Saturday, November 17, 2012

The "Big Picture"

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture for the Advanced Science Communication class this blog is for on how "the public" uses science to support their arguments for or against a particular project, such as the proposed Pinon Ridge uranium mill in western Colorado. The idea of an engineer talking about research in science communication might seem a little ridiculous, but it really makes a lot of sense. You just have to expand your mind about what constitutes an "engineering project".

Engineering students learn a great deal during their undergraduate education about how to approach solving complex problems. Usually the steps include learning the basics (chemistry, physics), connecting the basics together (statics, mechanics, thermodynamics, transport phenomena), taking the basics to the next level (reactor kinetics), and finally put all the pieces together to design something (senior design). In very few cases do engineering students ever talk about the processes that surround their engineering designs.

Last week, the Telluride Daily Planet published an article talking about the public hearings currently going on over Energy Fuels’ application for a license to begin constructing the uranium mill. This new round of hearings is the product of a lawsuit filed by the Sheep Mountain Alliance last year against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) over the validity of the previous hearing process.

Here is where understanding the system that surrounds an engineering design comes into play:

According to the Colorado Code of Regulations, 6 CCR 1007-1 Part 18 (yes that was from memory), the legal process to license a mill that processes radioactive material (such as uranium or thorium) must have two public meetings where:

"One or both of the meetings shall be a hearing conducted to comply with section 24-4-104 or 24-4-105, CRS." 

This is where the CDPHE went afoul. Part 18.6 give very specific requirements as to what a hearing is, and how the public can participate in the process. Organizations and members of the public can apply for "party status" in these hearings, which gives them the right "to make motions or objections, present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and appeal from the decision" amongst other things.

In the original set of meetings, no organization or member of the public had party status or the opportunity to do anything but walk up to the microphone and argue their case for their allotted time. It was because of this distinction between a "hearing" and a "meeting" that in June of this year, the Denver District Court ruled that the CDPHE failed to provide an opportunity for a public hearing and ordered the CDPHE to convene a proper hearing within 75 days of July 5, 2012.  

It is important to note that while the court ruled in favor of the Sheep Mountain Alliance on this count, the court ruled against the Sheep Mountain Alliance on a multitude of claims related to the scientific and engineering information contained within Energy Fuels’ license application.  

Now, you could say that this issue was in fact a legal one, and has nothing to do with engineering. That's true, but only to a certain point. Like science communication, the connections between legal code and engineering design don't seem obvious until you think about the bigger process.

Engineers are, at their core, problem solvers. It's why they tend to abhor talking about "nothing". Nothing, though, can mean something, especially to people outside of the technical sphere. Completing large engineering projects, especially those concerned with energy resource extraction, means engineers must be able to interact with the public through various legally and non-legally mandated pathways.     

Consequently, "problem solving" means working with the public to reach a solution that is favorable to everyone. Failing to engage the public (especially through legally mandated pathways) not only tarnishes your credibility, but also increases the time and energy involved in a project.

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