Investigators to take new look at health effects of Duwamish cleanup

A view of downtown Seattle over the Duwamish Waterway
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

Before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency submits its proposed cleanup plan for the Duwamish River Superfund site later this year, community health researchers are conducting a “health impact assessment” to figure out ways the cleanup could affect surrounding communities.

During the upcoming spring and summer months, researchers from University of Washington, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action will determine how people along the river are likely to be most affected by EPA’s cleanup. An environmental cleanup of the magnitude to be conducted on the Duwamish will undoubtedly make the river cleaner and healthier for humans and wildlife, but researchers want to learn more about the potential impact on communities, both positive and negative.

“We want to minimize the adverse effects and optimize the benefits for these communities,” said BJ Cummings, community health projects manager of the Cleanup Coalition.


Emmy Nomination for Katie Campbell, "Where there's smoke"

Congratulations to KCTS 9's Katie Campbell, who on Friday got an Emmy nomination in the video journalist category from the Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Science.

Katie was nominated for her work on "Where There's Smoke," a seven-minute Earthfix documentary produced in partnership with InvestigateWest on the health risks associated with wood-burning stoves. In Tacoma and many towns across the Northwest in the winter, wood smoke leads to sooty, toxic air pollution that leaves some residents – particularly asthmatics, kids and the elderly – gasping for breath.

Along with fireplaces and other wood-burning heaters, old wood stoves produce about half the microscopic particles of soot that typically hang in the air in the Tacoma area when winter air stagnates. By comparison, industry, already heavily regulated, emits just one-tenth of the Tacoma-area soot pollution.

In Washington, the state Ecology Department estimates that sooty pollution from all sources contributes to 1,100 deaths and $190 million in health costs annually.

Watch Katie's video after the jump.


King County unveils West Seattle rain garden plans

West Seattle Rain Garden

Britt Stromberg and neighbor Bob Wohl stand next to the
pollution-fighting rain garden that fills half of Stromberg's yard.
Raymond Flores/InvestigateWest

Rain gardens got a bad rap last year in Ballard when a portion of the neighborhood's gardens failed to drain, upsetting some residents. But for a neighborhood in Everett, the shallow, plant-filled depressions are a source of pride and offer welcome relief from some nasty flooding.

Laura White had raw sewage spewing into her Everett home after a record storm last year.

“Sewage was coming through the showers, drains, toilets, everything,” White said. “It just blasted through all the backflow valves.”

But now that the city has installed a rain garden in front of her property, as well as made sewer improvements, White is optimistic the problem is solved.

Rain gardens are a tool used for reducing the amount of polluted stormwater flowing into sewer systems and Puget Sound. The gardens collect stormwater, which infiltrates permeable soils and is used to water the garden.

White said her rain garden is kind of an eyesore right now, but hopes it will be more attractive when the native plants mature.

“There is a big drain and ugly pipe sticking up,” White said. “But I really like the eucharis and columbines, and watching the animals.”

She said people walking by seem to like it and always comment on it. She said her family attributes a relatively dry basement this past winter to the rain garden, since most of the excess water from her back and front yards is diverted to the garden.

“It makes me very happy there’s no water coming through the cracks in the floor,” White said.

Elsewhere in the region, King County planners are hoping experiences such as White’s will encourage more people to embrace rain gardens, which have been controversial since well-publicized problems surfaced in Ballard last year.

King County this month entered the final planning stages for its newest rain garden project, to be located in two West Seattle neighborhoods.  The planners say they are being careful not to make the same mistakes as the City of Seattle did with some of its Ballard rain gardens.

But some West Seattle residents are still opposed.

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State may delay cleanup of stormwater, WA's No. 1 water pollution source

High Point Pond, West Seattle

The stormwater detention pond in West Seattle, via Flickr/kuow949.

With the Washington Legislature hurtling toward a scheduled adjournment on Thursday, developers and local governments are pushing to save money for cash-strapped cities by delaying court-ordered efforts to control the state’s biggest source of water pollution.

The clean-water rollbacks, as they are being characterized by environmentalists, passed the Senate Monday in a piece of legislation promoted as a way to streamline several environmental-protection programs. The bill would grant a one-year reprieve on a state deadline for 81 cities and five counties in western Washington to take steps to control polluted rainwater runoff.  Eighteen eastern Washington cities and six counties would get a two-year extension of the deadline.

Environmentalists are alarmed because they see the delays coming after years of earlier extensions. But they’re even more concerned because the bill (SB 6406) calls for the 2013 Legislature to review and possibly change pollution-control rules developed by the Department of Ecology over many years under orders from the state’s pollution-control court, the Pollution Control Hearings Board. The environmentalists are also mindful that Republican Rob McKenna could be in the governor’s mansion by next spring, and that the composition of the Legislature will change, too.

The Senate legislation “represents a big step backward for clean water in Puget Sound, the Columbia River and other waters of Washington state,” said Bruce Wishart, lobbyist for the environmental group People for Puget Sound. “It’s a very specific invitation to the Legislature to monkey with this.”

Prescription Painkillers: Round-Up and Reactions

A month ago, we released a set of stories on prescription drug abuse in Washington state, the result of a six-month investigation by Carol Smith into the roots of the epidemic, the cost to human life, and the possible solutions. Since then, readers and viewers have shared their reactions, and with Whitney Houston's death, the dangers of prescription drugs hit the mainstream news cycle.

The Storify round-up and reactions begin below the fold.

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New studies: Toxic asphalt sealants threaten kids, cause air pollution

When you think of pollution, you might picture an industrial center like Camden, N.J., or Jersey City. But new research shows that when it comes to a potent class of cancer-causing toxic chemicals, many American parking lots are a lot worse.

New studies paint an increasingly alarming picture – particularly for young children – about how these chemicals are being spread across big swaths of American cities and suburbs by what may seem an unlikely source – a type of asphalt sealer. These sealants are derived from an industrial waste, coal tar.

Four new studies announced this week further implicate coal tar-based asphalt sealants as likely health risks.  The creosote-like material typically is sprayed onto parking lots and driveways in an effort to preserve the asphalt. It also gives the pavement a dark black coloring that many people find attractive.

Coal tar is a byproduct of the steelmaking industry. In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that it would not be classified as a hazardous waste, even though it met the characteristics of one, because it could be recycled for uses including coating asphalt. That meant steel mills didn’t have to pay for costly landfilling or incineration of the waste.

 Only in recent years have scientists discovered the ill effects of this practice.

Coal tar sealants are used most heavily in the eastern United States, but have been used in all 50 states until Washington State banned the products last year as a result of reporting by InvestigateWest. More than a dozen local governments, including Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, also have banned the coal tar sealants in favor of the other major type of sealant, which is asphalt-based.

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Legislature seeks Rx to discourage pharmacy robberies

Bill McNary smooths his white coat and steps out from behind the high counter where he presides over medications dispensed at the Maple Leaf Pharmacy in a quiet residential neighborhood of north Seattle. He scans the few customers who are browsing the aisles full of Ace bandages, aspirin and assorted other sundries for life’s aches and pains.

These days, even the most benign-looking customer could be a deadly threat. Worried about the kinds of robberies McNary, co-workers, and customers have experienced, pharmacists across Washington are seeking changes in state law.

In December, 2009, a young man who McNary said looked “normal enough” strolled into the pharmacy, glanced around, bought a Chapstick, which gave him a view over the counter, and left. When he came back a few hours later, the store was packed with customers waiting for flu shots. He was waving a gun.

The man, Jacob Shook, burst behind the counter and overpowered one pharmacy technician, knocking her to ground.

Technician Geraldine Crews whipped around, phone in hand, as her co-worker flew to the floor. She saw the glint of a gun barrel and hit the ground herself.

“He jerked me up, and slapped me with the gun,” she said. “He got angry. He said, ‘Do you know what Oxy is?’ ” She knew that OxyContin, a powerful pain pill that acts like heroin, sells for upwards of $80 a pill on the street. She also knew that people addicted to it can be desperate.

“Here – take it all and go,” she remembers telling him. She was terrified that if she didn’t, he’d turn the gun on customers.

“This place was full of people -- there was a five- or six-year-old little boy with his parents here,” she said. “I’m sure it gave that little boy nightmares.”

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Developers to Legislature: Save us from Puget Sound stormwater runoff rules

Rain gardens built in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood failed to soak up the water.
Rita Hibbard/InvestigateWest

Just as state environmental officials are getting close to issuing long-awaited, court-ordered rules to rein in the largest source of toxic pollution of Puget Sound, developers and business interests are appealing to the Legislature to delay the process or make it entirely voluntary.

Members of the public have until Friday to tell Department of Ecology officials their views about controlling polluted rainwater runoff, which fouls waterways statewide.  It’s an effort that would take years under Ecology’s current proposal – but that could get delayed even more under legislation pushed by the Association of Washington Business, the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Washington Association of Cities.

At issue is the toxic mix that washes off roads, parking lots and other hard surfaces in the rain, carrying with it the detritus of modern life: oil, grease, pet waste and metals such as copper, which can kill salmon, along with myriad other pollutants.

Ecology has calculated that the runoff is the leading source of toxic pollution of Puget Sound, and it’s an extremely common reason why water bodies in Washington are in violation of the Clean Water Act. It’s also a leading reason for closing shellfish beds and it can make swimmers sick.

The agency’s proposed rules contemplate controlling the polluted stormwater by changing development codes in 110 local governments in Washington so that the landscape does a better job of slurping up the dirty rainwater before it reaches waterways.