Bill Gates: Boost federal funds for energy research to fight climate change

There’s an urgent need – recognized by leaders of such venerable corporate giants as Xerox, GE and Lockheed Martin – for the American government to inject a lot of cash in a big hurry into alternative energy research, Microsoft founder Bill Gates told 1,200 climate activists and business people in Seattle on Tuesday.

To head off climate catastrophe, “the innovation piece is so important,” Gates said at a fundraising breakfast for the Seattle-based non-profit Climate Solutions. “The lip service that has been paid to energy innovation over the last few decades is disappointing.”

Gates and others from the upper echelons of the corporate world banded together as the American Energy Innovation Council and pushed hard for a boost in federal energy research spending from $5 billion to $16 billion annually.

“President Obama did see us. He said nice things, and I think he meant them,” Gates joked during an on-stage interview by Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive who is co-president of Climate Solutions.

Nevertheless, the CEOs’ bid ultimately was shot down. Gates said that at a less dire time financially, it’s likely the group would have succeeded, and that the executives must keep trying.

Gates advocated research into many different energy sources, including nuclear, solar and wind power, that do not produce the gases scientists say are unnaturally heating the earth’s atmosphere, chiefly carbon dioxide. Many research projects won’t get very far but lots of them should be tried, said Gates, who is known widely for his philanthropy as well as his success at Redmond-based Microsoft.

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Washington is first state in nation to ban toxic pavement sealants

OLYMPIA – Washington became the first state in the nation Thursday to ban toxic asphalt sealants made from cancer-causing industrial waste that have been spread over vast swaths of the nation’s cities and suburbs.

The toxic ingredients in coal tar-based sealants are turning up in ordinary house dust as well as in streams, lakes and other waterways at levels that concern government researchers.  The chemicals have been found in people’s driveways at concentrations that could require treatment by moon-suited environmental technicians if detected at similar levels at a toxic-waste cleanup site. The sealants are also applied on playgrounds and parking lots.

When Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the measure Thursday, Washington became the largest government to ban or restrict coal tar asphalt sealants. Last month, Prior Lake, Minn., joined a growing number of local governments to ban them.

Alternative, asphalt-based sealants, shed far fewer toxic particles, government tests show.

The Washington State legislation and a drive for a nationwide ban flowed from studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, which showed that components of the toxic sealants are increasing in many waterways, while levels of most other pollutants are declining. One study of 40 lakes nationwide conducted last year showed high levels of contamination in Lake Ballinger north of Seattle.

A 2009 Geological Survey study identified chemicals associated with the coal tar sealants in house dust at levels that worried researchers because they could contribute to longterm cancer risks, especially in young children who crawl around through – and might accidentally ingest – the toxic dust.

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College announces changes in sexual assault policies

The sexual assault expert hired by Reed College last year has submitted his resignation with the elite private college still embroiled in turmoil over its sexual assault policies, a set of disciplinary procedures that the college itself recently determined were partially out of compliance with federal law.

With Reed faculty joining their voices to a mounting student campaign for change, the college has already made changes in its polices to meet federal legal requirements. Kevin Myers, director of strategic communications for
Reed, said additional policy changes are on the way. Some of those changes were announced to students Wednesday.

The sometimes fierce debate on campus has caused clashes between students and administrators, provoked alumni, spurred graffiti and flyers on campus, and prompted guerilla theater in the college dining room. Though the college hired a sexual assault expert last year, in part to help navigate reforms underway since August 31, the expert, Pete Meagher, has told the college he is leaving May 31, with changes still pending.

Fifty-eight percent of Reed College students signed a petition urging policy reform, presented to the college president, board of trustees and faculty and student governments April 22. Faculty also submitted a petition, saying the college may be inadvertently harming sexual assault victims through its policies, and some student victims and advocates think Reed is violating federal law.

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Ballard rain gardens: a green solution gone wrong

When Seattle was planning its first extreme-green makeover of a city block, residents competed for the honor. And in 1999, the winning street in the Broadview neighborhood got a gorgeous facelift complete with new sidewalks and verdant roadside rain gardens with shrubs and grasses.

But when the city recently tried going green in the Ballard neighborhood, homeowners there felt like they got stuck with the booby prize.

The rain gardens installed by the city last summer and fall haven’t worked as planned. The gardens, which look sort of like shallow, sparsely-planted ditches running between the road and sidewalk, fill with water – and stay filled up. Some of the rain gardens drain over the course of hours or days, but some become mini ponds until the city comes to pump out the water.

Many of the residents are not pleased. They worry that the swamped gardens are a drowning hazard for young children, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and will lower their property values. There’s even a neighborhood blog calling for their removal.

 “We feel badly,” said Nancy Ahern, deputy director for utility-systems managementfor Seattle Public Utilities, the department that installed the rain gardens. “It’s been hard on this community.”

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Research points way to sustainable solutions

When you mention Puyallup to most Northwesterners, the city’s fall fair is the image most likely brought to mind. But this suburb of Tacoma is also home to a research center that’s on the leading edge of technology used to cleanup and curb toxic stormwater runoff.

Nationwide, cities and counties are spending billions of dollars trying to reduce the amount of polluted runoff that fouls lakes and bays, floods homes and businesses, and triggers erosion. The rainwater gushes across from highways, streets, parking lots, roof tops, lawns and farms, scooping up oil and grease, pesticides, metals and other toxic chemicals as it goes.

This spring, the Washington State University’s Puyallup Low Impact Development Research Program is launching projects that scientists hope will help slow that flow of water and treat the pollutants.

The WSU researchers are testing “green” solutions for stormwater runoff, including rain gardens and porous pavement. There’s a huge demand for more information about how to maximize the use of these natural strategies.

“Our goal is to help get this stuff on the ground as fast as possible and operating as well as it can,” said Curtis Hinman, director of WSU’s Puyallup program, of the green technologies.

Seattle, Portland, Bremerton, Lacey and Spokane are among the numerous cities installing natural stormwater solutions, which are also known as low-impact development or LID. For the most part, they’ve performed well, reducing and cleaning up runoff.

But as was recently demonstrated in Seattle when city-built rain gardens in the Ballard neighborhood turned into muddy messes, there’s a pressing need for more data on how these systems work.

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Carol Smith's picture

Learning from the Duwamish River Communities

Seattle is a city built on water – its identity, its celebrated beauty, and much of its economic lifeblood comes from its relationship to Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it.

But the Duwamish River, which runs through the center of Seattle’s urban industrial core, is not the one you see on post cards. Now named one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, it is also the river in the backyard of more than 38,000 of Seattle’s poorest and most diverse residents.

The goal of my 2010 National Health Fellowship project was to identify the community health issues that face the people living in two neighborhoods – Georgetown and South Park -- which face each other across the toxic river in the middle of the Superfund site. 

The thinking was that by identifying these problems, we could call out the issue of accountability, and more importantly point the way toward creative solutions for a portion of the population the greater Seattle community has historically ignored. The backdrop for the story was a looming multi-million dollar Superfund decision about how best to clean up the river, and to what extent.

The precipitating event for the story, though, was the closure of the bridge that links the two communities, effectively cutting off easy access to downtown Seattle a few miles away. To me it seemed the perfect metaphor for the attitude of the larger population toward those struggling to carve a life on the banks of the river that built the prosperous city down the road.

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WA Legislature: Let's become first state to ban toxic asphalt sealants

The Washington House of Representatives this week passed and sent to Gov. Christine Gregoire legislation to make Washington the first state in the nation to ban toxic asphalt sealants that are ending up in people’s homes as well as polluting stormwater runoff and waterways.

Meanwhile, a federal scientist on Thursday briefed Congressional aides and others about threats to the environment and public health from sealing of driveways, parking lots and playgrounds with coaltar, a byproduct of steelmaking. The briefing was co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who is seeking a nationwide ban on the toxic sealants.

The Washington State legislation and Doggett’s drive for a nationwide ban flowed from studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, which showed that constituents of the toxic sealants are increasing in many waterways, while levels of most pollutants are declining.

A 2009 Geological Survey study identified chemicals associated with the coaltar sealants in house dust at levels that worried researchers because they could contribute to longterm cancer risks, especially in young children who crawl around in – and accidentally ingest – the toxic dust.

InvestigateWest and msnbc.com partnered last year to publish the first major national story examining the toxic sealants.

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Governor signs precedent-setting healthcare worker safety laws

Laws that would improve safety for workers who handle chemotherapy and other toxic drugs on the job and also establish a way to track occupational links to cancer were signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The companion bills are the first of their kind nationally, and could serve as a model for other states, said Bill Borwegen, health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union in Washington, D.C., which represents over 1 million healthcare workers. Borwegen called it a “great day” and said other states have a history of looking to Washington for templates on worker safety legislation.

“It is very important, and we’re the first state to do it” said Michael Silverstein, head of Washington’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “I would hope this would prod the federal government to do something similar.”

Both bills, which passed unanimously through the House and Senate, were sparked by stories by InvestigateWest on hazardous drug handling practices that appeared in the Seattle Times, on KCTS-9 and on MSNBC.com in July, 2010. The stories showed that lack of regulation was resulting in workplace contamination, potentially exposing workers to dangerous levels of chemotherapy agents and other hazardous drugs. Such exposures can result in irreversible effects that include cancer, reproductive harm and developmental problems.

“This is a victory,” said Dr. Melissa McDiarmid, Director of the Occupational Health Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, whose research has shown chromosomal damage in workers who handle chemotherapy. McDiarmid and other safety researchers have been pushing for decades to get tougher rules protecting workers who handle these drugs.

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