File this one under understatement of the year:
Responding to criticism from lawmakers and other officials, Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan said he should have consulted with the governor’s office and gone public earlier. Instead, the Department of Transportation did not inform Governor Deval Patrick until Tuesday, after inspectors had already discovered corrosion affecting a few hundred of the 23,000 lights that illuminate the O’Neill and other Big Dig tunnels.
Ah…yeah. Where to start?
First of all, public safety should be the top concern for the DOT. There is absolutely no reason – none – to withhold information from the public that forces them to blindly accept what may amount to a lethal risk. I sympathize with the desire not to start a panic – but, honestly, the worst thing that would happen would be a lot of people would suddenly take alternate routes (and that would be plenty bad enough).
Secondly, this issue with corrosion is unacceptable. “A few hundred” light fixtures showing corrosion is not a simple problem. It is a systematic problem, either with engineering, manufacturing, or with the actual installation/maintenance of the lights (I’m leaning towards the latter). Corrosion doesn’t just happen. It takes exactly the right conditions and materials to be present.
Third, this is pretty poor reporting. Tucked away at the very end is this bit of vital information:
The state on Wednesday sent a letter to the company detailing what it called “two serious problems with your tunnel lighting” fixtures – the loss of paint that has exposed the aluminum to the elements, and the specific corrosion where the aluminum comes in contact with the steel clips.
Here’s a clue to any amateur chemist: “where aluminum comes in contact with the steel clips.” That almost screams galvanic corrosion. Basically, you take two dissimilar metals, immerse them in an electrolyte, and electrons flow from one metal to the other – which results in the physical destruction of the “sacrificial” metal one atom at a time (in this case, the aluminum clips, in contact with steel braces, coated with moisture and salts/oil from the road). In this case, that means that the aluminum will simply disappear.
This points heavily to a failure of maintenance. I can’t believe that a single light-bulb has not been replaced. Part of replacing those bulbs should be a spot inspection for pitting – the hallmark of galvanic corrosion. Failure to do so constitutes, in my mind, a total failure of responsibility to the public to maintain a safe environment.
The failure is from the top of the heap down to the deckplate level. It may not rise to the level of criminality, but it certainly constitutes dereliction of duty. This is not an accident from out of nowhere, it is a foreseeable and preventable incident.