Whatcom Watch Online
Volume 7, Issue 3
The State Department of Ecology Cowers While the Environment Declines
Our Department of Apology
After 27 years, Washington's ecological watchdog is more and more a lapdog, cowed by industry pressure and legislative meddling.
by Chris Carrel
Chris Carrel is a freelance writer living in Federal Way. This article is reprinted with permission from the Seattle Weekly issue of January 14, 1998.
Mercury is just the sort of toxin Congress had in mind in 1972 when it passed the Clean Water Act, which was supposed to eliminate all pollutant discharges into water bodies by 1985. And Bellingham Bay is just the sort of water body that act was supposed to protect. Decades of pulp-mill operation have left the sediments beneath the bay so laden with mercury that the Washington Department of Ecology is spending millions to clean them up. Nonetheless, the Georgia Pacific mill that is the source of much of the mercury pollution continues to discharge the powerful neurotoxin into the bay. Georgia Pacific routinely violates the mercury limits in its discharge permit from the state Department of Ecology, the agency responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act in Washington. Is this just another case of a big polluter thumbing its nose at the rules. Not exactly. The Department of Ecology allows, even encourages, the illegal discharge.
This sorry pass illustrates an unsettling truth about the state of environmental protection in Washington. The Department of Ecology, state government's environmental watchdog, has opted to tread softly with regulation. In dealing with powerful interests like the pulp and paper industry, the DOE is all too willing to authorize pollution and environmental degradation and ignore violations.
People on the opposite sides of the ecological divide tell the same tale, in very different terms. Bellevue Republican legislator Bill Reams, a longtime critic of the department and of environmental regulations, allows that "Ecology's become more moderate." DOE staffers frustrated at their agency's "sorry if we have to enforce the law" approach call it "the Department of Apology." Environmental groups like the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance find themselves spending as much time watching DOE as watching the polluters. And all too often they must expend their own limited resources to do the job DOE is supposed to do with public funds; last month the Soundkeeper Alliance sued to end Georgia Pacific's mercury discharges into Bellingham Bay.
The Big Green Dream
The Department of Ecology was created in 1970 when, responding to growing public concern, the Legislature merged several single-focus natural resource agencies, including the Water Resources Department and Water Pollution Control Commission, into a single agency. Today, DOE's $257 million biennial budget is spread over 10 administrative programs, covering areas ranging from water quality and water rights to solid wastes and dangerous wastes. More than 1,400 people work at its four regional offices and its new $165 million headquarters in Lacey. More than 40 state and a handful of federal laws spell out its mission in detail.
DOE's enabling legislation sums up that mission: to protect the "fundamental and inalienable right" of Washingtonians to "live in a healthful and pleasant environment"--a transcendent public ideal. But that ideal hasn't fared well in practice. Today, according to a 1995 report by the Public Interest Research Group, Washington tops the states in the amounts of cancer-causing toxins legally discharged into its waters. Bellingham Bay ranks 19th in carcinogens among water bodies nationwide--even though mercury, with which it is most conspicuously contaminated, is not a carcinogen.
Georgia Pacific's downtown Bellingham complex includes a paper mill and a chemical plant that releases mercury as a by-product of chlorine production. Both discharge through the same wastewater system. Under the Clean Water Act, all discharges to waters must have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, which are supposed to set increasingly stringent pollutant limits and eventually eliminate toxic discharges altogether.
Georgia Pacific violates its monthly mercury limits one month out of four. It has repeatedly breached its daily limits, sometimes by a factor of 10. But instead of fining GP or shutting its facility down, DOE staff reinterpreted the permit, which on its face regulates the mixed discharges at the pipe's end, as pertaining only farther up the pipe, where the chemical plant's effluent typically meets permit limits. But farther down, where the pulp mill's effluent mixes in, mercury levels soar. DOE's interpretation seems to serve one purpose, charges Puget Soundkeeper's B.J. Cummings: to insure Georgia Pacific meets its permit limits, water quality be damned.
DOE's supervisor for the Georgia Pacific facility would not speak with me, but Sheryl Hutchison, its communications director, says the Clean Water Act requires the agency to set limits at the source, the chemical plant. But doesn't that ignore the fact that mercury is also leaving the pulp mill? "You have to come back to the outflow," Hutchison replies. "Is it violating water-quality standards? The answer is no."
That's technically correct, thanks to another agency decision. Georgia Pacific has been granted "mixing zones" at the discharge point. These allow a polluter to exceed state water-quality standards within a designated area, if prior investments in treatment equipment have failed to make outflows conform. In theory, the pollutants disperse and no one's the worse. Perhaps, if the toxins break down in the water--but mercury, like many other substances, is a "persistent pollutant." Rather than dispersing, it accumulates in sediments and organisms.
"Essentially, they've carved out a very large sacrifice zone in Bellingham Bay," complains Cummings--in stark contrast to the Clean Water Act's zero-discharge goal. Her group's lawsuit also challenges the mixing zone designation and seeks a full accounting of mercury sources at the plant and mill, as well as a plan to limit mercury releases. DOE already has the authority to compel these actions, but has so far declined to use it.
Frustrated environmental groups are increasingly turning to such citizens' lawsuits. Seattle attorney Richard Smith, who represents the Soundkeeper Alliance against Georgia Pacific, has built a busy downtown practice out of suing polluters under the Clean Water Act's citizens' suit provision. Congress included this provision as a fail-safe measure, deputizing citizens to enforce discharge elimination permits if the responsible agencies fail to do so. Smith's firm has handled about 100 similar cases in the past three years and is currently pursuing 10 other active ones. Most are settled before trial, he says, with the pollution getting cleaned up, attorneys' fees getting paid, and a portion of the settlement going to water-quality projects.
Smith and his partner Knoll Lowney are just scratching the surface. A 1996 study by the Soundkeeper Alliance found that of the 334 Puget Sound facilities with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, 70 percent violated their permits in that year; one in four had serious, chronic violations. Only 6 percent of the repeat violators, a grand total of five facilities, were fined.
The Puget Soundkeeper's Association study echoes other analyses that reveal a marked decline in DOE's enforcement statewide. The Associated Press' Hal Spencer found that DOE issued 22 percent fewer citations from 1993 to 1996 than in the 1990-1992 period: 333, down from 428. And the penalties it assessed fell by 67 percent, from $5.95 million to $1.96 million. According to DOE records, more than a third of the fines it levies are reduced on appeal. (This trend seems to be reversing under the new Locke administration; by mid-December 1997, the agency issued 299 citations and levied 144 fines totaling $1.23 million.)
The drop in enforcement was the brainchild of Mary Riveland, whom Gov. Mike Lowry appointed DOE director in 1993. Riveland, who previously headed the Department of Licensing, was selected after several candidates with strong environmentalist support crashed, some because of Republican legislative opposition, others for personal reasons. She was supported by the business community, which considered her a no-nonsense manager who would reduce agency bureaucracy and respond to business concerns about DOE. By appointing her, Lowry seemed to be angling for Republican support for his other legislative priorities. Environmentalists, a core Lowry constituency, did not object, although most now speak bitterly of Riveland's tenure.
The new director moved quickly to improve "customer service" at DOE. "It was time to develop some new skills," says Riveland, who now operates a consulting business on Orcas Island. "Big industry understood its responsibilities," she explains; what DOE needed to do was address scattered "non-point-source" pollution by educating individual citizens. Riveland argued that to get the most environmental bang for the taxpayer buck, DOE should focus more resources on technical assistance and pollution prevention, rather than regulation and heavy-handed enforcement.
Less Action Or Less Need?
Today, Riveland and groups like the Association for Washington Business suggest the decline in agency enforcement reflects better industry compliance. But the greens' fears that the agency has gone soft on polluters are echoed by a "dissident faction" within DOE, who contend that beginning with the Riveland administration, they were told to ease off on polluters. "It was clearly communicated to us...we were going to be focused on customer service, rather than compliance and protecting the environment," says one 13-year DOE veteran who requested anonymity. "I was labeled a 'command and control' guy," for holding firm on environmental laws. Four DOE employees have told me of overt and covert pressure to be flexible with industry, to the point of writing weaker permits and overlooking violations. Attorney Richard Smith notes a similar trend in weaker water-quality permits; he is currently pushing a case challenging the legality of DOE's "backsliding" on them.
Greens argue that DOE's failings go deeper than declining enforcement, to its role in writing environmental legislation and the rules and regulations that implement it. Russ Lehman, former counsel to the state's Water Resources Forum and a policy analyst for Gov. Lowry, says that the department's application of environmental laws is often a judgment call reflecting political considerations. Lehman concluded that DOE interpreted state water law "in favor of the users, often at the expense of the resource." He showed Lowry 17 actions the agency could take, wholly under its existing authority, to improve water-resource management, protect streamflows and fish, and help prevent the salmon endangered-species listings that are now causing such upheaval around the state. Lowry, who would have had to go toe-to-toe with the Legislature to defend DOE, declined. Nonetheless, Lehman argues, the department still has the discretion to take the actions he recommended, and strengthen its application of other environmental laws--should Gary Locke or a future governor choose to let it. They only need the political will.
Veterans of past environmental battles in Olympia also accuse DOE of weakening environmental bills as they're shaped in the Legislature. Ron Schultz, policy director for the National Audubon Society's Olympia office, notes that the agency supported 1997 legislation eliminating the state's independent Office of Marine Safety: "They were trying to meet perceived demand from legislators, when really it was an agency specific business interests had been going after for several years." People for Puget Sound lobbyist Bruce Wishart complains that DOE typically stakes out weak positions and compromises on anti-environmental legislation that green groups won't touch, giving life to bills they might otherwise be able to kill. Business interests "tell Ecology, 'If you give on this draft bill, then we'll ease off on our opposition [to something else],'" says one veteran of several legislative sessions who asked not to be named. "Every stage of the game, they get Ecology to move"--and give nothing up themselves.
"They're terrible politicians," agrees Russ Lehman. "[They should] leave politics to the governor. [Their] job is to carry out the law."
New Director, Same Tune?
Despite DOE's recent history of disappointing greens, Gov. Locke's appointment of Tom Fitzsimmons raised hopes that the agency might assume a more aggressive stance. Fitzsimmons, a mountain climber, brings more apparent environmental commitment to the position than his predecessor. He talks the right talk, replacing Riveland's "customer service" with eco-buzzwords like "sustainability," "environmental results," and "quality of life."
Fitzsimmons is also a savvy administrator and no stranger to Olympia politics; he headed Gary Locke's transition team and was Thurston County's chief administrative officer for 10 years. One of his first moves at DOE was to eliminate a layer of management, saving $800,000 annually and doubtless scoring points with efficiency-minded legislators. Fitzsimmons projects a can-do enthusiasm bordering on arrogance: "It's a huge challenge, but that's my personality. I'm not afraid of the impossible." Then he adds self-deprecatingly that volunteering to head DOE made some of his friends question his intelligence.
To his credit, Fitzsimmons recognizes the primacy of water--quantity and quality--among the myriad issues facing his department. Earlier this year, he formed a working group with legislative leaders to build a framework for solving water issues. To cynics, water resources have seemed a political quagmire for more than a decade, but Fitzsimmons hopes to have an agreement ready for this legislative session.
Though nearly 20 environmentalists and DOE staffers interviewed for this story generally spoke of Fitzsimmons as an improvement over Riveland, the difference increasingly seems one of style, not substance. In the previous legislative session, Fitzsimmons supported several measures that gave greens heartburn: absorbing the Office of Marine Safety into DOE, the "Environmental Excellence Bill," and water-rights legislation so bad Locke undercut him and vetoed it. Nor has Fitzsimmons changed the voluntary compliance system Riveland instituted.
Most troubling to greens, though, are several recent policy decisions indicating that DOE will continue to seek the course of least resistance. "I hate to badmouth a new director," says Seattle attorney David Mann, the president of the Washington Environmental Council, "but I definitely see problems in the way they're treating these issues..."
Burn, Baby, Burn
Each summer, bluegrass-seed farmers in and around Spokane County clear harvested fields by setting the stubble ablaze. The smoke clouds inundate surrounding communities, including Spokane. "It looks like Hiroshima," says Patricia Hoffman, a Spokane veterinarian who formed Save Our Summers to battle the burning. Hoffman's group and hundreds of local physicians lobbied Riveland to end the grass fires. They cited serious respiratory health problems, including several asthma deaths, caused by the smoke, and car accidents on smoke-obscured highways. They also pointed out that Washington's Clean Air Act directed DOE in 1973 to ban grass burning.
In 1996, over the farmers' objections and in what many critics consider her finest hour at DOE, Mary Riveland pledged to end the burning. The agency would ban burning on one-third of the grass acreage that year and another third the next, and complete the ban by the summer of 1998.
Shortly after Fitzsimmons' 1997 appointment, however, he began to back off that pledge. He reminded environmentalists that DOE was no longer in a "command and control mode" and preferred to work with the interests it regulates. He argued, despite an attorney general's opinion to the contrary, that it lacked the authority to end field burning absent economical alternatives. Nearly a quarter of a century after the Legislature told DOE to ban the burns, Fitzsimmons handed the issue to a task force, the Olympia equivalent of shifting to neutral. Hoffman and other burn battlers were outraged--all the more so because Fitzsimmons made his announcement after visiting grass farms, although he declined invitations to meet asthma sufferers.
Activists deluged Fitzsimmons and Locke with calls and faxes. The outpouring "sharpened my empathy for what they're going through," says Fitzsimmons. It also made the director and his boss aware that Eastern Washington wasn't going to suffer another burning season quietly. Under pressure, Fitzsimmons changed course in November; he committed to deciding whether to ban burning by March 1998, but pointedly stopped short of committing to a ban.
Going For The Gold
While public pressure seems to be moving Fitzsimmons on bluegrass burning, heavy political pressure has pushed him in the opposite direction regarding a proposed open-pit cyanide-leach gold mine in Okanogan County. (It's only fair to report that I have in the past worked in opposing this mine, first as an activist, then as an occasional consultant to the Okanogan Highland's Alliance.)
This mine will produce a half-billion dollars' worth of gold--and leave a 900-foot-deep pit in Buckhorn Mountain. It has been held up for the past two years by various environmental hurdles, including water rights; it needs enough water to irrigate six farms, but local watersheds are overappropriated, and DOE has consistently denied local applications for new water rights since the 1950s.
In January 1996, DOE told Battle Mountain Gold the law prevented granting it water rights, since its open pit would puncture the mountain aquifer, dewater a mountain stream, and impair existing water rights. However, rather than denying the application outright, agency staff worked with Battle Mountain on mitigation. In November, DOE reversed course, granting water rights with a mitigation plan that includes drilling half-mile-long holes through the mountain to redirect flows to the dewatered stream.
Such mitigation is "deeply rooted in how Washington does business," says Fitzsimmons, defending the decision. "If an activity is permitted, the issue is how to mitigate that activity. Mining is a permitted activity."
Attorney David Mannk, who represents the Okanogan Highlands Alliance in two lawsuits against DOE, argues that mitigation isn't appropriate where water isn't available. He also bristles at the fact that the agency has granted the company a special exemption to dump 9 million tons of polluted mine tailings on a creek, in violation of Washington's solid-waste law. "Why are they treating this mine so special?" he says, his voice edged with frustration. "They weighed 70 jobs [that would be created by the mine], and they've got the county commissioners on them and they couldn't say no."
A Tough Environment
For environmentalists, the Buckhorn mine, bluegrass burning, and Bellingham Bay mercury are emblematic of scores of decisions in which the Department of Ecology facilitates the piecemeal degradation of the environment and weakens popular laws protecting public health. This despite their high regard for DOE's program-level staff, whom they see as thwarted by politically hypersensitive upper management.
"There are lots of deeply concerned people working at Ecology," says Carol Dansereau, industrial toxics director of the Washington Toxics Coalition. "But they run into a brick wall in terms of Ecology's management."
DOE director Fitzsimmons acknowledges the "tension between employees closer to the problem" and managers who must consider a "larger view." While environmentalists call that "putting a leash on staff, others would say that's a great thing for management to do." The result, he argues, is not weakened environmental protection but a "balance point" between environmental concerns and the economic impact of regulations. That position pleases Rep. Bill Reams, who believes DOE is doing a better job of representing the general public. "If you're on one side of the issue or the other, maybe you don't like Ecology moving back to the middle," he says.
Fitzsimmons' critics reply that Ecology is more than a broker between opposing political positions: its statutory duty is to protect the public's environmental bottom line, as spelled out in the law.
"I was shocked to discover that Ecology acts as a referee between stakeholders," says Save Our Summers' Patricia Hoffman, "and that when there are meetings, industry comes...and if the public does not show up, the assumption is that there is no problem. The public thinks Ecology is supposed to look out for our air. We didn't know we were supposed to come to all these meetings."
This gulf between legislation and regulation is of course not unique to Washington. William Greider described it in his 1992 book "Who Will Tell the People." "Symbolic legislation is passed with great fanfare, self-congratulation, and the knowledge the real political fight has only just begun." When regulatory agencies jockey over how the laws are implemented, "random lawlessness" results. Private interests and political influence trump environmental science and public health.
DOE's "balance point" is thrown further off-kilter by heavy pressure from an unfriendly Legislature, what Mary Riveland calls its "board of directors." "They're dealing with a bunch of yahoos...who think the environment should be drained, plowed, cut, and plundered," says Rep. Hans Dunshee, a Democrat representing eastern Snohomish County. "It's a tough environment."
Just Whose Agency Is This?
Tom Fitzsimmons disputes such claims: "I've never felt that any decision I've made was compromised by what the Legislature might think about it." But lawmakers have unabashedly used their budgetary authority to rein in his department in recent years. In 1993, angry at its water resources program's noises about protecting streamflows and salmon, legislators fiscally eviscerated the program, slashing its budget by $2.4 million and its water-rights permitting staff by 42--a two-thirds reduction that has yet to be restored. The agency's ability to regulate dairy-farm pollution, one of Washington's most pressing water-quality problems, was similarly shackled by 1993 legislation limiting its dairy program to just three enforcement officers for the entire state.
Even more blatantly, in the last two sessions, the Legislature has eliminated agencies troublesome to the business community: the Marine Safety Office and Puget Sound Water Quality Authority.
The message couldn't be clearer: mess with business at your own peril. "It's implicit that if Ecology doesn't respond to [legislator's wishes], there's a price to pay," says a longtime legislative player. "That means budget; that means jobs. That's the motivation for a lot of these decisions." Powerful legislators "call up and say, 'If that [permit] doesn't get out the door tomorrow, I'll take it out of your hide.'"
"Everybody's smart in these things," says Rep. Dunshee. "Those agency folks have been cut and whacked enough times to know" the price of saying "no."
"I'm told on a routine basis, 'We can't do that now because the Legislature is in session, or is just about to be,'" says Paul Stash, a 12-year DOE employee. "That pretty much wipes out six months a year." Other staffers tell of having to justify their actions before hostile lawmakers who track individual permit and enforcement decisions for constituents. The result, they say: staff-level self-censorship and frequent management-level timidity in the face of controversial decisions.
Bureaucracies live by budgets, and rare is the agency chief who will sacrifice his fiefdom for mere principle. More than two-thirds of Washington voters believe government has a crucial role in preventing corporations from polluting the environment (according to a 1996 poll by Fairbank, Maskin, Maullin, and Associates)--but where are they when legislators unsheathe their budget knives?
If things change at DOE, they will change because of the governor. It's his agency, his director, and his political capital that must be spent defending it. This does not reassure DOE's green critics; it was during the administration of Mike Lowry, the great green hope, that the agency reached its nadir. Environmentalists supported Gary Locke for governor because he's not Ellen Craswell, not because they expect him to become an environmental champion.
In the kind of political calculation that's usual in Olympia, it's far easier to let the Department of Ecology continue on its present course, risking little more than scattered grumbling from environmentalists, than to make it a true watchdog and invite a jihad from the Legislature and the business lobby. But leadership isn't about doing what's easy.
The Amazing Disappearing Hazardous Waste
In 1994, under the banner of regulatory reform, DOE's hazardous-waste program convened a committee of industry and environmental representatives to revise state hazardous-waste regulations. The committee generated new rules--plus one lawsuit and a raft of bad feelings. "The process was a sham," says participant Gerry Pollett, of Heart of America Northwest. The department forbade environmentalists from making proposals to the group, or negotiating directly with industry, he says, while Ecology staff met privately with industry representatives to develop proposed regulations. The "reformed" regulations, adopted in 1995, narrowed the definition of hazardous waste, relaxed regulation of carcinogens and mutagens, raised the limits on toxic wastes businesses can store on-site, and opened the door to increased waste imports to the Hanford nuclear waste repository. Environmentalists quit the committee in protest and filed a lawsuit challenging the new rules, which goes to trial later this year.
Was this all to the end of regulatory reform, as DOE maintains? Not according to agency insiders. In 1990, the Legislature set the goal of reducing hazardous wastes in Washington by half. "Ecology realized they could never do that in a growing economy," says one staffer familiar with the effort. "They changed the regulations so they could meet the goal."
Excellence in legislation?
In 1997 the business lobby's pet bill was "Environmental Excellence," (Whatcom Watch, July 1997, page 9) which lets projects participating in a special state program circumvent state environmental standards. Green groups opposed it, arguing that its vague performance standards were no substitute for current state environmental rules. Ecology responded to industry's call for flexibility, however, and negotiated a compromise that eventually passed. Its support was crucial to save the controversial bill from becoming veto bait. DOE officials reassured environmental groups that federal law provides back-up protections against any weakening of standards for air and water quality and solid and dangerous wastes. But similar federal "excellence" legislation, now being pushed, would loosen those standards.
"If Congress gets the federal legislation passed, then we've already lost the state standards, and it's wide open," says People for Puget Sound lobbyist Bruce Wishart. But what about industry's need for flexibility? Since the law was passed, Ecology has been unable to find a business innovative enough to try the program. DOE director Fitzsimmons is mystified: "I find it interesting that we don't have a number of corporations jumping into [the program]."
U.S. Government Proposes the Drastic Lowering of Organic Farm Standards
Warning: Organic agriculture as we know it may be undermined by the United States Department of Agriculture
by Craig Winters
Craig Winters is an instructor at Bastyr University, and was a founding member of EarthSave Seattle.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released proposed rules that if enacted as such will allow foods genetically engineered, irradiated, and grown with toxic sewer sludge to be labeled "organic." Further, there are many other aspects of these proposed rules that are cause for alarm. Such proposals as allowing antibiotic use in livestock, synthetic ingredients in food production, and restrictions on more accurate labeling are genuine reasons for concern.
Clearly, the proposed rules do not represent what consumers expect the word "organic" to mean. Therefore, it is essential that you write a letter to the USDA by April 30 stating your objections. You may also wish to write your two Senators, your Congressman, and President Clinton. Express your genuine concern that the USDA has ignored the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board. Ask the USDA to rewrite the proposed rules and to adopt the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board. Anything less will be a reduction of the standards consumers of organic foods have come to expect.
The USDA will post comments received on their Internet site. If you are online, you may wish to visit the web site to gather more background. The entire text of the extensive proposed rules is posted. You can read the document online or download it to read offline. It was printed in the Tuesday, December 16, 1997, Federal Register that is available through the Government Printing Office.
If enough people write in, fax, or comment via the Internet site, the USDA will be forced to eliminate irradiated and genetically engineered foods from their definition of "organic." If people do not express their desire, we may soon be eating organic foods that are significantly different than what we are expecting. Now is the time to act! Pick up your pen (or turn on your computer) and let your feelings be heard. The future depends largely on consumer activism between now and April 30, 1998. Spread the word!
How To Comment
You may comment to the USDA by mail, fax, or over the Internet. When writing it is important to include the docket number (TMD-94-00-2) on your correspondence.
Mail your comments to: Eileen S. Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4007-So., Ag Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, DC 20090-6456
Email comments may also be sent via the USDA National Organic Program's homepage at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop.
<!- THIRD STORYxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx -> Forestry-Related Landslides and Their Impact on Neighbors
by John DiGregoria
John DiGregoria is an ecologist living in Bellingham.
On November 18, 1996, a landslide originating in a 164-acre clearcut moved swiftly down Hubbard Creek, Oregon, into a residential house killing four people. Unfortunately, this tragedy need not have happened. It could have been prevented when Champion International applied to cut this acreage ten years earlier. At that time, the Oregon Department of Forestry noted that areas within this harvest unit had the potential to slide into Hubbard Creek creating a debris flow hazard to downstream property owners. However, with no legal recourse to stop the harvest, the Department of Forestry approved the application and the land was cleared. Immediately after the four deaths in Hubbard Creek, they began to study and reevaluate the policies governing forest practices on unstable slopes.
Prior to this event, in the early 1990s, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) adopted a watershed-analyses model to determine and mitigate hazards associated with forest practices. A major component of this model is preventing landslides and rockfalls. In practice however, road construction and clearcutting are often allowed to occur on unstable slopes. A drive through Whatcom County on a clear day attests to this sad fact by the sight of numerous landslides in the midst of recent clearcuts and along logging roads.
Clearly, mismanagement in both the past and present combine as cumulative effects at the landscape level. As we harvest areas for the second and third times, we further degrade our watersheds. The question is, why do we allow land-use activities that increase risks to public safety and neighboring property?
Naturally Occurring Landslides in Whatcom County
Granted, there is a pre-existing natural tendency for our slopes and foothills of the Cascade mountainsto fail. This is due to the geology and climate in the area.
The geology of the Cascade foothills of western Whatcom County consists predominantly of Chuckanut formation, interspersed with Huntington formation and bands of serpentine over bedrock. These three rock formations have been folded and shaped by time and have the potential to slide when saturated with water and/or shaken by earthquakes. Therefore, during wet winters, both forested and naturally burned areas have an increased potential for slope failure.
In addition, the winters of western Washington can be quite variable with periods of dry spells intermixed with periods of rain and snow. Both high intensity storms and rain-on-snow events can quickly saturate soils causing increased subsurface and surface water flow. Recent studies by the Oregon Department of Forestry show that too much water on unstable slopes can trigger landslides.
A number of different types of landslides can occur in our area. In this essay the term landslide refers to large-scale movements of liquefied earth and woody debris that move rapidly downhill. These debris flows pick up rocks, wood, and soil as they scour a groove in the hillside. For example, a debris flow in Cape Creek, Oregon started as 250 cubic yards of volcanic rock sliding down a twenty-degree slope. Over the course of one-half mile it grew to 250,000 cubic yards. According to Don Easterbrook, a professor of geology at Western Washington University, "[m]uch of the area of the Cascade foothills...are potentially hazardous and have produced most of the larger landslides in Whatcom County."
Forest Practices Increase Slope-Failure Potential
Once a watershed analysis by the private property owner has been conducted for a given watershed, prescriptions are written, typically by DNR and the property owner (read private timber interests), with the intention of eliminating or reducing slope failure due to road building and timber harvesting. Since many harvest areas are second and third generation plantations, existing roads are often repaired with the justification that it is an "existing road." What ends up happening is that many times the prescriptions allow for the repair of roads which weren't well-placed to begin with: they were quickly degraded by unstable slopes and the harvest of trees on steep terrain the first time around.
Road construction on steep slopes utilizes methods that increase the potential for slide occurrence. Specifically, cutting the toe of an uphill slope to form a road and then using this material to fill the downhill slope creates two problems. Oversteepening the bottom of the uphill slope and the top of the downhill slope creates landslide conditions. If a culvert clogs above the road or washes out the bottom of a fill-slope, then a section of the road will probably move downhill. Cutslopes also expose subsurface flow changing the hydrology of an area. The hydrologic impacts from roads directly affect adjacent cleared hillsides.
A number of factors affect landslides in clearcuts, including root strength, increased soil saturation and surface runoff, and the creation of ruts and gullies during "yarding." Root strength declines rapidly after a harvest with the lowest root strength occurring four to ten years after a harvest. During this period of low root strength, increased soil saturation in yarding ruts (created by dragging cut logs along the ground to remove them from a site) can channel surface runoff starting a debris flow. With no trees immediately downhill this flow will continue until the slope mellows or it runs into an obstacle large enough to stop it. This combination of roads and clearcuts on unstable terrain leads to increased damage to neighboring property.
Property Damage in Whatcom County
By looking at the past we can foresee future landslides originating on private timberlands and impacting adjacent property. This impact includes damage to personal property, public facilities, and the public's aquatic resources.
Damage to private property can include burying land under piles of debris as well as the destruction of buildings and vehicles. This exact scenario occurred in 1979, when a landslide originating on a Georgia Pacific logging road moved down Sygitowicz Creek damaging a couple of outbuildings, two new cars and a commercial fishing boat. Georgia Pacific settled out of court with the property owners. Will a similar fate befall nearby Terhorst Creek (a watershed with a history of landslide activity)? Crown Pacific--who recently purchased the majority of Trillium timberlands in the county--plans to clearcut thirty-three acres in the headwaters above Terhorst Creek gorge. The fact that below the gorge are residences and farms, a public road and the south fork of the Nooksack River makes one question the wisdom behind this project.
Surprisingly enough, damage to public roads caused by clearcutting is not uncommon throughout the county. A 1989 Department of Transportation report states that since 1962, "the Boulder Creek bridge...has been buried by flood debris on at least eleven occasions." This study found "an eighteen fold increase in areas of landsliding along a 2.5 mile stretch of the main channel...due to" the combined effects of "the local geology, hydrology and timber harvest activities...." It further states that the "probability of a new landslide forming in the next 2 years is 74 percent, and increases to 97 percent for the next five years." Interestingly enough, using our tax dollars, the Department of Transportation is required to conduct routine maintenance and to repair any damage to Boulder Creek bridge. Besides repair costs, when landslides destroy this bridge, large amounts of debris flow into the nearby north fork of the Nooksack River threatening wildlife habitats.
We have learned the hard way that when landslides deposit debris in aquatic systems they directly impact fish habitat. The initial flow can move into the river channel and scour the banks before stopping. The flow can also dam the stream creating the potential for future problems when the dam breaks. Landslide deposits increase the instream sediment load and can smother salmon eggs and alevin. Landslides that stop short of salmon-bearing streams still have the potential to cause sediment-loading into downstream habitat during prolonged wet periods. With native salmon declining throughout the region we must reduce the risk of damage from landslides to existing fish habitat.
Minimizing The Risks?
Shortly after the tragic landslide at Hubbard Creek, Oregon, the state of Oregon acted to protect public safety and high-use public roads. A recent study by the Oregon Department of Forestry conducted during two high intensity rain storms showed, "on very steep slopes, three out of four sites that had been clearcut 0 to 9 years prior to these storms experienced a higher rate of landslides than sites that had not been cut in the past 100 years." Nevertheless, the state of Oregon has not yet acted on minimizing timber harvesting-related impacts to aquatic resources or private property.
Similarly, Whatcom County and Washington state both allow road construction and land clearing in areas that increase the risk of property damage to downslope neighbors. With the current county council, there are no expectations that new rules or regulations are forthcoming that would protect downslope property from upslope land-use activities.
Public concerns such as personal safety, listing and protecting wild salmon, and damage to property from activities on adjacent property should take precedence over land clearing and road building on unstable terrain. At this point, however, the public does not have legal recourse to prevent damages. Do people have to die before our state changes its policies? The risks associated with landslides in the Cascade foothills can be reduced if we stop forest practices on unstable terrain.
Crown Pacific, as mentioned above, has recently purchased the majority of Trillium timberlands in the county. Crucial is the fact that most of the remaining old growth timber on these lands is found in steep gorges and other unstable terrain. As we welcome Crown Pacific into our community, we have to wonder whether this liquidation forestry corporation will manage their lands to reduce the landslide risks to neighboring property or will they continue to maximize their bottom line?
19 Great Ways To Damage, Maim, and Kill Trees On Your Property
by Elliott Menashe
Elliott Menashe operates Greenbelt Consulting, an environmental education, assessment, and management service on Whidbey Island.
- Take out the most vigorous and healthy trees
- Leave damaged trees with serious defects
- Leave suppressed trees
- Wound the trees you leave
- Compact the soil
- Change the grade
- Change the drainage patterns
- Kill the roots while trenching for utilities
- Pave around the trees
- Store excavated soil around trees
- Stockpile construction materials around trees
- Dispose of chemicals and paint near trees
- Install extensive lawns and sprinkler systems
- Use the trees as fence posts
- Top the trees
- Clear and grade entire property (make sure all topsoil is hauled off)
- Pile and burn brush, limbs and stumps close to trees
- Plant English Ivy at base of trees
- Use herbicides generously
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Utility Deregulation and the Environment: Exploring the Connection
by Jeff Hammarlund
Jeff Hammarlund is a visiting professor at Fairhaven College. He served on the staff of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee under Senator Henry Jackson.
If they gave out awards for the decade's most obscure "sleeper" issue that could have the greatest impact on the environment, a leading contender would surely be the current push to deregulate the electric utility industry. It's not yet on your radar screen? You're not alone. For most people, electric power is a simple matter. You flip a switch, the light goes on, and you pay the bill to the local utility. There may be some vague memory of some failed nuclear plants in the past; that's about it.
But those simple days are over. The electric utility industry is being turned upside down by the same economic forces of deregulation and competition that transformed the telephone and airline industries. Over the next few years, new rules governing the electricity business will be written in the state capitals and in Washington, D.C. They will affect each of us as consumers and our communities long into the future. Large industrial and commercial customers certainly stand to gain from electricity deregulation. Allowed to shop for the best deal among utilities and the new independent power producers, they will be in a prime position to negotiate preferential deals. What is less clear is how electricity deregulation will affect residential and small commercial consumers, and especially low-income and rural customers who will be the least profitable to serve.
How we make and use electricity is also at the heart of many of the environmental problems we face, including salmon extinction, global warming, air and water pollution, nuclear waste and acid rain. Deregulation of the electric utility industry has great potential to intensify these effects. If the transition to a more competitive power industry is not handled very carefully, we (and other species) face more pollution and a sharply reduced quality of life.
Electricity and the Environment
Here in the Northwest, about 60 percent of our power is generated at dams. Dams use the power of the river to drive turbines that produce electricity. These turbines, along with the reservoirs that dams create, are one of the biggest reasons why salmon in the Columbia River basin have declined to a small fraction of their historical size. Juvenile salmon need clean, cold, fast water to migrate to the ocean safely. Instead, they face deadly spinning turbines and warm, slow reservoirs full of predators. When added to the many other problems salmon face, such as polluted water full of non-point pollution, silt and pesticides and rearing habitat that has often been destroyed by overgrazing of livestock, it is easy to see why more and more salmon runs are being listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The rest of the country depends primarily on power plants that burn coal or natural gas to generate electricity. These fossil fuels are used to produce about one-fifth of the Northwest's power. Burning fossil fuels creates enormous amounts of air pollution, including unhealthy smog in our cities and towns, unsightly hazes in our national parks, and acid rain, which is deadly to forests and lakes.
Fossil fuel is also the largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions responsible for disrupting the global climate. Last summer, the White House-sponsored working group studying the likely impacts of global warming on the Northwest environment, on which I served, predicted both more destructive storms and flooding during the winter. We also anticipated more summer droughts and quicker melting of the winter snowpack. This would mean less water for hydropower generation, salmon habitat, irrigation and other uses. The international insurance industry has become sufficiently alarmed that they are now urging governments to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Over the past two decades the Northwest has been one of the world's leaders in promoting a part of the solution to this dilemma. Most Northwest utilities have taken energy conservation and clean renewable resources like wind and solar power seriously as energy resource alternatives that could be compared against more traditional options such as coal or hydroelectric plants. They have typically found investing in energy efficiency to be the most cost-effective option with little or no negative impacts on the environment. With the help of loan, rebate and direct installation programs for residential, commercial, industrial and low-income customers sponsored by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and Northwest utilities, our region has saved enough electricity to power the city the size of Seattle. Some utilities also invested in renewable resource pilot projects. Unfortunately, as BPA and utilities cut costs in preparation for competing with each other and with utilities from outside the region, investments that have benefited us have quickly fallen by the wayside. In the scramble to lure or keep large, lucrative industrial customers, utilities are threatening to leave the rest of us behind.
Why Is This Happening?
For many years utilities have controlled the electricity business, from the huge power plants to the meter hanging on the side of your house. In the Northwest, these utilities were either publicly owned like Whatcom County Public Utility District, Orcas Island Electric Coop or Seattle City Light, or state regulated like Puget Sound Energy. In either case, they have long enjoyed their status as "natural monopolies." That's changing fast.
Cheap natural gas and new technologies have driven down the price of electricity. New companies such as the huge Houston-based Enron Corporation, which are unencumbered by large "dinosaur" power plants and able to offer lower prices, are entering the market to compete for the utilities' business. Industries, commercial chains and other large electricity consumers are stepping up political pressure to end utility monopolies and allow open competition among energy suppliers. Competition will allow industries access to the cheap power being offered by new energy suppliers. Congress and state legislatures are considering bills to give those industries much of what they want. Among our western neighbors, California and Montana have already adopted electricity deregulation.
The transition to a competitive electricity industry is more complicated in the Northwest because of the presence of BPA. As a federal power marketing agency, it is responsible for marketing wholesale power to utilities and some large industrial customers and for helping to support salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia River Basin. BPA has long been a major player in the Northwest power industry, managing and marketing about 40 percent of the power sold in the region and controlling more than half the region's high-voltage transmission. BPA benefits from the fact that it markets most of the region's low-cost hydroelectric power supplied from a network of 29 dams located primarily in the Columbia Basin. But the agency was not created or structured to compete in a deregulated environment. It is hampered by high fixed costs, including a $7 billion debt associated with much of the region's past investments in nuclear power. And it has historically paid a large share of salmon restoration costs and other public purposes such as energy conservation programs.
As a wholesale supplier, BPA is already fully exposed to competition and is struggling to reduce its costs so that it can compete in the market. The transition to a competitive industry raises many issues for BPA and the region. In the near term, how can BPA continue to meet its financial and environmental obligations in this intensely competitive environment? In the longer-term, when market prices rise and some of BPA's debt obligations have been retired, how can the Northwest retain the economic benefits of its low-cost hydroelectric power when the rest of the country is paying higher market prices? And finally, what is the appropriate role of a federal agency in a competitive market? The question is not only whether BPA can compete in the near term, but also, should it be a competitor?
The Environmental Consequences
On the surface, cheaper power sounds like a good deal. Genuine competition should lead to lower electricity prices and more choices about the sources, variety and quality of electrical service. But cheaper is not always better, especially where the environment is concerned. Here's why.
Under the traditional "natural monopoly" system, utilities paid for certain "public purposes" such as affordable electricity to rural and low-income customers, environmental protection, energy-efficiency, renewable resources, fish protection and recovery measures and low income energy assistance. These costs were passed on to utility customers through their bills. With competition, however, utilities fear their customers will leave them if they continue to offer "public purpose" programs that also raise utility bills. These customers will have the option to sign up with new suppliers with no such public purpose obligations. It is easy to understand why utilities under competitive pressure to retain their customers do not want to pay for the social and environmental programs they have supported in the past.
The first items on the chopping block for BPA and many Northwest utilities have been conservation and renewable resource development. Funding for salmon recovery efforts seems close behind. Cutting these public benefits may help BPA and the utilities keep their industrial customers, but the result will be more pollution, further loss of salmon runs and higher bills for the rest of us in the long run.
More fundamentally, competitive markets are effective at setting prices, but have a notorious blind spot for pollution and other environmental harm. If power from a natural gas fired plant costs less than investing in energy efficiency or a clean solar plant, the dirtier power will be sold first, regardless of the hidden environmental costs. As far as the market is concerned, pollution or the destruction of salmon runs is someone else's problem.
The Beginnings of a Northwest Solution
If utility deregulation is done rapidly and haphazardly, the Northwest stands to lose many of the advantages our region has enjoyed for many years. We have had some of the lowest electric rates in the nation, a world-class energy conservation infrastructure that provided good paying jobs and clean, affordable power, and a funding mechanism to pay for salmon and steelhead that have born the brunt of our hydropower system.
Fortunately, the various stakeholders in the Northwest share a common interest in the stewardship of a great regional resource---the Columbia River and its tributaries. The river is a biological, cultural and economic treasure. One of the important economic benefits of the river is as provider of the power generated from the dams and sold at cost. Our region depends on these hydroelectric dams for about half of the power we use. The availability of this inexpensive, abundant and reliable energy has long been the backbone of the Northwest economy, and helped support other uses of the Columbia River, such as irrigation, flood control, and navigation, albeit at the expense of the river's other roles as a biological and cultural treasure.
The various interests in the Northwest also share a concern about losing the benefits of the Columbia River hydropower system resource to other parts of the country. Even though electricity from the Columbia River federal power system is a little more expensive than other options in the short term, many believe it will drop below market levels when more of BPA's debt is retired in the longer term. Regional stakeholders recognize that only by achieving a consensus position within the region on a plan for electricity industry restructuring in the Northwest, do we have a chance to preserve the benefits of our power system for the region. The likelihood of federal legislation mandating electricity deregulation and retail competition is growing. There is widespread recognition of the need for a politically credible Northwest chapter of any federal legislation. No less of an authority than Senator Hatfield said it succinctly: "We must have a good explanation for why our region should continue to have first priority for federal power." And if we are unable to achieve a united front within the region in shaping the Northwest chapter of the federal legislation, warned Hatfield, "the Office of Management and Budget will write it for us--and take the Bonneville Power system away from us."
In a proactive move, the governors of the four Northwest states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington launched a comprehensive review of the Northwest Energy System to seize the opportunities and moderate the risks of the transition to competitive electricity markets. Their goal was "to ensure that the region continues to have an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power system, despite the restructuring of the industry." This diverse committee reached a consensus on all but one key issue--how to manage the river for power and salmon. They released a set of recommendations that includes a minimum regional investment of 3 percent of utility revenues from electricity sales for the Northwest each year (or about $210 million) for energy conservation, non-hydroelectric renewable resources like wind and solar power, and low income energy efficiency services. While this is significantly less than what was spent in the recent past, it would be a reliable source of funds and would not put any energy supplier at a competitive disadvantage.
Representatives of the Clinton Administration, the four Northwest governors and tribal leaders are now crafting a bold new approach for managing salmon recovery in a Columbia River Basin that also serves as a major resource for power, navigation, irrigation, flood control and recreation. It will be interesting to see if the creators of this "Three Sovereigns Process" will be able to craft a new governance structure that has all parties agreeing to abide by decisions they may not like.
We don't have the option of going back to the good old days. Some of the advantages are already slipping away as utilities and large industrial customers cut special sweetheart deals during what some have called a period of "virtual" deregulation. Some federal bills, including one introduced several months ago by Senator Gorton, would open up the utility industry to competition.
Whether offered at the state or federal level, new legislation to deregulate the utility industry should include certain provisions to ensure that the Northwest continues to benefit from the common-sense approach to energy that has served us so well. First, utilities must have a way to contribute to investments in clean renewable resources, energy efficiency and low-income assistance while remaining competitive. Second, all consumers must be protected and ensured access to safe, reliable electricity. And third, we must enable BPA to remain financially stable so that the Northwest can retain control over the Columbia River hydropower system and we can continue to fund salmon recovery efforts.
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Somebody's Gotta Do It: Finding Work In a Dirty World
by Adam Gottschalk
Adam Gottschalk, a student at Fairhaven College, is working on a self-designed concentration in sustainable development.
After Sandy, a 21-year-old student of Fine Arts at Western Washington University, had been searching for work this past summer for more than a month, she started to get a little desperate. She started thinking, "Gosh, I'd take just about anything at this point." She eventually did find work, through a temp agency. The job was nothing she was thrilled about, but then neither was unemployment.
Sandy found work at Bellingham's Heath Tecna, a builder of airplane interiors for Boeing and other large companies. Her job involved assembling fiberglass parts, bonding pieces together and sanding them down.
Heath Tecna is a relatively young company, only several years old. Coming in the wake of the past several decades of regulation of industrial and workplace environments, the company does have clear procedures for worker safety that it tries to follow, complete with animated cartoons for the orientation of new workers, cartoons which portray, among other things, buckets of happy, smiling, "friendly" chemicals dancing alongside nasty ones which are supposed to be approached cautiously.
At a plant like this one, exposure to damaging elements, industrial adhesives, solvents, and fiberglass dust is unavoidable. "There was a book outside the Safety Office we were supposed to look at," Sandy said, "but I never did...[it was a ] 500-page book that had all the chemicals you could be exposed to. Actually it was like six different books, these huge ridiculous things."
She described a rash she and coworkers used to get up and down their arms after working with the fiberglass. "I tried to talk to people, you know, to say, 'Look, if it does this to your arms, imagine what it's doing to your lungs.'"
The Right to a Job That Will Not Kill You Young
Do workplace risks faced by a white, middle-class college student in Whatcom County, Washington, really have anything to do with environmental justice? Looked at through the filter of "free informed consent," the question leads us to answer an emphatic yes: when a person consents to a job, for example, or a community consents to a new industry in the neighborhood, the issue arises as to whether the consent was in fact free or adequately well-informed.
Sandy was faced with a "choice" between continued unemployment or work at Heath Tecna. Her consent was not really free--she was faced with more of a "non-choice," a lesser-of-two-evils dilemma. It seems rare, in fact, that anyone gets to freely choose their work; wouldn't it be nice to just walk in anywhere you choose and set up shop? But when a particular job involves risking one's health, the connection to environmental justice is apparent.
Principle Eight, from a set of principles adopted at the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit which met in Washington, DC in 1991, says the following:
"Environmental justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment" (emphasis added).
This statement stands in direct contrast to the notion that, when it comes to dirty work, "Somebody's gotta do it."
Aside from the question of free consent, whether or not a person is well-informed can be a tougher issue to clarify. Melinda Button, Safety-Health coordinator at Heath Tecna, points out the "Right-To-Know" laws require that workers be informed of any workplace risks they might be exposed to, the names and nature of certain chemicals, the possible impacts, etc. As Sandy implied, though, what full-time employee has the chance to sit down and read through six 500-page volumes of chemical indexes? And how likely is it that the average person would really understand what they were reading?
The truth is, even if you can name names and point to possibilities, you still can't be very sure what the risks really are. It is one thing for a government agency to monitor levels of pollution. It is entirely another thing to accurately correlate pollutant levels with their ultimate effects on human health.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Minda Phillips, of the Northwest Air Pollution Authority, agrees that correlating health impacts to emissions is the critical, and prohibitively difficult, step that must be taken now. Since the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969, and other related acts, such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, greater and greater efforts have been made to monitor and regulate levels of emissions, from industrial and non-industrial sources alike.
This does not mean, however, that we can be significantly more sure today what man-made elements in our environment are responsible for what specific cases of illness and disease. The Northwest Air Pollution Authority knows, for example, that industry in this area (Whatcom, Skagit, and Island counties) is responsible for 96 percent of all sulfur dioxide released. We know, in a general sense, sulfur dioxide contributes to acid rain and exacerbates asthma and other respiratory illnesses; how many asthmatics in Whatcom have been adversely affected by industrial emissions? Unfortunately, it is impossible to say--precise and reliable procedures for making this sort of determination have yet to be invented.
One of the most frightening facts of modern life is that there are tens of thousands of man-made chemicals in everyday use, and only a small fraction of those have been studied to determine their human and ecological toxicities. According to United Nations Environment Program documents, of the 80,000 "artificial chemical compounds" in use in 1992, no information was available on the health effects of 63,000, with complete profiles available for only about 1500.
The people charged with protecting us (from ourselves?)--government regulators, doctors and others--have effectively decided that "innocent until proven guilty" applies equally to chemicals and production processes as it does to living, breathing men and women.
Button says Heath Tecna has an excellent worker safety program, based on accident statistics compared to other similar facilities. She agrees, though, the fundamental fact is that these procedures are necessary only because work at the plant involves very real (if elusive) risks.
The questions pertaining to environmental justice are equally as much about levels of danger as they are about distribution of such dangers: how and why is it that certain people come to work at Heath Tecna? Do such people have any other options (i.e.: were their choices really free choices)? Does their awareness of risks really justify their being exposed to them?
When Sandy asked a supervisor about the rash she and most others in her department were getting, she was told, "Oh, yeah, it doesn't really go away. You have to just wash your arms with cold water and it makes the itching go away." The cold water trick didn't work for Sandy. "My rash didn't go away for a month after I left. My arms were like always red," she said.
None of her coworkers seemed to worry too much; presumably, they were just happy to have found a steady job. In this case, the problem was not a lack of provisions for worker protection. "They're just lazy," Sandy said. Everyone had "Tyvek" suits and dust masks they were supposed to wear; however, Sandy points out that in the factory, inside those suits, it got to be quite hot in summer and folks were less inclined to wear them. Furthermore, she said the rash would appear despite the suits.
Sandy was right to worry about more than just superficial "nuisances" like the rash. She describes a workplace contaminant monitoring session she happened to witness one day. Inspectors used a special apparatus, attached to individual workers, to measure levels of fiberglass dust and toxic fumes they might have been inhaling. The instrument seemed flimsy to Sandy, and didn't, for example, seem to imitate the human inhalation process. "It was just like a cup," she said. When she asked later about the results of the inspection, she was told that everything was fine, but she still wants to know, "Who decides what are acceptable levels?"
Blackmail and Development
When a person is in need of work or when a locality is in need of economic development, of creating more job opportunities, of expanding its tax base to pay for infrastructure, the "free" and "informed" parts of consent tend to drop away dramatically in importance.
Whatcom County was in such a position of desperation as it moved into the 1960s. What had been a community traditionally centered on resource-based activities such as farming, forestry and fishing, started to move more thoroughly into manufacturing and industrial activities, the next stage in development.
Today, some of the most important industries in the world, many of which came into being in the '60s, are right here in our vicinity. Georgia Pacific, for example, produces some of the finest grade ethanol anywhere; at one time, Intalco Aluminum was the largest producer of aluminum in the country, producing about 300,000 tons per year.
Intalco is the single largest employer in the county, with some 1200 workers. When Intalco opened in 1966, area residents were ecstatic. One official for a local economic agency was quoted in 1965 as saying that Intalco "will enable Whatcom County to emerge from mediocrity to its fullest realizations."
What has accompanied the benefits of industrialization here, as anywhere, has been the realization of its negative effects. When people consented to economic development several decades ago, was their consent really free and well-informed? Doubtful. Someone dying to get out of agriculture would probably take anything they could get. Local officials desperate to offer their constituents economic development would probably not scrutinize too closely the potential costs versus the benefits of new industries.
Again, it was only about 1970 that significant federal environmental regulations began to come into being. Those regulations have gotten more and more strict as more and more is understood about toxins and pollution. The dangerous thing is that various economic activities are allowed to begin and continue until such time as someone can prove in a court of law that they are damaging.
Only several years after Intalco moved in, the land surrounding the plant became contaminated from fluoride emissions. Intalco did not argue this fact, and proceeded to pay compensation in a number of cases, totaling almost a million dollars. The first to sue was Paul G. Barci. Barci claimed his land had been ruined; ironically (and sadly), Barci had been declared Whatcom County's soil conservation farmer of the year only the year before. Barci and others who find their surroundings and personal health compromised for the sake of economic development are the victims of economic blackmail.
In addition, for the first six years of Intalco's operation, there were no hoods over the pots where alumina is reduced to aluminum by electrolysis. Workers during that time were exposed to a great deal of toxins, including not just aluminum fumes, but also fluoride, carbon monoxide, and benzene-soluble hydrocarbons, among others. The new dry-scrubbing pollution control system installed in 1972 reduced worker exposure a great deal (though it was not eliminated).
Years later, in 1992, a case involving a group of 25 employees, who had worked at Intalco during those first six years without the pot hoods, was finally decided in Washington Supreme Court in favor of the workers, who had sued for health damages. Many issues brought up during the decade-long legal ordeal have implications beyond the scope of just Intalco or Whatcom County labor safety.
The condition the Intalco workers came down with was dubbed "potroom palsy" by the occupational medicine experts who examined them. In four separate trials juries affirmed the position of the workers. The trials set legal precedents in making a concrete connection between aluminum plant employment and neurotoxic effects.
Intalco defended itself by citing the lack of prior studies making such a connection. However, medical experts testified that "there are many cases in occupational medicine where an association between a patient's work conditions and disease has gone unnoticed for years, often because the patient's illness has been misdiagnosed."
Trends Only Now Emerging
Industrial workers are not the only ones being unwittingly exposed to toxic threats. Doctors around the world are starting to broaden the scope of their investigations into, for example, what might be causing alarming increases in rates in children of such conditions as asthma, brain cancer and leukemia.
Industries of all kinds which, since World War II, have been relying more and more heavily on chemical regimes to achieve their desired productivity levels, can be harmful not just to those inside the factory walls, but to the people and places surrounding them. That there may be a connection between the tens of thousands of unstudied chemicals in use and "inexplicable" increases in rates of certain diseases is a logical (and frightening) conclusion to draw.
The companies in Whatcom County which employ the most and bring in the most income for the county are also the ones most likely to be listed in the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory. In fact, Whatcom County is ranked seventh among Washington counties in terms of total toxic releases at one-and-a-half-million pounds per year. We are not, however, the seventh most populous county in the state. Do we bear a disproportionate burden of risk? Again, it is hard to say for sure because the actual effects are so difficult to assess.
When Georgia Pacific (GP) first started operations, it let out more than 100,000 pounds of toxic waste per day into Bellingham Bay. This figure has dropped at least to compliance with EPA standards of 24,000 pounds--but is that really very comforting? There is little question that GP is largely responsible for making the Bay the second most polluted body of water in the state. In 1980, GP was fined $250,000 after a Department of Ecology suit over excessive discharges--the single largest such fine ever.
There have been several incidents over the years of GP workers and members of the general public being hospitalized because of accidental emissions of chlorine gas (in low concentrations) and ferric chloride gas. One victim of such an emission in 1987, Mark Stratton justifiably asked, "If they have these things that are such a potential risk, what are they doing in the middle of town?"
The risk was further emphasized that same year when, during a chlorine gas transfer from a rail tanker, a leak occurred. Luckily, one worker on hand acted quickly and closed the necessary ports to prevent catastrophe. GP honored the worker for valor saying, "Much of Bellingham's population could have been wiped out by as much as 55 tons of deadly chlorine gas." Officials at the Western Pulp and Paper Workers Union said the accident was a result of "long-standing and total disregard by management for the safety of the workers and the community in the interests of boosting production."
Pawn It Off To Someone Else
One danger, which many involved in environmental justice have noted, is that in the process of developing economically, or of winning local environmental battles, communities (and nations) proceed to hand off the undesirable artifacts of their economies to those in less developed stages.
One example is that of hazardous solid waste disposal. A number of environmental justice studies have shown a correlation between concentrations in a given area of hazardous waste and the likelihood of environmental injustices. Whatcom County industries produce some 3,500 tons of hazardous waste per year, but the nearest disposal facilities are in other counties and states, the burdens of other communities invisible to us.
Another case is that of industry relocation. It is a very real possibility that Intalco, for example, will relocate to a developing country soon to cut down on operating costs.
Many of the same risks that Whatcom County and its workers have faced will persist--it just won't go on in our own backyards anymore. Is that fair? Should anyone have to risk their health and environment just to make ends meet in the short-run? Can we achieve what we want, what we really want--not wages or a job, but the things that those allow--without having to poison ourselves or our neighbors?
When Sandy was looking for work last summer, part of her problem was her level of education; she had no degree yet. She said that Heath Tecna hires a number of undergraduates in a similar position to hers. She also mentioned that there were a good number of immigrants working at the plant. At least one such worker had a contract with the company to get his GED. Is it right that education should determine the level of risk a person has to endure?
As graduates of Western, we will probably have a greater choice in the workplace than, say, an immigrant without even the equivalent of a high school education. We will have a responsibility, then, to consider the impacts of our employment choices (assuming we have at least some), and the impacts of the choices we make for the further development of our communities. Just because we may not have to work on the pot-line at an aluminum plant does not mean we should totally disregard the plights of those who do, or disregard the broader impacts of industrial processes and economic development.
In fact, people say a bachelor's degree is not necessarily worth all that much anymore. Who knows where we'll end up looking for a livelihood? We might just find ourselves applying for work and being faced by an interviewer who asks us something like, "You're not sensitive to chemicals, are you?"
This article was reprinted with permission from The Planet. In order to protect anonymity, a few of the names have been changed, some at the request of the individuals in question.
Whatcom Creek Bluff Project and Downtown Revival
by Amy Kenna
Amy Kenna is a student at Whatcom Community College.
These days, due to Bellis Fair Mall and continuing development on the north end of town, the downtown area of Bellingham seems increasingly blighted. Ever since the mall's exponential influence on fast food culture in our city, the more historic and less consumer-oriented old-town has lost business, attention, and much of its aesthetic appeal. Things are booming on the Guide Meridian; Holly Street and the waterfront area are sadly quiet.
Luckily, concern is being expressed by both the citizens and the city over this tragic neglect; Bellingham will not let the core of its heritage and culture dissipate without a fight. Instead, various projects for downtown revitalization and improvement are currently underway.
One large key to downtown revitalization is the re-beautification of our downtown parks. Current areas of focus include Old Village Trail improvements, Maritime Heritage Park improvements, Whatcom Creek trail development, as well as many miscellaneous trails and docks in need of improvement. The 1997 Beyond Greenways initiative begins in 1998, runs for 8 years, and will provide $11 million for the purchase of land for park expansion in our city, and $7 million for the development of public facilities, (namely parks, docks, and trails). Consequently, downtown park and trail projects will receive about $2.2 million of that from the Greenways levy. Beyond Greenways trail projects and land acquisition in the downtown area include Whatcom Creek Heritage Center and Trails, and Squalicum Beach Park and Fields.
Funding has also been provided by 1997 and 1998 City Neighborhood Initiative Programs, City Central Reserve surplus funds, and the City Park and Recreation Department.
Central to the improvement of Whatcom Creek, (an extension of Maritime Heritage Park,) is the replanting which is now occurring on the hillside behind the Whatcom Museum. Last February, volunteers removed the blackberry tangles from the bluff below the museum, leaving a bare hillside that extends from the post office to the Central Street right-of-way. After clearing the blackberries, (which will return to haunt efforts for about five years before thoroughly squelched,) volunteers prepared for winter weather and rainfall by applying 2,000 cubic yards of mulch to prevent erosion.
Now that spring is underway, the bluff project is beginning. Replanting will take place in two phases: one this spring and another this coming fall. This spring the planting will take place below the post office, and will cover roughly one-half of the bluff. The planting window will take place over a five-week period of six Saturdays, during which volunteers will gather in replanting efforts. The first Saturday was February 28 and the final will be April 4. Planting will last from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. each Saturday. Thirty volunteers for every Saturday are greatly needed, and plant donations are also appreciated.
Native plants will make up the majority of the vegetation planted on the hillside, creek, and park. Especially on the sharply slanted hillside, native plants prove capable of surviving extensive exposure to sunlight and harsh threats of erosion. However, some non-native plants will be used in the front of the museum, where the environment is less demanding. The project will include manicured plant areas as well as more informal and wild portions of vegetation.
Phase two of the replanting will occur this autumn, and will cover the second half of the bluff. September, October, and November work parties are planned, and funding for plant materials will be provided by Neighborhood Initiatives Funding.
Whatcom Creek Park already boasts the salmon woman, a beautifully sculpted wooden totem representing a part of local Native American history and culture. Carved in the totem are the names of various people who have been instrumental in helping save the salmon. The salmon woman looks lonely next to the bare, austere hillside, and should be happier than any of us to see the planting of flora turn out a success.
The Bellingham Department of Planning and Community Development began planning the revitalization of downtown in 1996. Right now, they are focusing on the improvement of public property and the upgrading of public parks, for which they have received grants. The department hopes that improvement of downtown's public areas will encourage the private sectors to do their part in re-beautification and maintenance.
Projects other than the bluff include plans for a hillclimb connecting the Civic Center to the Whatcom Creek Park through the Central Avenue pedestrian corridor. The design for this is underway, and construction is scheduled for the summer. Also included in this is a design for an amphitheater, which will be constructed when parking improvements and restroom facilities have been achieved.
Other plans for downtown include the implementation of street trees, angle parking, bulb-outs, lighting, and the reintroduction of park benches. Planning is also underway for the improvement of Squalicum Harbor and other waterfront areas.
To Volunteer or Donate
Downtown won't stand to be ignored; it is too much a lifeline of our community. If you are interested in participating in its improvement by volunteering a Saturday or two for the spring bluff planting, please contact Tara Hardesty at 676-6880.
Also, donations are needed and greatly appreciated. If you would like to donate to the bluff project, please make checks payable to: Whatcom Parks and Recreation Foundation, at 210 Lottie Street, Bellingham, WA 98225. Your contributions are greatly appreciated.
Protestors at Government Hearing Oppose National Organic Standards
by Craig Winters
Craig Winters is an instructor at Bastyr University, and was a founding member of EarthSave Seattle.
Journal of an Activist
The U.S. Department of Agriculture hearing on the proposed rules for the National Organic Standards Act was held Thursday, February 26, in Seattle. Here is a review of the activities from my perspective.
The hearing was at the Seattle Center in one of the large meeting rooms. For those of you reading this not familiar with Seattle, the Seattle Center was built for the World's Fair in 1962 and is home of the Space Needle, arena, opera house, etc.
I was scheduled to be speaker #15, but since I teach at Bastyr University Thursday mornings I was not able to get to the event until 10:30 a.m. and by the time I arrived, they were already at speaker #16. However, the panel members were very courteous and let me speak right away instead of having to go to the end of the line of speakers which at this point numbered over a hundred people. I gave my presentation for five minutes pointing out the obvious shortcomings and it seemed to go over well with the audience. Now I could relax a little, listen to the other speakers, and observe.
Where is Everyone?
At first I was a little concerned. There were only about 100 people in the room at that time and only two protest signs. I said to my friend that I was somewhat disappointed that there were not more people and more signs. After all, Seattle is a very progressive city and Washington state is quite positive on alternative medicine. There should have been more people here and more protest signs. Shortly thereafter, things started changing for the positive in a wonderful way.
Jennifer Hillman of Greenpeace arrived at 11a.m. and told me she had the Fishberry costume in her van along with about 50 Fishberry t-shirts that had been designed for this protest. The design is a fishhead on a strawberry body as a colorful parody of a current genetic engineering project which takes a desirable gene from one species and puts it into another. For example, they take a gene out of a fish which can withstand really cold temperatures and mix it with a vegetable or fruit gene such as strawberries, so the berries can withstand extreme cold without dying or ruining the fruit.
Next, I noticed flyers were being posted that said a protest over the proposed rules was about to take place at the base of the Space Needle--organized by Seattle Tilth. At about 11:45 a.m., Jennifer and I went to her van to get the Fishberry costume and then to the base of the Space Needle. My eyes lit up as I saw about 75 people with lots of protest signs. Jennifer put on the Fishberry costume and was joined by several other human-looking fruits and vegetables. There was s person wearing an excellent "bunch of grapes" costume complete with a gas mask. There was the Puget Consumers' Coop Carrot, and five other fruit costumes. It was quite a sight to behold.
The crowd continued to grow to close to 100 people. Finally, we started our march with the local television channels filming the excitement. To the beat of conga drums, we walked around the Seattle Center. Someone finally started to chant "Hi-Hi, Hi-Ho, Organic Standards Have to Go." We continued this chant until we reached the outside court area where the USDA meeting was taking place. There was a PA system and podium set up outside and four people, including myself, spoke for about ten minutes. Again the cameras were rolling. Then everyone in the audience threw mock versions of the proposed rules into a large garbage can.
Dramatic Re-entrance to the Hearing
Next we began our march into the meeting room, again chanting with conga drums beating. I cannot express the incredible energy in the room as 100 chanting activists with signs and conga drums entered. The over 100 people already in the room stood up and gave a standing ovation to the new participants. Now the room had over two hundred people with dozens of signs, wearing fruit costumes and Fishberry t-shirts. We quieted down after a few minutes and the speakers continued to give their presentations. A couple television cameras continued to film the speakers.
Overall, the energy was great and I am sure the USDA got the message loud and clear. A statement one of the USDA representatives made was cause for optimism. He stated pretty definitively that the USDA would re-submit new proposed rules for additional comments. In other words, rather than the USDA taking in all the comments and then issuing final rules, they will issue new proposed rules, receive comments again on those, and then issue final rules. So, on that level, there is reason for optimism.
Will the Department of Agriculture Honor the Public's Wishes?
One point was made that was similar to feelings people have had about other USDA hearings. That is the fact that although the USDA representatives at the meeting seemed to genuinely be listening, will the top officials in Washington, DC have the same sentiments? Or are these hearings just a public relations scam? Personally, I feel we will win on eliminating the irradiation, genetic engineering, and use of municipal sludge as fertilizer. But will the USDA adopt the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board? Nothing less than that will be acceptable to most of us. So the battle rages on....
I want to thank Tilth and Greenpeace for their great work. I also want to thank Mark Epstein of the Save Organic Foundation for flying in from Chicago to attend this hearing. If we all keep working together we will win this battle...sooner or later.