The health and safety imperative of preventing new fossil fuel projects

WPSR has published a 14-page report making the health and safety case for a moratorium on new major fossil fuel infrastructure in King County. Read it here.

Over the past decade, Northwest communities have successfully fought back against fossil fuel development in their backyards. As the climate crisis deepens and coal, oil, and gas industry interest continue to eye Washington and Oregon for new projects, cities and counties are taking proactive steps to prevent this infrastructure from being allowed for in the first place. On January 28th, King County can be next. Councilmember Dave Upthegrove is set to introduce a moratorium on these harmful projects.

The risks to health and safety posed by fossil fuel infrastructure are well documented. Pipelines carrying oil and gas, compressor stations, storage tanks, and vessel and rail transport sites have been shown to be susceptible to combustion, fire hazard, and releases of toxic pollution in instances of leaks and spills. Shipping and storing coal and oil poses its own unique risks.

While King County does not have any oil refineries or coal export facilities, it is home to quite a large amount of fossil fuel infrastructure and like many communities in our region, is at risk of fossil fuel expansion. Of primary concern are pipelines and trains carrying oil and gas through the region. Coal is also of concern; a coal mine was recently proposed to re-open in Black Diamond.

In recent history, the vulnerability of King County residents to the risks associated with infrastructure carrying and storing fossil fuel products has become apparent. Incidents like the 2016 Greenwood Gas explosion and the 2014 Interbay oil train derailment in Seattle are a reminder that large volumes of fossil fuels are being transported through our neighborhoods and right under our feet. A full breakdown of existing pipelines and fossil fuel projects were mapped by 350 Seattle members in 2018 (you can find the map here).

In Whatcom County, Tacoma, Vancouver, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Portland, Oregon and Baltimore, MD local governments have responded to these risks through protective land use planning. Successful legislation has updated zoning codes to prohibit new significant fossil fuel development. Adapting these strategies to secondary and temporary infrastructure, including pipeline expansions and the local permits relevant to fossil fuel infrastructure construction and ongoing operation, offers another tool to protect local residents from the well-documented health and safety risks posed by fossil fuel infrastructure.

Why now?

The most significant fossil fuel threat to King County is the expansion of gas infrastructure to meet the demand created by major gas projects proposed for southwest WA, such as the Kalama methanol refinery.

Dr. Margaret Kitchell, a physician on WPSR’s Climate & Health Task Force, speaks about the health and safety risks of the methanol refinery at a rally.

Dr. Margaret Kitchell, a physician on WPSR’s Climate & Health Task Force, speaks about the health and safety risks of the methanol refinery at a rally.

The Kalama refinery alone would use more than one-third of Washington state’s current gas consumption, meaning that should it come online the Kalama refinery would overtax current infrastructure. While proponents of the refinery have presented a plan to ‘bridge the gap’ in gas supplies, this plan is short-term and ultimately depends on the construction of a new pipeline to augment the current Williams Northwest system. This pipeline expansion would most likely happen in the existing pipeline corridor that runs through King County. But King County faces gas threats from more than just Kalama.

Between 2012 and 2017 alone, the Northwest has seen proposals for six major new gas pipelines and in the 2016 Gas Outlook, the NW Gas Association states that a new pipeline is “only a matter of time”.

King County is at also risk from piecemeal expansion of existing gas infrastructure. ‘Safety upgrades’ for aging pipelines often double as opportunities to significantly increase pipe diameter and expand gas capacity. The current North Seattle lateral expansion project is an example of this: A 2012 inspection found signs of cracking and a leak in the 60-year old North Seattle Lateral gas pipeline that runs along the King-Snohomish border. Permitting is underway to replace six miles of the damaged eight-inch diameter pipeline with a new 20 inch diameter pipeline – quietly increasing gas delivery capacity by 63% and ensuring that the pipeline can stay in service for another 60 years. With this ‘safety upgrade’, the pipeline will have increased WA’s annual greenhouse gas pollution by 3%, or three million metric tons per year (that’s almost as much as the entire city of Seattle).

Of lesser but still significant risk is the possibility of fossil fuel infrastructure expansion near the Port of Seattle. This deepwater port has been the site of multiple proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects, most recently the 2015 proposal for a terminal to support Arctic drilling operations. While the project proponent, Royal Dutch Shell, retracted the plan following broad opposition, it demonstrated the region’s vulnerability to new fossil fuel projects.

Our health, climate, and fossil fuel extraction

Credit: NIAID, Flickr

Credit: NIAID, Flickr

Climate change is already negatively impacting health, both in King County and around the globe. The US Climate Assessment released in November 2018 found that asthma exacerbation, extreme-heat related illness, and smoke pollution resulting from wildfires will worsen health outcomes for people living in the Pacific Northwest as climate change intensifies. Adding to these health concerns, the Washington State Department of Health reports that climate change is likely to increase rates of heat related illnesses; respiratory illness; vector-, water-, and food-borne diseases; and mental health stress. Indeed, deaths caused by extreme heat in King County rose 10% between 1990 and 2010, and our region can expect to see more frequent and extreme heat waves as the climate crisis intensifies Climate change-exacerbated wildfires across our region in the  summer of 2018 brought the region its worst air quality in decades.

A new mapping tool developed by University of Washington’s school of Public Health, Front & Centered, and the Department of Health identifies environmental health and pollution disparities.

A new mapping tool developed by University of Washington’s school of Public Health, Front & Centered, and the Department of Health identifies environmental health and pollution disparities.

These health burdens are not affecting King County residents equally. Lower-income and communities of color in Washington are already bearing an outsized health burden. A 2018 report from Front & Centered and the University of Washington identified flood risk, significantly poorer air quality, and higher rates of chronic conditions made worsened by climate change and pollution impacts (such as asthma and heart disease) as existing inequities in the climate change burden our region faces. Neighborhoods in South Seattle that lie within existing pipeline routes, including the Olympic Oil Pipeline, already face more pollution and health disparities than other parts of the city.

Fossil fuel infrastructure is fueling the climate crisis, which the World Health Organization and major medical journals have declared the greatest public health threat of our time.Scientists agree that fossil fuel extraction plays a central part in our climate crisis. While extracting gas, oil, and coal contributes to these climate change-related health burdens, the infrastructure required for their production and transport also poses significant and numerous risks.

“We must prevent what we cannot cure”

Nurses and public health professionals testify in support of regulations limiting new fossil fuel projects in Tacoma in November, 2018.

Nurses and public health professionals testify in support of regulations limiting new fossil fuel projects in Tacoma in November, 2018.

Limiting fossil fuel development can yield major health and climate benefits by curbing harmful air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning and transporting coal, oil and gas. Local governments and regulators can employ protective land use planning to limit new fossil fuel infrastructure and enhance safety of existing infrastructure.

Called by the prevention principle, physicians and nurses have been a key voice in campaigns for fossil fuel infrastructure moratoriums in Tacoma, WA and Portland. Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility strongly encourages King County leaders to join the list of communities employing these powerful land use strategies to protect health and safety from these projects.