DHS Says Aging Infrastructure Poses Significant Risk to U.S.

A video from PBS News Hour discusses the recent collapse of the Skagit River Bridge in Washington and includes a discussion of America’s declining infrastructure.

Public Intelligence

A recent version of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Risk Profile found that old and deteriorating infrastructure in the U.S. could pose significant risks to the nation and its economy.  According to the profile’s findings, insufficient funding for inspection and maintenance of critical infrastructure throughout the U.S. could create wide-ranging problems as the nation’s infrastructure continues to age.

The National Risk Profile is an annual report produced by the DHS Homeland Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center detailing current threats to U.S. critical infrastructure.  It is disseminated on a restricted basis to security professionals and infrastructure providers, which prevents the public from accessing its contents.  However, the draft version of the 2011 National Risk Profile was posted online during the comment phase by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, providing the only publicly-available glimpse of the report’s contents and structure.

Alongside pandemics and nuclear terrorism, the 2011 National Risk Profile lists “aging infrastructure” as having a “potentially significant impact” on the nation’s economy and security. The profile states that “unusable, ineffectual, and deteriorating critical infrastructure, as well as the potential for exploitation of these vulnerabilities, increase risk . . . due to the inadvertent introduction of flaws, reduced inspection and maintenance workforce, and insufficient investment.”  This places the “entire United States” at risk from aging infrastructure that will eventually “affect all critical infrastructure sectors and ultimately reduce or erode their capacity and lifetimes in unexpected and unpredicted ways.”

The National Risk Profile describes how “age undermines the capacity and resilience of critical infrastructure” which can be exacerbated by “initial problems in design (as a number of bridge failures have shown), lack of maintenance of facilities, or failure to adapt to unusual and unanticipated environments, all of which can reduce the theoretical or design life expectancies of critical infrastructure.”  The profile lists “reduced inspection and maintenance workforce” as well as “insufficient investment” as primary forces driving the increasing risk.  Proper inspection and maintenance “should identify faulty mechanisms in complex machinery and other critical infrastructure elements that have ceased to function over time.”  However, the inspection workforce that is supposed to find these faults in the nation’s infrastructure is itself “aging, retiring, or facing reductions due to lack of funding for salaries.”  This creates an increasing risk as time goes on and inspections diminish, creating “fewer opportunities to find flaws, faults, and other vulnerabilities in the critical infrastructure.”

The 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure a D+ grade, estimating that more than $3.6 trillion in investments are needed by 2020 to counteract declining conditions. According to the National Risk Profile, lack of maintenance to the nation’s aging infrastructure “will continue to result in occasional industrial disasters” with the rate of these disasters increasing if sufficient funding and resources are not allocated.  The profile notes that citizens and politicians may simply accept this “inconvenience in the name of saving money”, though increasing loss of life from disasters and unpredictable repercussions of infrastructure failure will adversely affect other areas, including the economy, “potentially causing the United States to fall behind other countries and regions economically, particularly China and Europe.”

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