Robert is co-founder and executive director of InvestigateWest. At the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robert exposed a major weakness in the Endangered Species Act and deficiencies in Puget Sound restoration efforts. His reporting on hard-rock mining won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. He serves on the Society of Environmental Journalists board.
Cary Renzema interrupts a stroll around his 50-acre forest to point out tiny purple petals peeking out from the forest floor. “Beautiful little orchids,” Renzema says. “Once you start looking, there are hundreds of those things around here.”
For 13 years Renzema has studied this forest’s quirks and charms, explored its groves of cedar trees and patches of vine maple and wild rose about 25 miles west of Portland. Today, though, those sights are bittersweet. As part of a divorce settlement, he may have to log this second-growth forest, leaving thousands of stumps where trees have stood for three generations.
When cancer comes calling, what if owners of small forest plots had another choice but to sell or to cut? That’s the premise of a pilot program being launched in Washington and Columbia counties of northwest Oregon. Anchored by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and an $820,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Forest Health/Human Health Initiative envisions what planners call an “A-Tree-M” card for forest owners who are threatened by medical bills but don’t want to cut or sell. The source of the income: Emerging markets for sequestering planet-warming carbon dioxide. Are they serious?
Seattle’s biggest toxic mess is going to take more cleanup than previously thought, federal officials said Tuesday in releasing their plan for the Duwamish River Superfund site. But when the cleanup is finished, people will still be warned against eating seafood from the river, officials acknowledged. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final cleanup plan boosts by one-fifth the amount of river bottom to be dredged up and hauled away. In a draft plan released last year, EPA said it would require 84 acres of contaminated river bottom to be removed, while the final plan released Tuesday would expand that to 105 acres. The cost for the remaining work increases from $305 million to $342 million.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today issued its long-awaited final decision about the extent of cleanup that will be required at the Duwamish River Superfund site — the biggest toxic waste site in Seattle.
After a decade of studies that cost millions of dollars, the time had come for the people living around Seattle’s biggest toxic mess to tell the government what a cleanup should look like. On a spring night in 2013, Spanish-speaking residents of south Seattle approached a microphone that sat beneath the basketball hoop at the South Park Community Center. One by one, they envisioned a new future for the Duwamish River and the neighborhoods it passes through. Today those neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown are home to some of King County’s highest rates of hospitalization for childhood asthma. Locals regularly fish the river, despite government prohibitions due to high levels of toxic chemicals in seafood caught there.
A 'Healthy Choice' program brochure advising consumers about safe fish consumption. Credit: Washington Department of Health
Ten minutes and four slides. That’s what a Washington Department of Health staffer responsible for warning the public about contaminants in fish was allotted to impress then-Health Secretary Mary Selecky about the importance of the issue.
Lots of luck, warned former Department of Health toxicology chief Rob Duff — Selecky and her crew are “skeptics” who “are not very interested” in environmental health.
And yet, wrote Duff: “If not DOH, who?”
That was early 2008. In the months that followed, Health Department staffers would continue to raise contaminated fish as a public health issue, records and interviews show. Among their concerns: a long-known error in the state formula that controls how much toxic pollution can be dumped into waterways by factories, sewage-treatment plants and other polluters.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since repeatedly warned the state to fix the error.
Now, a year and a half into the Inslee administration, the governor is scheduled to announce his plan today in Olympia.
Third-grade teacher Nancy Avery helps her class during reading time. Avery taught in a portable classroom for 27 years. This is her first year inside a brick-and-mortar building at Jefferson Elementary in Spokane, Washington. Photo: Courtney Flatt/EarthFix
SPOKANE, Wash. — Teachers at Spokane’s Jefferson Elementary don’t have to look far to know what they left behind.
The school’s old portable classrooms sit just a block away from their brand new building. It was in those portables where for nearly 30 years, Nancy Avery made the choice between fresh air and listening to her students, when she’d routinely switch off the noisy ventilation system that drowned out their voices.
It was in the school’s 14 portables where students and teachers were sick far too often, she said. Several teachers contracted skin reactions, she said, that have dissipated since the move to the new building.
No longer does Avery worry about water leaks and ceiling stains. No more will the hot, stuffy box lull her students during standardized testing.
But most of all, there’s no more smell. That’s what she and the others notice most.
“Those portable classrooms don’t have a masonry foundation at all, so you just have dirt underneath — so it smells a lot better in this new building,” Jefferson Elementary Principal Mary-Dean Wooley said. “That moldy, earthy smell is absent completely.”
In September, Jefferson Elementary’s new $25-million campus eliminated the need for portables. Built with enough space to accommodate future enrollment growth, Wooley said the school shouldn’t need them any time soon.
Workers at Blazer Industries push a half-built portable classroom out the door of the modular building manufacturing plant in Aumsville, Oregon. Photo: Cassandra Profita/EarthFix
AUMSVILLE, Ore. – After affixing the roof to the walls, five workers push a half-built classroom out the door of the Blazer Industries manufacturing plant. Clearly, this is a portable classroom.
It’s one of about 130 portables Blazer has been contracted to build this year. Most will go to overcrowded schools in Washington state, and most will be built in four to seven days. Inside this warehouse, the company has built entire schools, churches, hospitals and high-end homes — one truckable piece at a time.
Blazer’s customers can choose what kind of buildings they want. They can order upgraded heating and ventilation systems and non-toxic building materials to improve the indoor air quality and reduce health risks, company engineer Rock Shetler said. But those options cost a lot more.
“The biggest thing with classrooms is really the budget of the school districts,” he said. “When the budget only allows the cheapest materials and the cheapest products, that’s really what it comes down to.”
The state of Washington says the cheapest materials aren’t good enough for new schools. It requires new school buildings to meet a long list of environmental conditions to qualify for state construction funds under the Sustainable School Protocol.
“Merely complying with minimum codes during design and installation will not ensure good indoor air quality,” the state says in the protocol.
But those rules don’t apply to portable classrooms. For portables, Washington offers recommendations, not requirements.
Teacher Billie Lane’s portable is a world apart from other classrooms at her school.
She’s filled the space with toys from across the universe: Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel, Transformers and Godzilla. Lane’s World, her students named it — an homage to the faux public-access TV hit.
The modular classroom at Kalles Junior High in Puyallup, Washington is her home. She’s taught in the box for 16 years.
And she takes care of it. But not every portable classroom is like hers.
“Some of them smell really bad,” she says. “Some of them, the lighting is really bad. It’s dark. It’s dank. And when it’s that kind of an atmosphere, it sets a tone for your meetings or for your classroom. It doesn’t feel very welcoming. It’s not a good place to be.”
The Puyallup School District where she teaches has 205 such boxes. They form 20 percent of the district’s classroom space. They hold more than 4,000 students — so many that a new high school, a new middle school and two elementary schools wouldn’t provide enough classroom space for them all.
Industry advocates say B.C. could become the "Saudi Arabia of Biomass" -- but that probably won’t be good for the global climate. Photo: Böhringer Friedrich/Wikimedia.
Eight words in a 927-page document. That’s all it took to launch a European policy with big implications for B.C. That policy counts burning wood to produce energy as equivalent, climate-wise, to solar and wind power. This despite the fact that burning wood releases the very same greenhouse gasses as any fossil fuel; the same gasses that are turning oceans acidic and melting the polar ice caps. Here are the eight words: “The emission factor for biomass shall be zero.”
Not, you will note, “are zero.” No: “shall be zero.” Behind that starkly declarative pronouncement lay months of tense international negotiations over the climate-change implications of burning biomass, or any kind of plant matter: wood, agricultural wastes, or crops grown for burning. In the end, the winning argument was that biomass regrows, recapturing the carbon released when it was burned, and therefore must be OK for the climate.