Illusory Views

"Welling Up" by Mindi Oaten
Image credit: “Welling Up” by Mindi Oaten, acrylic on canvas, 2016

Water is a universal motif across the history and breadth of humanity, associated with many themes:

Life, Birth, Fertility
Cleansing, Purity
Calm, Stillness, Reflection
Wisdom, Knowledge, Enlightenment
Transformation, Change, Renewal

Water is a force of nature with massive power, commanding awed respect. The same water that sustains all life on earth has the power to destroy life, property, and illusions. I witnessed water’s stark duality during the Greater Houston Floods of 1994. Standing in the back of a huge truck on a slow tour of my community, stopping on every street to rescue people and pets, the image that struck me and the one I remember was the calm beauty of the water that had perfected such complete destruction.

Thinking about water invokes images of purity, images of cleansing. City officials drink Flint water on television–it looks clear, so it must be pure. Doctors wash their hands in it, so it must be clean. Images of productivity. Industrial plants use it for cooling, for cleaning, for processing. Images of beauty. Institutions have ponds and fountains; nature has lakes and rivers.

These sacred images mask the reality of water. It looks clear, but it’s not always safe. It can be harnessed, but its force is destructive. It is beautiful, but under the surface, it is hiding something ugly. After the flood water receded, the subtle image that most struck me when I returned home was hundreds of dead earthworms. I grieved the loss of the earthworms. I could fix my house–eventually–but who is going to aerate the soil?

It occurs to me that it must be a human tendency to cling to good images, even if they are a myth, and deny unpleasant realities. When I was a plant engineer, I headed a committee to revise some important safety regulations involving instrumentation for chemical processes. In my research, I consulted the plant’s Principal Engineer, Roger Hickerson. Roger said to me, “water is the harshest service,” meaning the harshest chemical product borne by pipe in our plant from a maintenance point of view. This was a surprising revelation because the plant’s pipes and pumps conveyed chemical streams that are hazardous, deadly, corrosive, stinky, and teratogenic. One thinks of such substances in negative terms, whereas water is clear and pure, isn’t it? I did not doubt Roger’s word. He is a chemical engineer, and he would not make such claims frivolously. Besides, I have seen the inside of drain pipes. When I told the committee that Roger Hickerson said water is the harshest service, they immediately and unanimously dismissed Roger’s claim as impossible. This is disturbing behavior from engineers.

My conclusion is that my colleagues on the committee were seduced by the illusion of water, like a clear glass that you hold up and drink on television. They were not open to the entire range of possibilities that water can be non-potable; water can be destructive; water can be disease bearing; water can be toxic; water can cause maintenance problems in industrial equipment.

From this perspective, it is a little easier to understand how legions of professionals can cling to a false narrative around Flint’s water problems in the face of contrary claims. Easier to understand, but not acceptable. Professional engineers are expected and required to look beneath the surface and expose the truth. I learned this lesson in biology class. The lab practical exam presented a plant in a pot of soil, and the arrow pointed to the base of the plant where it contacted the soil. What was the term? It was not “root,” for the teaching moment revealed a rootless plant, which was just resting on the surface of the soil.

It is not enough to blindly accept appearance at face value. We will see what we want to see easily enough. To have successful outcomes, the gatekeeper of the narrative must dare to look beneath the surface and ask the next question and the next until the truth is uncovered.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Image credit: Katsushika Hokusai (北斎改爲一筆), ca. 1832. The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 45434

2 Replies to “Illusory Views”

  1. Monica, what a beautiful, poetic, incisive, and stirring post. Wow. I am intrigued by your insights into the seductiveness of “clean water” as well as the births this image can give to incomplete or even false narratives that can mask risks and harm and silence those who see them. I am curious about your thoughts on the social forces that might add to our resistance to recognize threatening dimensions of “clean water.” Are we all equally blind to the risks of water in every situation? And when we are blind, whose interests do we serve? Whose interests might we undermine? Are public policies for controlling contaminants in drinking water written by the blind or those who can see? I would love to know more about what exactly Roger Hickerson meant when he said, ““water is the harshest service,” and why he reached this conclusion.

    1. In an industrial plant, profits are tied closely to productivity, and this means minimizing downtime as well as maintaining quality control. When General Motors discovered that the corrosive property of its water supply was causing a large percentage of engines to be unacceptable, something had to be done because the problem affected profits. First, GM tried to dilute and treat the water in its own plant. When that didn’t work, GM found a way to re-source the affected plant’s water supply, by hook or crook. It had to be done because a large corporation is not going to abide loss of profits.

      In the chemical plant where I worked, the objective was to minimize plant downtime so that there are no barriers to production. A secondary objective was to minimize maintenance costs by addressing repetitive problems, but that was less visible than overall production and uptime/downtime. Roger’s understanding of water was in the context of chemical processes and specifying equipment and components for the given service conditions. In any case, there were no hidden agendas about water and no reason to perpetuate myths in that industrial environment. (As for personality clashes, empire building, and petty jealousy dictating personnel actions, that is a topic for the blogs of a different course!)

      My point is that the GMs have to do what it takes to manufacture engines, chemicals, or whatever product, and bad science would tend to get in the way of profits. Note that the issue in the chemical plant was not about water harming humans. If that were the case, plant workers would simply be required to wear exposure badges (for detectable exposures like radiation or phosgene) or follow plant regulations to limit harm, under the guidance of industrial hygienists, and the objective would still be maximizing profit for the company. Like GM, we did not have working water fountains in the chemical plant, only water dispensers, because there was no potable water supply. The contentious health issue was not water but indoor air quality due to workers being allowed to smoke cigarettes indoors (and being prohibited from smoking outdoors). Those who objected to being poisoned by our breathing air had no recourse except to quit or wait for the smoking policy to change.

      Incidentally, when I was pregnant and working in the plant, I discussed my concerns about chemical and radiation exposures with the industrial hygienist and the plant physician. In trying to allay my concerns about carbon monoxide, the plant physician specifically mentioned lead as an example of something that is undeniably dangerous for all humans at any dosage and must therefore be avoided, especially by pregnant women. We did not have a known lead exposure risk in the plant, so it was safe for him to admit that any dosage was dangerous.

      When a government monopoly is selling water to its citizens, there is no motivation to implement quality control. There is no loss of profit, no worries about satisfied customers, and those in authority have the power to set prices, compel payment, and overcome resistance through foreclosures. Some have said that the real aim in Flint is gentrification, which requires forcing residents out to convert their property to other uses. A policy of extorting payment for unacceptable water, backed up by condemning properties and foreclosing, while removing children from the families of condemned structures (an additional means of extortion, plus a bonus stream of income to local government by capturing federal subsidies) will achieve those aims. The key to success in such a venture is coordinated action, or inaction, by those in authority. The entire machine of governance must act in lockstep to block the citizens from any avenue of recourse. In my opinion, that is why blindness to risks appears to be so pervasive. The risks are borne by the citizens, not those in power. Nobody in authority wants to disturb the narrative because a chink in the armor can bring down the entire system of repression, and that person would be blamed, and worse.

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