Why is this fire a study in failed project management? It is an almost endless string of bad project management decisions. I am not talking about Gantt charts and responsibility matrices. I am talking about decisions by the stakeholders concerning whether and when to do a project and the approach that is taken. I am talking about the risk management, scope management, and stakeholder management associated with a project. In fact, there are so many project management failures to discuss that I will need to break this blog post into several parts.
It All Starts.
According to most accounts, the fire was intentionally started on May 27, 1962 as part of a town clean up to prepare for the upcoming Memorial Day celebrations. The new town landfill, which had only been open for a few months, was next to the cemetery where the memorial service would be held. It was both ugly and smelled bad. It was common practice in the town to “clean up” a landfill by heaping the combustibles and burning them. So, under the direction of the town council, the fire department did a controlled burn at the landfill that day.
Failure #1 - Not Understanding The Project Environment
This landfill was in an old strip mine that was above abandoned underground anthracite coal mines. In fact the whole area around Centralia is honeycombed with these underground mines that had been in operation for over 100 years. The strip mine was a surface mine. According to state regulations, for it to be used as a landfill, any openings into the underground mine would need to be closed and sealed with non-combustible materials. The city had sealed five holes and received a permit to operate the landfill. Project management failure number one – not recognizing a high risk environment and taking that into consideration in the project plan. The large number of holes indicated that the area around and under the strip mine was porous. It was high risk area for breakthroughs into the underground mines. Filling the strip mine with rubbish could easily destabilize some of the underground chambers leading to a collapse and more openings.
Failure #2 - Not Double-checking New Or Unique Tasks
The fire department regularly set and monitored landfill fires at landfill sites around the community. Although this was the first fire at this site, there was nothing else unusual about May 27, 1962. But the fact that it was a brand new site meant that there were unknowns associated with doing a controlled burn. The rubbish was piled, the fire set, it burned for several hours and then the fire department hosed it down to put the fire out. Project management failure number two – when doing something for the first time, double check the results to be sure they are what you expected. The fire department should have provided extra monitoring for this fire since it was the first fire at this site. They didn’t.
Failure #3 - Putting A "Band-aid" On A Problem Trend Instead Of Getting To The Root Cause
Several days later, the cemetery manager contacted the fire department to say the landfill was on fire again. Once more the fire department hosed it down and said it was out. Once more they left with no follow-up plan. The following week the fire flared up again. Again the fire department hosed it down. Project management failure number three – when you have a problem trend, you need to take preventive action to get to the root cause or things will get worse.
Failure #4 - Not Spending The Resources To Resolve A Problem When It Is Small
The city notified the State officials, but their initial response was slow and they didn’t send anyone to investigate until July 19. In the meantime, the city contacted a contractor who had handled mine fires in the past. He came to Centralia and investigated the situation. He said he could dig out the problem and stop the fire for $175. But the city council said a project like that would need “to go through channels” which could take months. Next project management failure – being so tight with resources that even small issues cannot be resolved.
The City Tries And Fails
Let me stop here. The fire has been burning for almost two months. The city has tried several approaches and failed. Now they are turning the response over to the state. In my next blog I’ll discuss the project management failures on the part of the state agency. But just a quick review of the project management failures so far:
- Failure to acknowledge a high risk environment,
- Doing something for the first time without checking to see if it gives the result you want,
- Experiencing a problem trend and continuing to do quick-fix actions instead of preventive actions,
- Unwillingness to commit resources to an unplanned but necessary risk response.
References: DeKok, David. Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2010.