development and create a sense of personal concern by showing that water is not just an issue of others, I could motivate people to improve water infrastructure for ALL.

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AguaClara Plant in Atima, Honduras. One of many AguaClara plants I had the privilege to visit.

So for my 22nd birthday, I’m starting a fundraiser for Water.org and asking my friends to donate whatever amount they can. I’m confident that the people I know are willing to donate even just a little bit to this cause. There’s no pressure, and I sincerely hope I’m not guilty-tripping you too much, but I’m hoping that if you’re reading this, you would be willing to at least give a dollar (well, at least $5, seeing as that’s the minimum donation).  I’m not so concerned with the actual amount we raise, I’m more interested in just getting as many people to donate as possible. For every $25 that we raise, Water.org can give someone access to safe water. Even though it seems straightforward, providing clean, reliable water is a complex issue that doesn’t end with just digging a well. There are plenty of water/sanitation charities and foundations out there (you should check out AguaClara, they are doing some amazing stuff!) but I’ve decided to go with Water.org. You can find more information regarding where the donated money goes, and the history of the charity on their website.

And to encourage you further, I’m going to offer some incentives for donations made by October 11th, 2015!

  • Donations of $10 or higher will have the opportunity to suggest a topic for me to cover in my blog (the topic must be relevant to the areas I normally cover in my blog). The blog post will be dedicated to you and your name will appear on the post if you so desire.
  • Donations of $25 or higher will receive a handwritten postcard from me thanking you for your donation.
  • Donations of $50 or higher will receive an original 8.5’x11’ B&W sketch by me of something water-related (I promise I’m not THAT bad of an artist).
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And of course, water plays a huge part in how we prepare and clean our foods. (That’s me making Tofu in Taiwan).

Please consider donating, if not for me, for yourself, because water is a shared resource!

FUNDRAISER SITE

MKE H20 101

History Lesson incoming.

Having gone to school in New York, I’m often asked why I decided to come back to the Midwest after graduation. One of the main reasons I came to Milwaukee to start my professional career was due to the city’s history and optimistic future with water and water technology. I thought I’d spend this post by (very) briefly covering the history of Water in Milwaukee so that readers gain a greater appreciation for Milwaukee, and just urban water management in general.

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The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it

I find antagonists far more interesting than protagonists. Often the motivations of the hero are only briefly considered or developed, as these motivations are pretty two-dimensional and obvious. After all, who needs a reason to do something good? I’m more interested in the antagonists, the ones who dedicate their life to something the rest of the population opposes, the ones we love to hate, or hate to love, and are motivated by a complex interactions of thoughts, feelings and history.

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