KING 5 Investigators: California law a model for Washington

In our continuing Exhausted at School investigation with KING 5, Chris Ingalls visits Todd Beamer High in Federal Way and talks with one of the scientists who helped push for California's more stringent law restricting new school construction near freeways.

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Officials in Olympia, D.C. ducked opportunities to protect students from traffic pollution

Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way, Wash.
Credit: KING 5

In spite of the substantial evidence of air-pollution risks to children who attend schools near large roadways — including lung problems, asthma attacks and heightened absenteeism — policymakers at both the state and federal levels ducked the issue in recent years, records and interviews show.

The risks were squarely presented. At about the same time in 2008 and 2009, independent groups of officials meeting in Olympia and Washington, D.C., considered and then rejected the notion of banning or severely restricting construction of schools inside the pollution plume emanating up to 500 feet from major roadways.

That lack of action means schools in Washington and across the country continue to be built near the nation’s biggest and busiest roads, despite compelling evidence that roadway pollution can set kids’ health back for life.

“It’s common sense, you’d think that common sense would prevail,” said Steve Fischbach, a Rhode Island lawyer who advised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the federal process. “But the number of bad examples shows us that poor siting decisions still go on.”

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IW leader named one of Seattle's "most influential" people for 2013

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Each year Seattle Magazine puts together its list of Seattle's "most influential" people, a who's who of innovative thinkers, trendsetters and other influencers in the Emerald City. This year, InvestigateWest executive director and co-founder Robert McClure is on that list.

“Even the folks who have been forced by his stories to clean up their act admit this guy is nothing if not fair,” the magazine writes of McClure, “a modest, Northwest version of Clark Kent in a post-Post-Intelligencer world.”

Under McClure's leadership, InvestigateWest has won 10 awards in 2013 for its investigative and enterprise reporting, including two national industry honors. Its innovative studio model for investigative journalism is being used in classrooms across the country, after the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism published a case study on the Seattle newsroom earlier this year.

“It's great fun to be listed next to Russell Wilson, but most of all I'm glad that InvestigateWest's record of accomplishment is in the pages of Seattle Magazine for the community to see,” McClure said. “Journalism is changing. But the power of journalism to hold people to account,  to connect the dots, and to uncover secrets is needed more than ever.”

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'Exhausted at School' leads to changes at Seattle Schools

We’re happy to report that InvestigateWest’s work alongside KING 5 on our just-released “Exhausted At School” project has prompted action by Seattle School District officials to protect students from the toxic air pollution emanating from traffic along big roads.

District spokesperson Tom Redman said the district just launched a new policy in response to inquiries from InvestigateWest and KING 5 concerning air quality. Principals in the coming year will be sent a daily notice of the regional air quality to help them decide whether its necessary to keep kids inside for recess. In general, air quality reports can indicate high ozone counts, more common on hot days, or higher-than-normal levels of toxic soot from traffic and wood smoke, which hang in the air more on colder days.

The school we focused on in the top of our story, John Marshall Junior High, currently undergoing renovations, is also getting a new look from the Seattle School District. In an email, Redman told KING 5's Chris Ingalls:

“We are looking at our options to install an upgrade to the air filtration system into Phase II of the John Marshall reopening project.  We have time to incorporate this scope of work.  We have asked our Engineer to work up construction estimates and a design modification proposal.”

Watch this space as InvestigateWest and KING 5 continue to follow the story.

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Exhaust, diesel fumes foul public schoolyards across Washington state

More than a dozen schools are located in the pollution plume created by traffic on Interstate 5.
Credit: HeatherHeatherHeather/Flickr

More than half a century has elapsed since the Seattle School Board — with nary a raised eyebrow, records indicate — voted to allow one of the nation's biggest and busiest highways to be built cheek-by-jowl with John Marshall Junior High, trading away the school's playground for a larger plot of land nearby.

The John Marshall building beside Interstate 5 near Green Lake was closed for the last few years, but its doors are expected to open again to North Seattle middle schoolers in 2014. Yet now, as in 1958, school board deliberations on the renovation and opening of the school didn’t include a word about the road rushing over the kids' heads, despite a compelling body of evidence dating back decades that air pollution from highways can cause lifelong respiratory problems and asthma attacks and boost school absenteeism.

Media cite InvestigateWest reporting in coverage of fish consumption lawsuit

Media outlets from Seattle to Spokane on Tuesday cited InvestigateWest’s series of articles on the political battle over fish consumption rates in 2012, a fight led by Boeing and reaching the highest levels of state government.

As we reported last night, a coalition of environmental organizations took the first step toward legal action to compel the EPA to fix Washington’s water pollution rules, which are based on outdated and incorrect assumptions about how much fish some residents eat.

Those that referred to InvestigateWest’s reporting include KPLU’s Bellamy Pailthorp, Lisa Waananen at The Inlander, Ashley Ahearn of EarthFix/KUOW, and KOMO’s Jeff Burnside.

The series was also acknowledged by environmental law firm Earthjustice in its press release announcing legal action.

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Robert McClure's picture

Environmentalists launch legal action to force EPA on water pollution, toxic fish

Anglers enjoy the upper section of the Yakima Canyon, near Ellensburg, Wash.
Credit: Scott Butner/Flickr

Saying Washington is failing to protect fishermen and their families from toxic chemicals in fish -— and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had a legal duty to act within months to fix the problem, instead of the years that have elapsed — environmentalists on Tuesday initiated a formal legal challenge.

At issue is a formula for how much water pollution is allowed by the Washington Department of Ecology, based on how much fish people are likely to eat. The less fish people are assumed to eat, the more water pollution can be permitted under the federal Clean Water Act. EPA oversees Ecology's administration of the federal clean-water law.

EPA repeatedly has told the Washington Ecology Department that the current estimate of Washingtonians' fish consumption — averaging 6.5 grams per day, or about the amount of fish that could fit onto a Saltine — is far out of date. The number is based on "food diaries" filled out by consumers in a few states in the 1970s. Yet studies in Washington over the last two decades have shown that at least some people here, especially subsistence fishermen, members of Indian tribes and sport fishers, eat a lot more — up to 100 times as much among heavy fish consumers.

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The Dementia Rescue Missions

Credit: Christopher Sherlock/KCTS 9

On the afternoon of November 23, 2012, Sam Counts left his home on East Ninth Avenue in Spokane Valley to pick up bread from the grocery store. Simple enough. He had just gotten back from Christmas shopping with his wife of 45 years, now also his full-time caretaker. Counts, 71, had been diagnosed with dementia less than a year earlier. Hanging onto normalcy before the disease progressed further, Sam’s daughter Sue Belote would visit him several times a week, and he would still call her on the phone, she says. Sam’s doctor had said it was OK to drive, as long as someone else was in the car. On this Friday, Sam got into his white 2012 Kia SUV alone.

“It’ll only take me a minute. I won’t be gone long,” he told his wife, Donna Counts. Before Sam’s diagnosis, this would have been routine.

No longer.

After two hours Donna called her daughter, worried. “I don’t know what to do. Dad didn’t come back and he never stays away this long,” she said. Three hours after he left, the family reported Sam Counts missing.

The next morning, Saturday, radio and television outlets reported versions of the same story: a local man missing, trim, six feet tall, last seen in a red-and-black jacket, jeans and white tennis shoes. A description of a car and its license plate number was included.

At 9:28 a.m. KHQ Local News posted an update online:

There was a possible sighting of Sam at a Dollar Store in Argonne Village on Saturday morning. An employee there said a man matching Sam’s description walked in and seemed disoriented. A manager at McDonald’s believes she saw him on Sullivan. Sam’s family thinks it is possible that he got separated from his car.

Over seven frantic days, with the help of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, friends and family led a search that spanned parts of three states. They enlisted the help of a family friend who worked for the Spokane transit system to flyer local buses, and former colleagues of Counts in the postal service put up missing person photos in post offices. In the meantime, the family faced public criticism. Why was he allowed to get into the car alone? Why didn’t he have a cell phone?

“He’d been to the bread store a million times,” Donna counts told InvestigateWest in a recent interview. She took a deep breath.

“I shouldn’t have let him go.”

Wandering behavior has become increasingly familiar. Yet Washington is not prepared to deal with this emerging public health threat. Few police departments have policies or training to educate officers on Alzheimer’s or dementia. An Amber Alert-like system set up in 2009 to help find wandering people is underused, its coordinator acknowledges, and bills to create a formal Silver Alert system like those in more than 20 other states foundered in both houses of the state Legislature this year.  Washington is also one of just six states that haven’t even started work on a statewide Alzheimer’s plan, even as the population at risk of wandering surges.

The current approach to safeguarding wanderers sometimes falls short, with fatal effect.

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