UVA Engineering Professor Urges Officials to Learn from Flint Crisis

Crises such as the one in Flint, Mich., where corroded water pipes fed contaminated drinking water to unwitting residents, could be avoided if public officials would admit that corrosion is a national infrastructure crisis and educate themselves on readily available research, guidelines, best practices and corrosion control standards, said Professor John R. Scully, Charles Henderson Chaired Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Technical Editor in Chief of Corrosion: the Journal of Science and Engineering.

Scully’s observation is made in an editorial he wrote for Corrosion, posted on the journal’s Web site.

The situation in Flint “is typical of many corrosion-related calamities, where corrosion immunity is often tragically assumed, followed by denial that corrosion happens, followed by criticism of the whistleblowers that report corrosion or its consequence (lead in drinking water in this case), and then begrudging and late acceptance of reality,” Scully wrote.

Scully said copious technical information and lessons learned from previous corrosion and lead-contamination issues was available prior to the Flint catastrophe. To advance the national conversation, Corrosion has made available for free on its Web site additional scientific articles that otherwise would have remained accessible only to journal subscribers.

“Unfortunately, given the amount of lead pipe in use in drinking systems around the world,” Scully said, “I suspect this information will be useful to others in the not too distant future.”

Municipal water pipes are only one part of the United States’ aging infrastructure affected by corrosion. If left unaddressed, corrosion likely will consume a growing share of national resources. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card grades the national infrastructure at a D+.

Scully’s full editorial is available here.

Scully has studied many aspects of corrosion for decades. He provided key expertise and testimony in 2010 in the multi-state, class-action lawsuit brought by homeowners against manufacturers, distributors and installers of Chinese drywall, which Scully showed emitted noxious sulfur gases that corroded electrical wiring, switches, smoke detectors and appliances in the homes where the drywall existed. Scully’s work contributed to the Consumer Product Safety Commission urging homeowners to remove Chinese drywall wherever it had been installed.

Scully also helped identify the causes of corrosion in 2013 on a project designed to strengthen and stabilize the San Francisco Bay Bridge – the nation’s second-busiest span – during earthquakes. Galvanized steel bolts had become contaminated by hydrogen, causing them to become brittle and crack. Fixing that issue cost $45 million.

“Today, a lot of the research on corrosion is already distilled into standards and guidelines that engineers, technicians and others can use so that we can avoid such foreseeable catastrophes,” Scully said.

He is a participant in a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) sponsored by the Office of Naval Research aimed at understanding the early stages of corrosion of selected materials at the atomic scale, and applying that knowledge to design new materials with improved performance.

Scully, who has been a UVA faculty member since 1990, also is renowned for his teaching and mentorship of engineers in training. He is the 2016 winner of the Electrochemical Society’s Henry B. Linford Award for Distinguished Teaching, an international distinction from a society that has more than 8,000 members in 70 countries. Only one winner is named every other year. He is scheduled to receive the award in May.

Scully has mentored 35 Ph.D. students, 36 master’s degree students, 13 post-doctoral scholars, and numerous undergraduate research students and visiting scholars.