Investigative Reports

InvestigateWest's mission is to do in-depth, investigative reports on important topics in the West, especially the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on the environment, health and social justice.
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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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Protesters attack Port of Seattle salaries, seek better conditions for workers, less air pollution

Protesters attacked air pollution, working conditions and high salaries for port executives

Against the backdrop of a towering asthma-medicine inhaler, about 250 protesters demonstrated downtown on Thursday*, saying the Port of Seattle should do a better job of cleaning up air pollution, taking care of its low-level employees and reining in the six-figure salaries of its executives.

The protest outside a meeting of the American Association of Port Authorities targeted in particular Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani’s 9 percent pay raise earlier this year that gave him a salary more than twice that of Gov. Chris Gregoire – as state employees saw their paychecks dip 3 percent. Yoshitani makes $366,825 a year.

One protester carried a sign saying “Tay’s pay is not OK.” Others carried Yoshitani’s visage emblazoned with “Overpaid.” Protesters included labor activists, environmentalists, port workers and others.

“He got a 9 percent raise!” state Rep. Zack Hudgins told the demonstrators. “Did anyone here get a 9 percent raise?”

Hudgins, D-Seattle, said he will file legislation that would:

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Activists, truckers, religious leaders call for Port of Seattle to treat truck drivers better

Singing the African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” activists and religious leaders and truck drivers tried Wednesday to breach security at a downtown conference of seaport authorities to appeal to the Port of Seattle to improve working conditions and pay for drivers.

In the same hotel where hundreds of delegates to the World Trade Organization took refuge from tear gas in 1999, the activists sought to highlight their call for drivers to be hired as employees instead of scraping by as independent contractors. The drivers say they are on some days working for less than minimum wage, waiting for up to six hours to get a load that might pay them $40 or $50. Because they are independent contractors, the drivers also are responsible for sometimes-expensive maintenance and repairs.

Several waves of protesters, about 30 in all, were turned back in front of a phalanx of Port of Seattle police officers on the fourth floor of the Westin. “If you are not credentialed, you need to head right down that escalator!” Westin General Manager Elizabeth James instructed the last wave, which broke into song as the protesters moved slowly toward the exit.

The protesters are planning a larger demonstration outside the Westin Thursday at noon.

Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle and a board member of the activist group Puget Sound Sage, said he was trying Wednesday to deliver a letter from several local and national religious leaders calling for better treatment of the drivers. Several workers also bore their own letter, hoping to deliver it to Port of Seattle executives at the conference.

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Backyard fruit feeds the hungry in Seattle

Fruit trees in Seattle produce thousands of pounds of food each year.  Most of this fruit falls to the ground and rots, as the tress go unnoticed, overgrown and uncared for.

But with the help of volunteers and a nonprofit organization, sacks of apples, plums and pears go into the pantries of local low-income people, helping balance food bank offerings this time of year.

Last summer, City Fruit volunteers and employees picked more than 10,000 lbs of fruit from the backyards of homes throughout the city. About 9,000 lbs of it was donated to food banks around the city. With this year’s harvest underway, volunteers and staffers are hoping to hit the same goals.

When the nonprofit organization began picking fruit three years ago, the goal was to pick fruit that otherwise would go to waste.

“We are trying to remind people that fruit is a healthy part of their diet and it’s a great local food source,” City Fruit President James Rooney said.

Volunteers of America Greenwood Food Bank, one of the food banks that received City Fruit donations last year, says demand is strong, with people asking about when the fruit will be arriving.

With an economy driving more people to use food banks and other emergency food services, fresh fruit is much appreciated, Sydney Pawlak community outreach coordinator for Volunteers of America Greenwood Food Bank said.

Last May, the Volunteers of America Greenwood Food Bankhad more than 4,000 visits from people needing food assistance, an all time record high for that location.

During the summer they expect to get even more people coming into the food bank.

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Duwamish neighborhoods are a 'food desert' in foodie Seattle -

Seattle has gained a national reputation as a haven for “foodies” – but there’s a “food desert” in its own back yard, ironically in an area that once helped feed a growing city.

The area near the banks of the Duwamish River south of Seattle is where the founder of the Pike Place Market had his original farm. Today, some yards in that area are so contaminated with dioxins in the dirt, the health department advises residents not to grow their own gardens. It’s a place where waves of tribes and immigrants continue to fish the river as they have for decades, but where PCB’s in the river bed have made resident fish no longer safe to eat.

After a century of industrial use, the lower Duwamish River now runs through one of the largest urban Superfund sites in the country. A recent examination of public health data by InvestigateWest revealed that residents who live in the vicinity face more chronic health problems than people who live in other parts of the county. Data show residents in the Duwamish communities are typically more overweight, and have higher incidence of diabetes and more deaths from heart disease. Life expectancy in the area is five years lower than for other, more affluent parts of King County, likely because of some combination of poverty, pollution, and lifestyle.

And food lies at the intersection of all those problems. Affordable nutrition– or lack of it – is at the heart of many of the health problems facing residents in the region along the Duwamish.

Byline: 

Proposed port splits Dems over labor, enviro concerns

By Olivia Henry and Rebecca Tachihara

Western Washington University

                 The debate over the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal has been framed as Community David vs. Corporate Goliath, rural livelihoods vs. city NIMBYism, high-wage jobs vs. clean environment. The final concept pits two political bases of the Whatcom County Democrats against one another:  unions hungry for jobs and environmentalists concerned about their community becoming the gateway through which coal travels to be burned in China.

 Local environmentalists argue that jobs versus environment is a false dichotomy. They describe the debate as “jobs versus jobs,” citing concerns for the vitality of Bellingham’s redeveloped waterfront, which is divided from the rest of the city by the rail line that would serve the proposed terminal with as many as 20 trains per day.

Nobody, however, is arguing that the local economic picture is rosy.

The debate comes at a time when the county’s unemployment rate has surged from 4.9 percent in 2000 to 8.4 percent this May. Residents living below the poverty level accounted for 15.5 percent of the county’s population in 2009 (the most recent U.S. Census figures available), which was higher than the state average of 12.3 percent, and nearly double the rate of 7.8 percent in 2000.

“Clean coal” technology years away, but it could reduce Cherry Point bulk terminal’s impact

By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne Graff
Western Washington University

Washington state is eliminating coal-fired power in an effort to reduce harmful emissions. China is attempting to reduce emissions using new technology for burning coal.

“Individual coal plants have different efficiencies and pollution rates. A plant in China may be more or less efficient than one in Washington based on the technology at the plant,” said Justin Brant, climate change policy analyst for the Washington Department of Ecology. “That said, climate change is a global issue and greenhouse gases produced in China have the same effect as those produced in Washington or anywhere else.”

Clean coal technology includes a variety of ways to reduce emissions. The five major emissions associated with coal burning are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, mercury and carbon dioxide, said Brad Tomer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Major Demonstrations.

Technologies exist or are currently under development to control these five types of emissions. Of particular controversy is the existence of carbon capture and storage: a process the Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimates could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent.

“It’s not futuristic in the sense of pie in the sky,” Tomer said.  

Carbon capture and storage has its skeptics. Craig Benjamin of the Environmental Priorities Coalition said, “That doesn’t exist. It’s kind of like a unicorn: people like to talk about it — they’ve been talking about it for 30 years — but there’s no example of it.”

Will proposed bulk, coal terminal face narrow or broad environmental review?

By Carolyn Nielsen and Andrew Donaldson

Western Washington University

BELLINGHAM – The proposed coal and bulk shipping terminal at Cherry Point faces a key decision –– expected Friday, June 24 –– as the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department decides whether to require the terminal’s proponents to obtain a new permit to build a pier northwest of Bellingham.

Pacific International Terminals,  a joint venture of Seattle-based SSA Marine and Vancouver, B.C.-based Westshore Terminals, Ltd., submitted its application June 10 for a 350-acre shipping terminal on land and a pier that extends into a newly designated  aquatic reserve.

The company asserts that it already has permission to build the pier because the county issued a permit for one in 1997.

Local and regional environmental advocacy groups are urging the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department to reject the application because the permit was approved under outdated environmental regulations.

A June 17 letter to the county planning department from the non-profit law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Climate Solutions, the Sierra Club and Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities accused proponents of trying to subvert updated environmental standards in constructing the first phase of the project, the pier.

Email petitions from RE Sources and Communitywise Bellingham circulated widely on Thursday, calling on Whatcom County residents to contact the planning department and speak out against accepting the application.