Bertha and the XL pipeline

berthaIn 2001 the city of Seattle was hit by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that shook the city so hard that the double decked waterfront viaduct built in 1953 to connect state route 99 through the city was deemed unsafe and would need to be replaced.

How to replace this structure became a subject of debate as many thought the concrete monolith that spanned the waterfront was an ugly eyesore although the car drivers up on the viaduct loved the great views as well as the ease of navigating the city.

The debate led to a much opposed but voter approved Viaduct Replacement plan that would fund a 1.9 billion dollar deep bore tunnel through the heart of the city, a tunnel much like the city of Boston’s “Big Dig” tunnel.

What could go wrong?

As the engineers and planners put their collective heads together they came up with an ambitious plan to build the world’s largest deep bore tunnel that would carry a double decked two lane highway under the city streets of Seattle through one mile of seismically active dirt.

To do this amazing task the engineers would have to create the world’s largest deep bore drilling machine at the cost of 80 million dollars that would slowly drill its way through the seismically challenged pile of dirt and sand. They even had a name for this drill, “Bertha”.

With Bertha on your side what could go wrong?

Well even as smart as the engineers and planners thought they were plenty has gone wrong. After only deep boring 1,000 feet and with 9,000 feet left to go Bertha stopped drilling. The 80 million dollar, worlds biggest drill and a wonder to be arrogantly proud of, took on sand and dirt into the main seal and damaged the large bearing seal unit.

Bertha is now stuck 1,000 feet into the 10,000 foot tunnel path and will require drilling a repair shaft 115 feet down to possibly repair and/or replace the worn out bearing seals. This repair alone could delay the project until late summer 2014 and dramatically raise the estimated cost of the deep bore project that has already exceeded 2 billion dollars and rising. At 2.8 billion dollars the Seattle taxpayers are contracted to take on the remaining cost and with 9,000 more feet to go, What could go wrong?

Smart, confident, well trained, brilliant minds were very reassuring that nothing could go wrong and if so there would be backup plans and of course they were confident that they would be able to meet any challenge this project could give them. Let’s not confuse confidence with arrogance. Especially at well funded levels of project engineering there is a thin line between confidence and arrogance.

The Keystone XL pipeline will be a huge project bringing thousand of well trained, confident and brilliant minds together. They are brimming with confidence in their online statement, “Keystone XL Pipeline will be the safest and most advanced pipeline operation in North America”.

The biggest challenge of this project will be to protect the very essential Ogallala Aquifer. There are many other environmental concerns with the idea of scrapping the earth for tar sands which will inevitably end up as burnt emissions into our atmosphere but protecting the Ogallala Aquifer is the most burning concern to environmentalists.

Of course the Keystone XL pipeline engineers have great confidence that even in the unlikely event of a pipeline break the Ogallala Aquifer would not be affected.

They are very confident. What could go wrong?

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