Saturday, November 17, 2012

Science and County Government: The Perfect Storm

When I talk to students about our country’s environmental laws, I tell them that most of these laws were adopted under “our environmental president, Richard Nixon.”  This line always gets a laugh –even though it’s a fact, not a joke. Pollution control and the protection of nature used to be bipartisan, but college students are too young to remember those bygone days.
I recently read an article called Why Conservatives Turned Against Science.”   The article notes that, while support for Richard Nixon was robust among scientists back in the 1970s, a very small percentage of scientists currently self-identify as conservative or Republican.

Rather than concluding that scientists are all socialists who hate freedom, as some Whatcom County readers of this blog will undoubtedly claim, the article traces the reasons that science became the enemy of political conservatism.

In a nutshell,

“Climate scientists came under attack not just because their research threatened the oil industry (although it certainly did that), but also because they had exposed significant market failures.

Pollution is a market failure because, in general, polluters do not pay a price for environmental damage (and this includes not just polluting industries, like electrical utilities, but also anyone who uses a product—like gasoline—that takes up a portion of the planetary sink without paying for it). Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has declared climate change "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

Accepting the need to correct market failures required one to concede the need to reform capitalism—in short, to concede the reality of market failure and limits. This became increasingly difficult for Republicans during the 1990s and 2000s. . .

And so it was that during the decades that scientists began documenting how humans affect the natural world, the Republican Party committed itself to denying that impact, or at least denying that it required governmental response. . .

It's hardly surprising, then, that natural scientists have fled the GOP. Scientific research, with its basis in observation and experience of the natural world, is rooted in the fundamental premise that when the results of our investigations tell us something, we pay heed.”

We pay heed.

Or we don’t. 

Here in Whatcom County, we have a very conservative County Council.  And it includes some folks who are not prone to pay heed to observations and experience of the natural world.   

At a time when we are facing three extraordinarily significant and difficult environmental issues in Whatcom County, each demanding a scientific approach, this means that our local government may be at an all-time low in its ability (or desire) to address these problems.  

With a big storm poised to pour rain – well, OK, even more rain than usual -- on the Pacific Northwest, I can’t resist saying that this situation creates the perfect storm. 

Issue 1:  Continued development around Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for half of Whatcom County.

Our drinking water reservoir.  Yum yum.

Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for half of the County, was listed as an “impaired” (polluted) water body 14 years ago.  What’s happening now?  Whatcom County is mired down in months, maybe years, of study.  These studies are intended to provide justification to allow the owners of some 700 small properties to build on those properties without following the stricter regulations that the County has not yet adopted.

Where is the science of the Lake in all this?   By exposing market failure – the external impacts of development on the Lake – science has made itself an unwelcome presence at the table.

Issue 2:  The Gateway Pacific Terminal application, which proposes to build North America’s largest coal export terminal on the shore of a marine aquatic reserve.
Coal pile at the Westshore terminal.  Photograph by Paul K. Anderson.

The proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal would be enormous -- the largest coal terminal in North America.  It is globally significant.  And it will plow new scientific ground.  Nowhere else on earth, for example, has there ever been such a large quantity of extraordinarily combustible Powder River Basin coal piled in one export terminal.  We’re the guinea pigs, here in our obscure corner of the world.

In addition to spontaneously-combusting coal, a huge range of science-based issues will have to be examined:  the effects of locating 48 million metric tonnes of coal, in uncovered piles, on the adjacent marine protected area; the effects of destroying more than 140 acres of wetlands; the air pollution, noise, and potential spill effects of the largest, dirtiest marine vessels in the world; climate change, of course; and on, and on, and on. 

It is difficult to imagine a project that has to externalize more of its impacts than a coal export terminal.  Its feasibility depends on subsidized coal, subsidized transport, and the externalization of pollution costs.   

And the question is whether local decision-makers have the desire and ability to understand these issues, or whether the mantra of “economic freedom” will trump science’s exposure of the many market failures that must stay in place in order to keep this project afloat.

Issue 3:  The Swift Creek  naturally occurring asbestos problem.

The sign says that the asbestos is natural, so it must be all right!  Right?  Photograph by Doug Naftz.

Finally, Whatcom County has Swift Creek. 

Many areas of the world have naturally-occurring asbestos in their soils.  For example, I’ve been told that there’s a wide swath running across San Francisco, which may be the only thing that rural Whatcom County has in common with San Francisco. 

But Whatcom County appears to be unique in the world for its asbestos delivery system.  For the next 400 to 600 years, or even longer – who knows – a landslide on Sumas Mountain will deposit asbestos-containing soils into Swift Creek, which runs into the Sumas River, which runs north to the Canadian border. 

The asbestos in this soil is “real” asbestos, contrary to what a lot of folks want to believe.  When Swift Creek and the Sumas River flood, the flood waters carry asbestos.  During the last flood, in 2009, sampling near the Canadian border – as far away from Sumas Mountain as you can get and still stay on the U.S. – showed overs 20% asbestos in some of the samples of soils that were left behind when the flood water receded.  Some people's yards and basements contained these soils.

This is an issue where government inaction – disbelief, inability to conceive of the nature of the problem – will lead to a market result, and it won’t be pretty for some of our neighbors in Whatcom County.  Washington law requires the disclosure of asbestos on your property, and it doesn’t distinguish between Swift Creek asbestos and the asbestos in old attic insulation.  The market of homebuyers for affected properties will ultimately be limited to those who don't mind asbestos.

Whatcom County has the ability to decrease exposure to these asbestos-bearing soils.  Land use planning and the Critical Areas Ordinance both provide tools that can be used to help. 

Or, County Council members can continue to be “comfortable” in their denial of the significance of this issue, based on their “opinions” that asbestos isn’t really a problem.  Unfortunately, the scope of the problem depends in part on their action (or inaction).  The health effects of asbestos depend on exposure.  Planning could help to reduce exposure.

Everybody likes happy endings.  If only we could throw some rainbow-dust (preferably asbestos-free) over all of these problems.  Or perhaps we are counting on a magical unicorn to gallop to our rescue.

I’ve been banging the drum about all of these issues over the last few years.  I wrote a law review article about Swift Creek  and will be speaking at a national conference on naturally-occurring asbestos in December.  I brought a lawsuit raising Whatcom County’s continuing failure to adopt regulations to protect Lake Whatcom.  (See pages 147 through 155, where the Growth Management Hearings Board says, among other things, that “The record in this case provides overwhelming evidence that the primary threat to Lake Whatcom water quality is caused by phosphorus-laden runoff resulting from development in the watershed.”)  And I’ve written here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and a lot more blogs, about the Gateway Pacific coal terminal.

Unfortunately, all of this research has not uncovered any rainbows or unicorns.

What I do see is an enormous, and ultimately tragic, mismatch between our science-based problems and our market-failure-supporting governing bodies. 

But I can’t end there, because everybody likes a happy ending.  So.  Here’s the best I can do:

Whether they self-identify as liberal, conservative, Republican, or Democrat, we need local  leaders who are willing to follow Richard Nixon’s lead.  Er, when it comes to protecting the environment, that is. 

And the end of the rainbow is the fact that we live in a democracy, which has elections.  The next one is in 2013.


  1. Thank you for so eloquently summarizing the problems and the solution. You are one of the County's greatest treasures.

    1. Thank you, Wendy. And when I say "thank you," I mean it in many dimensions. To read more about Lake Whatcom, read Wendy's post on NW Citizen:

      Thanks for all your work, keeping track and publicizing these issues.

  2. Jean - Council has shown a tendency to equate anecdotes with scientific method. County is guilty of inaction on issue #1, Lake Whatcom. Issue #2 has not yet come before us. #3 yes it is a colossal headache, but what would you like us to do? I am being serious - we are severely hampered by liability issues if we touch it.

  3. Ken,

    Thanks for commenting.

    With respect to the Gateway Pacific project, I agree that no project application is pending before the County Council. Before there is a pending project application, Appearance of Fairness doesn't apply. In light of that fact, I hope that y'all are using this time to start to understand the project application and the testimony at the scoping hearings. If you actually acted as if the project didn't exist until it was appealed from the Hearing Examiner (at which point there would, indeed, be a pending application before you), you'd only have 30 days to understand the project. That's not enough.

    Either there is no pending application before the Council and no Appearance of Fairness problem, or there is a pending application and the public record is being created. The claim that there's a pending application AND that you can't review the public record of this pending application doesn't make sense.

    Swift Creek is an extremely difficult problem. As I stated in my law review article,, EPA likely has remedial powers that it could use to help with this problem, and it would be nice if it used them.

    However, if we're thinking that we can rely on federal largesse to deal with a localized problem, we have to understand that this enormous problem is playing out in a very low population area. And ultimately, nobody will have more concern over the well-being of the people who live in that area than Whatcom County, because they're your constituents and our neighbors.

    I understand the liability issues, which are discussed in my article. The County would actually reduce its potential liabilty, however, if it used all of its planning powers to reduce exposure to asbestos. I know that the County does not like to restrict land uses, and even included part of the Swift Creek floodplain in Nooksack's Urban Growth Area. And yes, after I made a stink, the County made this Urban Growth Area a "reserve." But the fact that the County has planned for urban growth in a floodplain affected by asbestos-laden soils is a clear sign that the County Council does not take this issue seriously.

    I would also like to see a science-driven program to acquire property, especially within the Swift Creek floodplain. That's what you do when recurring flooding creates permanent problems, right? But I haven't seen anybody exploring that option. It would be a big deal. But 400- to 600-year problems are a big deal. I'm glad that the County is working on sediment traps, but that's not a permanent solution. Any solution that involves dredging and disposing of asbestos is not going to be feasible in the long run.

    I wish that the Council were only guilty of confusing anecdote and science, but it's worse than that. I've listened to the audio of Council committee meetings, in which quite a few Council members have expressed their lack of concern over asbestos as a health problem. And as you know, Rebekah Hook, a graduate student at WWU, interviewed all of the County Council members (anonymously) about this issue. As reported in her thesis, one of them said that he didn't think that asbestos was any more harmful than the table in front of him.

    That's just wrong. Asbestos isn't harmful when people aren't exposed to it, but it's very harmful when enough of it gets in people's lungs. And, as you know, a study in peer review is showing that Swift Creek asbestos is more harmful in the lungs than the asbestos from Libby, Montana. So we need to keep it out of people's lungs.

    It's very difficult for people, and politicians, to deal with enormous problems that aren't acute. Asbestos has long-term health effects, not acute health effects. Swift Creek isn't a problem until it floods. Planning is anathema to Whatcom County, and some members of our Council don't believe in science. You put it all together, and you get -- the perfect storm.

  4. The issue may be "self-assertion versus selfless service to an ideal", as David McClelland put it in "Power: The Inner Experience". Mature ability to see oneself as an instrument of higher authority is a qualification for success in management and in science. Juvenile self-assertion drives an entrepreneur, but to manage a larger operation like Whatcom County requires maturity.

    Science is many different things, from Stephen Hawking silently thinking to the clinician recording data from a sample.

  5. I really like your analysis about a failed marketing view. I used to deal with the effects of herbicides from vineyards getting into drinking water and arguing that treating the water with activated carbon to remove herbicides and pesticides to make water potable again needed to be part of the true cost of the spraying. Suddenly more environmentally friendly manual weed control methods become more competitive. Of course, lots of push back from the vineyard owners, who, like GPT don't want to have any financial/social responsibilities for the off site consequences of their practices.