Business Columns & Blogs

We are still capable of greatness

If you were somehow able to watch the rescue of the Chilean miners late Tuesday without feeling trepidation, impatience, more nervousness, awe, relief and joy, then hooking you up to Tacoma Power’s highest-voltage transmission line is unlikely to jolt any life into you.

For the rest of us, watching the remarkably trouble-free rescue allowed for all those emotions, and even a bit of giddy amusement when the second miner up, freed of the capsule, reached into what appeared to be a satchel and began handing out rocks he had brought up with him, as if distributing souvenir trinkets acquired on a recent vacation excursion.

It was Chile’s moment in the sun (or the TV lights), as well it should have been, for pulling off a rescue that wasn’t supposed to be done until Christmas, and whose success even then was considerably in doubt.

But it was also a moment that Americans could share some pride in, since it was an American drilling engineer, summoned from constructing water wells in Afghanistan, who contributed to the rescue.

A bit of pride is useful about now, to counteract the gloomy, if accurate, national perception that we’re no longer up to tackling the big, the audacious and the risky, and that if we try we’ll just screw it up.

It’s not that America’s history with monumental projects or adventurous undertakings is free from disaster, loss of life or just plain haplessness. The first transcontinental railroad was marked by financial corruption, worker fatalities and questionable workmanship along stretches of the line. In the depths of the Tacoma Narrows lies the evidence of faulty engineering assumptions, although those fortunately resulted in no loss of human life.

But in more recent decades Americans seem almost resigned to the notion that technological innovation and expertise are no longer national traits. The space program used to represent the pinnacle of both those characteristics (even when things went wrong; the Chilean mine rescue makes us appreciate even more the safe return of Apollo 13).

Two horrific disasters with the space shuttle, however, have largely smudged that legacy of prowess.

Contributing to the sense of gloom are the disasters that suggest we can’t even maintain what we’ve already built or accomplished, whether it’s collapsing interstate bridges or explosions on oil drilling rigs. The Department of Labor & Industries’ report on the Tesoro Anacortes explosion, which killed seven workers, offers scathing detail on how the company “continued to operate failing equipment for years, postponed maintenance, (and) inadequately tested for potentially catastrophic damage” in operating an oil refinery – not exactly a new technology.

If the failings aren’t mechanical they’re often financial. Nuclear power is widely discredited in the Northwest not so much because of safety or environmental concerns but because of the financial debacle that was the Washington Public Power Supply System (or WPPSS, appropriately pronounced “whoops”). We don’t know if the new Seattle monorail project would have worked because the financial engineering collapsed before work even started. One reason for the incessant dithering over a tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way viaduct is the suspicion the project will turn into a gargantuan boondoggle – if things go well.

What results is a culture in which the word innovation is so devalued that it is applied to whatever piece of badly designed, poorly thought out dreck that Wall Street comes with. Those bits of “innovative” financial engineering proved to be as stable in economic winds as Galloping Gertie did in real ones – and the consequences of their failure was far more catastrophic.

So are we really as hapless and hopeless as all that? Have true innovation and technological ability packed up and moved elsewhere?

Not really. Take a walk across the new Tacoma Narrows bridge, for example, and marvel at the engineering embedded in its concrete and steel (not to mention the views).

You can find innovation thriving in hundreds of small Washington manufacturers coming up with new products and technology in sectors from energy to medical devices to boatbuilding. There’s 3 Phase Energy Systems Inc. in Auburn, which has come up with an electric generator driven by industrial-equipment exhaust. There’s MC Energy in Spokane, which is producing small wind turbines for farms, schools, municipal facilities and industrial and commercial applications.

The Chilean mine rescue appears to have fulfilled its immediate intent of bringing the miners to surface and safety. Its usefulness may extend for months afterward, serving as a reminder and inspiration that every now and then we can achieve the remarkable, even spectacular – just as the litany of accidents and disasters should continually remind us of the costs of losing the capability not only to achieve the remarkable but to accomplish the routine.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at