Investigative Reports

InvestigateWest's mission is to do in-depth, investigative reports on important topics in the West, especially the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on the environment, health and social justice.

Washington eschews coal for power, but lines up to be king of shipping coal to China

By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne Graff

Western Washington University

BELLINGHAM – Coal has fueled American electricity for more than 100 years, but on April 29, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation to end coal-powered electricity in Washington. In an effort to reduce air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change, Washington’s only coal-fired power plant, in Centralia, is obligated to stop burning coal by 2025.

As Washington stops using coal for its own power, it could begin shipping coal to China’s power plants. Whatcom County could become one of the largest coal exporters in the United States and the largest on the West Coast if SSA Marine’s proposed 350-acre terminal is built at Cherry Point, west of Ferndale.

SSA Marine estimates its proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal could ship up to 48 million tons of coal to China each year if it reaches full capacity, which the company predicts would happen by 2026.Environmentalists and many concerned Whatcom County residents are asking whether this project fits with the spirit of the new state law. The environmental groups argue that coal, whether burned in China or Washington state, produces emissions harmful to human health.

“A ton of carbon dioxide or a ton of coal burned, whether in China or the U.S., is going to have the same impact as far as climate change is concerned,” said Dr. Dan Jaffe, University of Washington professor of atmospheric and environmental science.

Air pollutants are swept into the atmospheric cycle and have a global reach, traveling from Asia to the United States every 10 days, Jaffe said.

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.

Byline: 

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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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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InvestigateWest's reporting fuels two worker safety bills to be signed by governor Wednesday

Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign two bills Wednesday  that will help protect healthcare workers from dangerous drug exposures, making Washington the first state in the country to have enforceable safe-handling standards.

The lawmaking has gotten the attention of the federal government as well, which this week issued a letter to healthcare workplaces, advising them to update their safety practices. The letter, signed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and The Joint Commission (the national hospital accreditation agency), highlighted the potential for serious adverse occupational health effects.

“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.

Both bills, which passed unanimously through the House and Senate, were sparked by InvestigateWest’s reporting on hazardous drug handling practices, which showed that lack of workplace regulation was resulting in workplace contamination and worker exposures. Such exposures can result in irreversible effects that include cancer, reproductive harm and developmental problems.

SB 5594, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, requires the state to regulate chemotherapy and other hazardous drugs by creating a safe-handling standard for healthcare workplaces. “It is unacceptable that health-care workers risk exposure to deadly chemicals on a daily basis while on the job.  This measure could literally save lives by requiring the development of workplace safety standards for these professionals,” Kohl-Welles said.

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College moves toward changing rules for handling sexual assault cases

Officials at Reed College say the institution is likely to loosen confidentiality rules surrounding sexual assault cases on campus, an idea that’s won favor with faculty, staff and students.

The topic came under discussion Monday at a campus forum centered on Reed’s Honor Principle, the century old doctrine by which students conduct themselves. Though it’s separate from policies that govern the university, the Honor Principle is at the heart of Reed’s esoteric culture, which promotes free thought and experimentation, and allows students unique latitude to meter out justice through a Judicial Board.

About 400 students turned out to Monday’s forum, where conversation with a slate of student, faculty, staff and alumnus panelists ranged from philosophical discussion to more practical matters.

In the crowded Kaul Auditorium, personal expression ranged from purple leggings to dreadlocks, leather jackets to “Junior Statesman of America” t-shirts.

Students bristled at the sight of a reporter, however, and pointedly noted the meeting was “private.” They refer to this community as “The Reed Bubble,” and allow few outsiders in. In a tight-knit group of 1,400, students show their school spirit with pride. But they feel besieged by recent media reports about the college.

Since Reed College saw the first of two overdose deaths since 2008, its administration has faced pressure to tamp down on drugs, most notably from law enforcement.

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Measure would ban toxic pavement sealant

OLYMPIA – Washington is poised to become the first state to ban a toxic asphalt sealant made from industrial waste because its ingredients are turning up in ordinary house dust as well as in streams, lakes and other waterways at levels that concern government researchers.

In some places these chemicals have been measured in people’s driveways at levels that would require a toxic-waste cleanup if the same concentrations were detected at a Superfund site, as InvestigateWest reported last year.

The legislation (HB 1721) bans driveway and asphalt sealants derived from a creosote-like substance known as coal tar that is a waste product of steelmaking. The bill has cleared the House and is scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, March 22, in the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee.

The coal tar sealants already have been banned in Washington, D.C; in Austin, Texas; in Madison and surrounding Dane County, Wisc.; and in a succession of towns in the Midwest. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, is seeking to ban them nationally.

While levels of many water pollutants have declined in recent decades as a result of the Clean Water Act, levels of the toxic materials found in coal tar have been increasing in hot spots near parking lots coated in the sealant, according to national studies by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Researchers with the Geological Survey also documented the transport of these toxic chemicals into apartments adjacent to coal-tar-coated parking lots, where levels in house dust were high enough to raise a red flag for children’s health, particularly lifetime cancer risks, researchers say.

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