In thrall to the era of Little Digital, we overlook that this is still the era of Big Analog. Our mobile, personal, wireless world is utterly reliant on a massive, interwoven, mechanical counterpart. And lots of that big stuff is rusting. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The latest, from 2013, gives the country a D+ overall. Broken down by category, our ports get a C; energy gets a D+; aviation, dams, drinking water, hazardous waste, roads, transit, and wastewater all get D’s; inland waterways and levees, each a D–. Rail manages a C+, as do bridges. Solid waste leads the class with a B–. Shortfalls in investment and innovation play a role in our poor showing. But the main problem is simple deterioration. Public and private dollars have been poured into building American infrastructure. They have been in limited supply for the task of maintaining it. I’m tempted to invoke a cliché and say that the deterioration is happening before our very eyes, but that would miss the key point: the deterioration is happening, and we’re not seeing it at all.
The hidden world of corrosion is the subject of the journalist Jonathan Waldman’s lively book, Rust. Don’t be put off by the subtitle, The Longest War. Waldman has embarked on the opposite of a slog. Among several diversions, he takes his readers along on a break‑in at the abandoned Bethlehem Steel Works with a fine-art photographer. We also get to witness a low-stakes but high-tension infiltration of the Can School, an annual confab on food-preservation technology hosted by the Ball Corporation, of jam-jar fame. (Its attendees, Waldman discovers, would prefer not to talk about the controversial synthetic compound BPA in their can-lining polymer coatings.)
Waldman’s central concerns, however, and the subjects of his two most compelling chapters, are the rusting of America’s military and industrial equipment and the reasons we’re so bad at combatting it. The characters who anchor his narrative could not be more different. Daniel J. Dunmire, now in his 60s, has a history of quirkiness. For years he drove a car painted like a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet. A committed Trekkie, he scripts educational anticorrosion videos narrated by his now-pal LeVar Burton (known to fans as Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge of the starship Enterprise). Dunmire is the director of the Pentagon’s Corrosion Policy and Oversight Office, the first person to hold that position. In the Defense Department’s hierarchy, he is two steps below the secretary.
Bhaskar Neogi was born in 1971 in Kolkata and moved as a boy to Bangladesh, then to Kenya, then to Uganda, Dubai, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. In 1989, he moved to the United States. He speaks five languages and has an engineering degree from the University of Alaska. At home, watching tropical fish in his custom-built 2,400-gallon saltwater aquarium relaxes him during the rare hours when he is not worrying about the state of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, whose structural integrity is his professional and personal passion: he’s been the senior director of risk and compliance for the Alyeska Pipeline Service since 2013. When he’s on the road, he calms himself by humming Beethoven.