The Port of Seattle got a good look last week at who really likes the agency’s multi-faceted plans to reduce port-related air pollution: Trucking companies, shipping companies, the national ports lobby, the longshoremen’s union and a regional planning agency.
And the port’s elected governing commission also heard who thinks the port is unforgivably laggardly in reducing pollution, especially from diesel-burning trucks that haul cargo out of the port into neighborhoods that register the highest rate of childhood hospitalizations for asthma in King County. Those critics include environmentalists, the Georgetown Community Council*, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Teamsters and three other unions.
“The Port of Seattle has taken timid first steps,” Bang Nguyen of the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice told the Port Commission last Tuesday. “Act now to protect children.”
But the port commissioners… (more)
Our recent collaboration with KCTS Channel 9 on worrisome air pollution levels in south Seattle looked hard at the role played by the 1,800 to 2,000 truck trips that do business at the Port of Seattle on an average workday.
Today the Seattle Port Commission deals directly with the air-pollution controversy we covered. Staff members are scheduled to brief the commission on the agency’s air-pollution-reduction programs.
The background: the Port Commission failed (on complicated but essentially 3-2 votes) in December 2010 to speed up the air-pollution cleanup process and to support federal legislation giving ports more authority to regulate the trucks. Seattle City Council members Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, along with state Rep. Dave Upthegrove, asked the commission to go the other way. Commissioner Gael Tarleton appears to have been the swing vote.*
But in January of this year the commission, on a motion by Tarleton, agreed 5-0 to ask its staff to look into what might be done to clean up port-related air pollution sooner, citing “an urgent need to address the public health risks of poor air quality caused by expanding container (ship) traffic, the continued strength of cruise ship visits, and the associated growth in port trucking…”
Have you ever had to wait for a train at, say, Broad Street in Seattle, right by the SAM Sculpture Park? Or anyplace else along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that hug the coast of Puget Sound?
Imagine roughly doubling the train traffic on that railroad. Imagine further that each of these new trains is a mile and a half long. That’s a lot of waiting at railroad crossings.
But critics of the Gateway Pacific Terminal – the proposed coal-exporting port near Bellingham that would service those very long trains full of coal – say that’s only the first of many impacts on communities and the environment because of the terminal’s overall purpose: sending up to 48 million tons of coal to China every year.
Topping the list of environmental impacts is climate change. The Chinese would burn a *lot* of coal, the most climate-unfriendly of the major energy sources. Plus, there are the greenhouse gases emitted bringing the coal here from the Power River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. And – oh, yeah –air pollution created in China can find its way to our shores in just a week and a half.
On the other hand, you may have noticed that financially, many of our neighbors are hurting. The proposed coal-exporting terminal west of Ferndale would mean hundreds of jobs – those “family-wage” jobs that are increasingly hard to find in Western Washington. The naturally deep port at Cherry Point would not need to be dredged, proponents of the terminal point out. And the Powder River coal is low-sulfur, meaning it creates less lung-attacking pollution when burned than the higher-sulfur coal the Chinese might obtain from elsewhere.
With organized labor officials backing the project as much as they’ve pushed for anything around here in many years, a classic jobs-versus-environment standoff seems to be shaping up. Gov. Chris Gregoire and many other Democratic politicians are taking a wait-and-see attitude as two key groups of Democratic backers square off over the coal port.
This week marks an important milestone: The Whatcom County government is set to make a crucial decision about what the county will consider as it decides whether to approve the project. The big question: Will the county require studies to gauge impacts such as climate change, air pollution, coal dust blowing off trains, businesses and services cut off for what could total two hours every day while the trains pass, and, yes, motorists’ time waiting for trains? Or will the Whatcom County Planning Department limit its focus to the environmental impacts on and around the 350-acre site where the coal terminal is to be located?
We’re happy to be able to present a package of stories examining this question in depth. They were produced by the students in the Journalism 450 class at Western Washington University. They were primarily edited by WWU Professor Carolyn Nielsen. As InvestigateWest’s co-founder and senior environmental correspondent, I advised the students when they were partway through the reporting process, and helped prepare the final stories for publication.
NEW at Crosscut: Whatcom County deals coal port a serious setback
Bellingham Herald: Key decision expected from Whatcom County this week on cargo terminal
Below: A coal train travels the waterfront in Edmonds. Future trains could stretch 1.5 miles long.
How far should Washington go to rein in the largest source of water pollution fouling Puget Sound and many other water bodies in the state?
Today is the deadline for the public to weigh in on a preliminary proposal by the Washington Ecology Department that is drawing fire from environmentalists as being too lax and from builders as being potentially super-costly. A second, formal public comment period will start this fall.
At issue is stormwater, the pollution-laced runoff that streams off the developed landscape after rainstorms, carrying a foul stew of pesticides, toxic metals, fecal matter and other pollutants. Washington is the first state in the nation where a judicial ruling forced state regulators to require builders to employ a series of green-building techniques known as “low-impact development.”
READ FULL STORY here at Crosscut
There’s an urgent need – recognized by leaders of such venerable corporate giants as Xerox, GE and Lockheed Martin – for the American government to inject a lot of cash in a big hurry into alternative energy research, Microsoft founder Bill Gates told 1,200 climate activists and business people in Seattle on Tuesday.
To head off climate catastrophe, “the innovation piece is so important,” Gates said at a fundraising breakfast for the Seattle-based non-profit Climate Solutions. “The lip service that has been paid to energy innovation over the last few decades is disappointing.”
Gates and others from the upper echelons of the corporate world banded together as the American Energy Innovation Council and pushed hard for a boost in federal energy research spending from $5 billion to $16 billion annually.
“President Obama did see us. He said nice things, and I think he meant them,” Gates joked during an on-stage interview by Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive who is co-president of Climate Solutions.
Nevertheless, the CEOs’ bid ultimately was shot down. Gates said that at a less dire time financially, it’s likely the group would have succeeded, and that the executives must keep trying.
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.
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.
Washington’s move follows earlier bans. The first came in 2006 in Austin, TX, site of the discovery of the link between toxic parking-lot sealants and waterway pollution. Subsequent bans followed in Washington, D.C., and in Madison and surrounding Dane County, Wisconsin.
Washington’s law brings the number of Americans living in places where the coal tar sealants are banned to 8.7 million, according to the Coal Tar Free America blog by Tom Ennis, an Austin city official who helped prompt research on the sealants.
The fact that a second kind of asphalt sealant without coal tar is widely available helped gain support in the Washington Legislature, said state Rep. David Frockt, D-Seattle, sponsor of the measure (ESHB 1721). Frockt began working on the bill after InvestigateWest reported on the issue last year.
“When I started to understand the science, I concluded there is no reason to have this stuff,” Frockt said. “Nobody felt their business was going to be impacted if they had to go to the (other) sealants.”
In the end, though, “the human health aspect is what really hit home,” Frockt said.
The Pavement Coatings Technology Council, a Washington, D.C.,-area lobbying group representing companies that paint or spray on the deep black coal tar-based sealants, has launched scientific attacks on coal tar research.
The pavement council hired a Seattle-area scientist and consultant who told Washington legislators he found flaws in the methods used by government researchers to produce a “chemical fingerprint.” The Geological Survey researchers say those chemical fingerprints implicate the parking-lot sealants as the largest source in many urban lakes of a class of toxic chemicals known as “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” or PAHs.
Industry officials’ main defense is that the PAH chemicals can come from a variety of sources other than the coal tar sealants.
“Their mathematical model that purports to apportion sources of PAHs is based on pre-selection of sources using cherry-picked data,” Anne LeHuray, executive director of the Pavement Council, wrote in an e-mail to InvestigateWest.
The new law protects health, saves money and is supported by compelling scientific evidence, said Mo McBroom, a lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council.
“Dealing with the problem of toxic runoff is huge. This is a big step forward,” McBroom said. “We know that coal tar sealants are potential threats to public health and to water quality.”
The sealants are marketed as a way to extend the life of asphalt, while also restoring a rich dark color. The sealants usually are not applied to public streets.
The alternative to coal tar-based sealants is a class of asphalt-based sealants. Dust on parking lots using the coal tar sealants can contain hundreds or sometimes even thousands of times the concentration of toxic chemicals as dust from parking lots using the asphalt-based products, federal scientists said.
The coal tar-based sealants typically are used more heavily east of the Rocky Mountains in part because coal tar is a waste product of the steelmaking industry that was traditionally based in the Rust Belt. Both coal tar- and asphalt-based sealants have been used in all 50 states.
Coal tar is a known human carcinogen. It caused scrotal cancer in London chimney sweeps in the 1700s and skin cancer in creosote workers in this country a century ago. Children exposed to these chemicals in the womb may be more prone to asthma and other health problems and may suffer from lowered IQs, emerging scientific evidence suggests. In men they can harm sperm and in pregnant women they can cause damage to the umbilical cord.
In streams, the chemicals have been shown to kill tadpoles, cause tumors on fish, stunt growth of aquatic creatures and reduce the number of species able to live in a waterway.
InvestigateWest is a nonprofit investigative journalism center covering the Pacific Northwest. For information on how you can support independent investigative reporting for the common good, go to invw.org. The photo above shows coal tar sealcoat being applied at a test site at University of Austin in Texas, where it was studied for a year. Photo is by Peter van Metre.
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.
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.
A pilot and co-pilot operating on three hours’ sleep start taking a wrong turn – right into the path of another aircraft – after lifting off from Boeing Field in Seattle. Quick work by an air traffic controller averts disaster over the state’s largest population center.
A pilot leaves Spokane’s Felts Field in a single-engine Cessna planning to touch down at Thun Field near Puyallup – but instead lands about 10 miles away at McChord Air Force Base, breaching security. Inbound to Spokane, another pilot in a 10-passenger, single-prop Cessna mistakenly lands at Fairchild Air Force Base.
While training near Everett, a student pilot comes within 100 feet of crashing into a plane inbound for a landing. Another student pilot coming into Bremerton barely avoids a midair collision when a small homebuilt aircraft darts in front of him, touches down and then takes off without stopping.
These are just a handful of the heart-stopping scenes portrayed in the words of the pilots, air traffic controllers and others involved in safety breaches in and around Washington airports over a 10-year period. At least twice a week on average from January 2000 to January 2010, a pilot or air traffic controller or other air-safety professional encounters a situation serious enough to contact a national safety-reporting system run by NASA, records show. InvestigateWest and KING 5 examined the reports filed with NASA, which seeks to uncover dangerous patterns before they turn to tragedy.
The results reveal that aircraft in Washington come perilously close to calamity on a surprisingly frequent basis. One of the most serious kinds of close calls, when planes nearly collide in midair, occurred 62 times, an average of about every two months.
Those were the close calls. But sometimes luck runs out. Planes collide.
It happened to Bud Williams when he was flying over Commencement Bay and looked up at the last second to see a blue-and-white plane emerging from the blue-and-white sky.
“I was just going over the (Tacoma) Narrows. There’s a heavy traffic pattern from east to west and I didn’t really expect anybody to come out of the north at me,” Williams said, describing the 2007 incident. “He popped into the windscreen right in front of me in the upper right-hand corner,” Williams said.
Instinctively, Williams pulled back on the controls, avoiding a dead-on hit but smacking into the other plane’s tail. It’s rare enough for anyone to survive a midair collision. Miraculously, Williams and the pilot and passenger of the other plane survived without serious injury.
A mid-air collision in Puget Sound’s busy airways is among pilots’ worst nightmares.
More than half of the nearly 1,000 NASA reports reviewed for this story relate to SeaTac International Airport (pictured above) or nearby Boeing Field (pictured at left). Sixty-four of the reports concern Spokane International Airport or Spokane’s Felts Field.
SeaTac’s proximity to Boeing Field sets up a sometimes problematic situation. In the example March 2003 incident in which the air-traffic controller prevented a collision, the sleep-deprived pilot’s report to NASA started ominously: “We were scrambled from the hotel for a flight…”
As the air taxi carrying an unreported number of passengers made its way from the terminal to the runway, “We became hurried and our (crew resource management) suffered as a result.”
The pilot thought the tower assigned the aircraft to turn right to 180 degrees. The co-pilot didn’t double check. After takeoff, the pilot wondered why he was being instructed to turn toward SeaTac but started in that direction anyway. The crew radioed in that they were turning to 180 degrees, only to be quickly corrected by a controller.
“I was disgusted with our performance since we seemed to do many things contrary to SOPs,” or standard operating procedures, the pilot wrote. “Yes, we were tired and hurried, but that can be no excuse. . . . Thankfully this did not cause a (near-midair collision) or worse.”
He added: “It would have been better to simply refuse the trip since we were still fatigued.”
Pilot fatigue “is a huge problem,” said Terry von Thaden (pictured at right), an air-safety researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who created a special system to measure the safety culture of aviation organizations. “In our research it’s one of the No. 1 things we see.”
Federal rules require flight crews to be off for eight hours between flights – but that doesn’t equate to eight hours sleep. A pilot whose flight arrives at midnight still has to button down the airplane, get to the hotel, sleep, shower, get a meal and get back to the airplane – perhaps as early as 6:30 a.m.
Human error isn’t the only problem. Other times, the problem is system malfunction. Planes just stop working.
That happened to Mike Ellis of Everett, a maintenance supervisor at Paine Field who had to crash-land a vintage Stinson JR(S) in August when the device providing current to the spark plugs failed midflight.
“These engines (on small planes) are glorified lawnmower engines,” Ellis said.
A rare front-row view of near-disasters
It’s these kinds of incidents that NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System was designed to avert. The reports offer a rare front-row view of a surprising number of near-disasters. Yet the 943 incidents recorded from January 2000 through January 2010 are far from the whole picture, as even NASA admits. Nationally, only one in five of the reports received, once screened, is investigated and put into the reports that make up a database reviewed by InvestigateWest, KING 5 and members of the Investigative News Network.
The incidents reported to NASA range from life-threatening close calls to seemingly more mundane matters such as inadequate runway directions signs. But even those runway signs, if they’re bad enough, could send planes smashing into each other on the taxiway.
“This is a system that is trying to learn from everyday events,” said Linda Connell (pictured at left) of NASA, director of the program. “This is an opportunity for people to say . . . there were things going on that probably should be looked at.”
NASA sifts through the confidential reports, culling the ones that appear to be worth passing on to the airport, airline or whoever needs to know about what’s going wrong. That’s often the Federal Aviation Administration, the body that regulates pilots and employs air traffic controllers.
The FAA said it uses the reports filed with NASA as one of dozens of information sources to guide decisions about air safety. The FAA did not grant an interview for this story but did release a written statement in answer to questions. Near midair collisions are a matter of a pilot’s perception, not a specific distance, the agency wrote.
“Although the value of (near-miss) reports is also limited because they are subjective, we can analyze them to determine if a trend is occurring,” said the statement released by FAA spokesman Ian Gregor in Los Angeles. The FAA also said incidents of pilots landing at the wrong airport are rare, and that the agency takes enforcement action against violators.
The FAA appears to loom large in the minds of many of those filing reports with NASA identifying themselves as having just broken — or at least skirted — air-safety regulations. Although their names are withheld from the public record, why would a pilot or controller call the government’s attention to his or her own shortcoming? Because reporting the incident to NASA usually provides immunity from FAA disciplinary action that otherwise could result in loss or suspension of the person’s FAA certificate.
The FAA noted that while the NASA reports are useful, they represent “opinion or perception about an event and do not always include complete information. Because the reports are anonymous, the FAA cannot investigate or validate the data.”
Todd Curtis of Airsafe, a nationally known air-safety expert in Seattle, emphasized that the NASA reports cover only a portion of the air-safety problems occurring.
“Oftentimes you won’t find out about a problem unless there’s some (potential) sanction involved,” Curtis said.
For example, Curtis is particularly knowledgeable about airplanes colliding with birds – a frequent and potentially lethal problem that often doesn’t make it into the reports filed with NASA, Curtis said.
Feds failing to use NASA data to spot safety trends
In a report last May, the congressional watchdog Government Accountability Office faulted FAA for failing to use the NASA data and a related system maintained by the airlines to spot national safety trends. Many of the airlines’ reports are forwarded to NASA for inclusion in the space agency’s system, but not all of them are.
Despite the shortcomings, the GAO echoed air-safety experts and concluded that NASA’s system and the related ones maintained by the airlines “are the best source of information for hidden risk in the system.”
Even at smaller airports where fewer close calls are reported, chilling incidents occur.
Take the example in 2008 of the aviation instructor who was teaching a student pilot near Yakima McAllister Field how to set a flight computer and lost track of a nearby airplane. He was jarred back to awareness when a controller called – with crash-avoidance alarms in the control tower raging in the background – and the instructor looked out of cockpit to see another single-engine plane pass just 400 feet overhead.
“Perhaps we missed an instruction from (air-traffic control) or had incorrectly interpreted a direction however there were no urgent calls from (air-traffic control) to instruct us to do anything different. During a time of high work load pilots tend to shed functions that do not seem to be a priority,” the instructor wrote in his report to NASA. “I failed to recognize the danger of the high workload we were under and should (have) reduced our training goals at the moment until the situation had passed.”
Small planes run out of fuel sometimes
About one out of every 40 reports to NASA over the period studied concerned a fuel problem, sometimes a small plane running short on fuel. That’s a problem that’s most common among small private planes, said Terry Asp, a controller at Bellingham Airport.
“It all makes a difference, too, you know, what types of airplanes,” Asp said. “You’re not going to see air carriers, big airliners, go run out of gas. I don’t know that that ever happens.”
So what’s going on with the pilots of the smaller planes?
“I think it’s just like people run out of gas with a car; they just aren’t paying attention or they just thought they could make it and didn’t,” Asp said.
Even members of the public who never fly in small planes need to be wary of safety problems with them, notes Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an international organization. Perhaps the most infamous such accident occurred in 1986 over Cerritos, Calif., when an AeroMexico jetliner crashed in midair with a small family-owned Piper aircraft, killing 67 people aboard both aircraft and 15 people on the ground.
Voss said he was not surprised that many of the reports in the system come from larger airports, because that’s where pilots’ shortcomings are mostly likely to be seen by someone else.
“There’s high incentive to report if there’s a sense that someone else might report it,” Voss said.
SeaTac spokesman Perry Cooper said it makes sense that the largest number of reports in the system pertain to SeaTac and Boeing Field, because that’s where the most flights go. And airspace in the region is relatively congested.
“We’re considered the 300-pound gorilla in the airspace world around here,” he said. “Everything gets based on us and what works for us.”
Safety expert von Thaden said the public might be frightened to learn of close calls. As for her assessment of the air-transport system:
“Is it safe? Yes. Does stuff happen every day that you wouldn’t want to know about? Yes.”
Kevin Crowe of The Watchdog Institute and InvestigateWest reporter Will Graff contributed to this report. InvestigateWest is a nonprofit investigative journalism center based in Seattle.
This story was reported in partnership with KING 5 TV.
View KING 5 News reporter Jim Foreman’s report, “Hidden dangers of fying: Unreported Near Misses.”
Washington was the first state in the country to adopt what has become the benchmark for leniency in laws allowing developers to lock in building rights early in the development process. Under Washington case law and statutes, changes that tighten land-use regulations do not apply once a developer has submitted a preliminary plan sketching out how he or she intends to develop a piece of property. In most states, a developer doesn’t get a break from stricter rules until construction starts.
Years can go by before construction starts, but the old rules will still apply. This “vesting” doctrine in Washington has played out for years in ways critics contend are overrunning the countryside with subdivisions and asphalt.
Here are some examples of how the concept translates into a controversial reality in counties with sizeable populations:
King County: One of the earlier and bigger vesting plays involves Redmond Ridge, east of Redmond, where Quadrant Homes filed applications to build 1,876 lots, and filed them in such a way as to keep the building rights intact indefinitely. (more)
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