A fascinating and pertinent piece of Spokane’s and eastern Washington’s geological history
When this went out earlier this morning the link in the video failed. Here’s a workable link:
No, we’re not talking about Noah’s Flood, although I suppose there are some who might wish to see this bit of fascinating geology through that lens. Instead, the topic here is forces of water that shaped much of the land we live on as well as the downstream “scablands” of central Washington. The story is pertinent because it is intimately interconnected with underground water resources upon which our region depends.
This Friday evening (February 2) at Hamilton Studios (see flyer and video below) Tim Connor, local journalist, photographer, and storyteller offers a multimedia presentation recounting this geologic history and the story of J. Harlen Bretz, the geologist who, working out of Spokane, put all the clues together in the early 1920s.
Since early last year Tim Connor has been using his understanding of local geology and his work in journalism to chronicle the evolving saga of PFAS (“forever chemical”) contamination of West Plains private wells. He writes on Substack under “Rhubarb Salon”. His work on the West Plains saga is available here. His posts are in depth and engaging, a fascinating, evolving story.
For more about this Friday’s presentation click here.
I urge you to click on this video image and watch (it literally just takes a minute)
WHEN February 2, 2024 6:00PM – 9:00PM
WHERE Hamilton Studio 1427 W Dean Ave, Spokane, WA 99201
The economic underpinnings of homelessness and the uncertainties of living in rental housing can seem distant. Having a place to live, to have shelter, is one of those essentials of existence that many of us only rarely consider. After all, many in my age cohort have a secure, low interest, 30-year mortgage contract that offers long term cost stability (and, by the way, an incentive to stay put). Some of us even own our dwelling free and clear. Many of us got to this point via a “starter home” in a time when places to live were far more affordable than they are today. Low interest, low downpayment, FHA (Federal Housing Administration) or VA (Veterans Administration) loans gave us a boost toward the lowest rung of the ladder of home ownership and equity building. Some (many?) of us benefited from parents who could offer some financial help or, ultimately, an inheritance that got us started.
Participating in the rental market is a different experience. I remember the subtle sense of insecurity my parents projected during my teen years when we lived in a rental apartment in a duplex owned by the grandfather of one of my high school classmates. Fortunately, we felt relatively sure that if the monthly rent were increased it would be gradual and incremental—livable—but the uncertainty was still felt. I never have, but I can imagine that living in a rental unit owned and managed by faceless companies bent solely on making a profit for their investors would feel even more uncertain.
Last Friday, January 26th, an article appeared in the Spokesman (from the Washington Post) titled, “Rent has never been less affordable, especially for the middle class.” The article presents statistics from a new report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. The take-home is that more than half of American households who live in rentals now spend 30% or more of their income on housing costs. Spending more than 30% of household income on housing is the definition of housing “cost-burdened”. Even more remarkable, half of those households, i.e. 25% of all renting households, spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs. (= “severely cost-burdened”). This is a new high—and it goes hand-in-hand with rising numbers of evictions and rising levels of homelessness. (See P.S. for more data)
Those 30% and 50% statistics have two components: the rising levels of rents and the not-so-rising levels of income. The Spokesman article notes that rent growth for professionally managed apartments was 15.3% in early 2022. That rate of growth has now leveled off—but, like inflation in general, while the rate has stabilized, the high prices remain, so the rental housing affordability squeeze on incomes persists even as pandemic-related protections are being withdrawn.
How do we re-balance this? Builders and developers would, of course, like you to believe that we just need to build our way out of the problem, i.e. satisfy the demand side of the supply and demand equation—but it’s not that simple [the bold is mine]:
A big reason is that there just aren’t enough units available. There’s been progress, with tens of thousands of newly constructed homes expected to become available this year. But the Harvard study notes that the benefits won’t be felt equally – and that the fresh supply won’t tame housing costs for renters across the spectrum.
For starters, new construction often targets the higher end of the market, and those prices can stay high because there’s still plenty of demand among wealthier tenants. At the same time, there’s been a culling of lower-cost units as landlords chase higher rents or sell properties or as more affordable units fall into disrepair. In 2022, only 7.2 million units posted rents under $600 – a loss of 2.1 million units compared with a decade before, when adjusted for inflation.
“Supply is very important. I will certainty underline that,” Airgood-Obrycki [one of the authors of the Harvard Study] said. “But the people who are most cost-burdened are not going to see the immediate benefits of that supply.”
In the simplified and idealized free market economy prices go up until supply satisfies demand. If supply overshoots demand, then prices will fall. But that formulation fails when you’re not talking about some sort of uniform “widget”. The biggest profits in the building of dwellings come from satisfying high end demand, not from providing housing for folks living on the economic margins.
An extreme example of this phenomenon are wealthy individuals who buy, decorate, and maintain several homes in one area in what appears to be a hobby rather than profit-seeking in re-sale or rental. (Yes, there are or have been several anecdotal examples of such individuals in Spokane.) Rare as this behavior among the wealthy might be, it still serves as an illustration of demand soaking up supply—and thereby driving prices—on the high end. There is also the phenomenon of people of means continually seeking more square feet per person than most of humanity is perfectly happy to live in.
There are other forces at work that are harder to recognize and quantify. Consider, for example, the rise of internet-facilitated, profit-making short term rental platforms like Airbnb and VRBO over the last couple decades. The ripple effects both from the renters and the landlords of this new market are many and hard to quantify, but one effect must certainly be to remove a quantity of what would have been long term rental units from the market.
Governments at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels can all make adjustments to the economic and regulatory landscape attempting to help more people find housing they can afford. These include changes in zoning, permitting, regulation, and taxation that concern building and short-term rental requirements. Other changes open to government include legislation that would set limits on the allowed rate of rise of rental charges. Every one of these changes will be loudly contested by various interest groups. Folks embedded in the developer/real estate industry like Spokane County Commissioner Al French will, of course, will claim the only solution lies in cheapening the cost of building homes and apartments by nixing code requirements to fit new construction with climate-friendly features. (After all, if you deny the reality of human-caused global heating or imagine you can insulate yourself from its effects why would you argue otherwise, since nixing these features would increase builders profits?)
Many of the possible tweaks mentioned above are worthwhile, particularly in the relatively short run, but I submit that the main problem we face is that of overwhelmingly lopsided demand at the top end of the market driven by lopsided distribution of wealth in the economy. The best long term solutions to this problem start with fully funding the IRS so it is capable of enforcing existing tax regulation. Then reverse the tax cuts on high income levels that Republicans and their think-tank-mouthpieces have passed over the last four decades while pretending that the effects will “trickle down” to the rest of us.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. There are currently around 332 million people in the U.S. contained in 129 million households. About 44.8 million of those household, or 38% of those households, live in rental dwellings. (A side note: household is a group of people, not necessarily related occupying the same dwelling. A “family household” is a subset of households in which the householders are related.) If you are interested in delving into numbers and trends, check out this webpage from which I retrieved a lot of this data:
On Monday I posted PFAS, Forever Chemicals, and Our Water concerning the evolving story of “forever chemical” groundwater contamination on Spokane’s West Plains. Part of that story is Spokane County Commissioner French’s and Spokane International Airport CEO Larry Krauter’s quiet efforts 1) to push back against regulations surrounding PFAS, 2) to avoid revealing well test results, and 3) to block data gathering.
Later that day I read Doug Muder’s January 22nd post on the significance of long-running national Republican efforts to eviscerate the “administrative state” by challenging an arcane-sounding concept dubbed “Chevron Doctrine” in the U.S. Supreme Court case.
“Chevron Doctrine” seems arcane, far away, and of little personal concern, but comes into focus when applied to rules meant to protect our health from environmental contamination close to home. U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ endless blather about “reining in regulation” and “unleashing the free market” came into stark focus with Muder’s words, “In a complex modern economy, there are countless ways for corporations to make money by killing people.”
Like me, many of my readers have lived most of our lives in a comfortable partial fiction: that, thanks to the ecology movement of the 1960s, the passage of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and the establishment of the Environment Protection Agency, our government protects us from industry poisoning the air and water upon which our lives depend.
But let me turn you over the Doug Muder’s brilliant piece copied below. Keep the West Plains and PFAS in mind. (Muder’s The Weekly Sift should be on everyone’s Monday morning reading list.)
The Supreme Court’s attempt to scuttle the Chevron Doctrine is part of a much larger program.
Over the last few weeks, Court-watchers have been trying to sound the alarm about the prospect of scuttling what had (until recently) been a fairly arcane bit of legal interpretation: the Chevron Doctrine. Lawyers understand how important it is (the Court has applied it in over 100 cases in the last 40 years), but it’s tough to get the general public to pay attention, much less to be up in arms about its possible demise. But there actually are good reasons to be up in arms.
A fairly standard thing to do at this point would be to tell you what the Chevron Doctrine is and where it comes from. I’ll eventually get around to doing that — click the link if you really can’t wait — but I’d rather have you keep reading for a few more paragraphs before you bookmark this page with the idea of getting back to it when you have more time.
Blood money. So instead I’ll back up a few levels and start with the underlying problem: In a complex modern economy, there are countless ways for corporations to make money by killing people. They can kill their customers by selling products that will crash them into trucks or suck them out of airliners or cause heart attacks or give customers cancer or salmonella or some other disease. They can kill their employees with unsafe workplaces. They can kill their neighbors by pumping poisons into the air or water. As AI catches on, products may start killing people and we won’t even know why.
Sometimes corporations very consciously make the money-for-lives tradeoff, as the tobacco companies did for decades, and as the gun manufacturers are still doing. But sometimes they just don’t know, at least at first. They have a product, they make money off of it, customers seem happy with it, so why look any deeper than that? Diacetyl makes microwave popcorn taste more buttery — what’s not to like?
As individuals, we’re more or less helpless to protect ourselves. No one has the time or the expertise to analyze every single thing they use or come into contact with. That’s why we rely on government regulation, agencies like the FDA, EPA, FSIS, and others, to protect our lives. (Other agencies, like the SEC and the FDIC, protect our money from the kinds of scams that were endemic prior to the New Deal.)
Government regulators get their power from two sources: Congress and the President. Congress creates the agencies, defines their missions, and funds them each year. Meanwhile, the President appoints the people who set the policies to accomplish those missions. Ultimately, Congress and the President get their power from the voters.
But here’s the problem: The marketplace moves much faster than our political system. New products, new drugs, new food additives, new pollutants, and so forth appear every week. Imagine the dystopia we’d be living in if Congress, which strains to pass basic legislation to keep the government’s doors open, had to pass a new law to regulate each one.
Well, you may not have to imagine much longer, because the Supreme Court’s conservative majority seems hellbent on taking us there.
Delegated power. The way the regulatory system currently works is that Congress passes a few foundational laws that give the agencies abstract goals, and then lets the agencies hire experts who figure out how to pursue those goals.
A typical example is the Clean Air Act. The CAA was first passed in 1963 and then overhauled in 1970. It established air quality standards (NAAQS) for a few well-known pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and lead, but then it defined a general category of “hazardous air pollutants” (HAPs) made up of other gases and particulates that “threaten human health and welfare”. It tasked the EPA with making and maintaining a list of HAPs and creating emission regulations for controlling them.
Hold that in your mind for a minute: In passing the CAA, Congress banned or controlled substances that the members of Congress had never even heard of. That’s how the regulatory system works.
That’s a lot of delegated power, particularly power over corporations that don’t like being controlled. And yes, their wealth does give the companies opportunities to influence the system — say by bribing or otherwise inducing congresspeople to give them various exemptions, or by letting regulators know they can have cushy jobs after they leave government if they behave themselves — but it’s never enough.
What corporations would really like to do is monkey-wrench the regulatory system in general. And the best way to do that is to interrupt the flow of delegated power from Congress to the agencies: Make Congress pass a new law every time there’s some new thing to regulate. In a Congress where even saving lives can be a partisan issue, and where a bunch of small-state senators can lock things up with a filibuster, even the most obvious new regulations can be stalled indefinitely or watered down to nothing.
So the basic strategy for restoring corporations’ ability to profit by killing people has two pieces
Prevent Congress from delegating its regulatory power to anybody else.
The most direct idea for keeping Congress from empowering regulatory agencies is known as the Nondelegation Principle: basically, that Congress can’t, as a matter of constitutional principle, delegate power that is inherently legislative. Some version of this idea is necessary, because otherwise Congress could authorize the president to be a dictator and then go home. But since 1928 delegation has been considered OK if Congress provided an “intelligible principle” for the agency to follow (like protecting human health and welfare from air pollutants).
But in a dissent in the Gundy case in 2019, Justice Gorsuch proposed a much stricter limit: Agencies can only “fill in the details” of laws, and can’t do something sweeping like, say, compile a list of dangerous pollutants to regulate. Fortunately, he didn’t get the majority to go along with him on that. But he’s still working on it, and the composition of the Court has changed since then. Expect to hear more about nondelegation sometime soon.
A second idea for reining in regulatory agencies is the Major Questions Doctrine, which the Court has created out of whole cloth over the last 25 years. Major Questions is a response to something that happens fairly often: Circumstances change in such a way that a provision in a law that seemed relatively minor at the time it was passed ends up granting an agency significant power. Major Questions allows the Court to say, “No, no, no. The law may say that, but Congress didn’t really mean it. If they’d intended to delegate such a large power, they’d have said so explicitly.”
So, for example, the Obama administration EPA decided that (due to the previously unforeseen problems of climate change), the Clean Air Act gave it the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The Court nixed that in West Virginia v EPA. Carbon emissions, it said, are so central to the workings of our economy that (regardless of the text of the CAA) Congress would never have delegated that power without an explicit statement.
Now, there are four major objections to the Major Questions Doctrine:
The Constitution never mentions it.
The Court has never clearly defined what a “major question” is, so it has given itself permission to interfere (or not) whenever it feels like it.
The law says what it says, even if Congress didn’t foresee all the possible applications.
If Congress really didn’t intend to delegate that much power, it could pass a law to take power back. (But of course, that puts the logjam-Congress shoe on the other foot.)
One thing you’ll notice about Major Questions: It allows the Court to substitute its own judgment for both the plain reading of the law and for an agency’s interpretation of that law. And that brings us (finally) to the Chevron Doctrine.
Chevron. Back in the Reagan administration, all the ideological arrows pointed in the other direction: Reagan’s appointees were conservative, while judges tended to be liberal. In particular, the EPA was run by Justice Gorsuch’s mom, Anne Gorsuch.
Anne’s EPA had drastically limited its interpretation of what a “source” of pollution meant under the CAA. Previously, just about any change that introduced new pollution was considered a new source, and required EPA approval. But the new interpretation said that, say, an entire factory or power plant was the source of pollution, and could be substantially reconstructed without triggering EPA supervision.
The Natural Resources Defense Council sued to try to block something Chevron was building, but the Court ruled in Chevron’s favor by creating the Chevron Doctrine: When some part of a law is ambiguous, a court should defer to the interpretation of a regulating agency rather than impose its own interpretation of what Congress really meant. An agency couldn’t make up a ridiculous interpretation, but as long as its reading was plausible, the courts should yield to it. (An eye-glazingly detailed history of the Chevron case is in this interview between David Roberts and Dvid Doniger.)
But remember: the ideological arrows were pointing in the opposite direction from today, so Chevron was a conservative principle that was championed by conservative justices like Anton Scalia. The arguments he made were the same ones liberals are making today: Agencies have technical expertise that courts can’t compete with, and (because they ultimately get their power from Congress and the President), they’re closer to the voters than judges are. So Chevron is not just prudent, it’s democratic.
This kind of humility is sometimes called judicial restraint. For many many years, it was the hallmark of conservative jurisprudence: Activist liberal judges should restrain themselves, because they’re not as smart as they think they are, and because it’s undemocratic to remove issues from the political process.
But now conservatives have control of the courts, so humility is out the window. Apparently, judicial restraint was never actually a conservative principle, it was just a rhetorical device to keep liberal judges in check. Activist conservative judges, on the other hand, should have free rein to do whatever they want.
So Chevron has to go. The Court is using two fairly obscure cases (involving fees paid by the fishing industry to the National Marine Fisheries Service) to tee up an attack on Chevron. No one knows exactly what the ruling will say yet, but the questions the justices were posing during oral arguments point at a complete revision of Chevron that could make the Supreme Court also the Supreme Regulator; whether any given agency was interpreting its authorizing legislation properly would be for the Court to determine.
The practical implications of sinking Chevron could be enormous: Literally thousands of cases have been decided on that basis in the last 40 years, and any of them could come up for a rehearing. Plus, literally every regulation on the books will become a legal battleground, with the Supreme Court’s six conservative justices being the ultimate deciders.
In short, a committee made up of six foxes is about to take over the regulation of every chicken coop in the country.
Learn a new skill and support a good bill–it’ll just take a few minutes
The Washington State Legislature is in session and actively considering bills in committees. Committee approval is a necessary step toward bringing a bill to the floor and voting on it.
Did you know that you can usefully register your opinion of a bill—or submit written testimony—or sign up to testify remotely or in person? Like all things governmental it is a little confusing at first, but once learned it’s easy—and it gives you a voice.
Here’s a case in point by way of illustration. HB 2079 – 2023-24 is this year’s numbering for a Washington House bill that a friend of mine, Bob West, has been promoting for years. It is up for committee consideration in the House tomorrow, so the time is ripe to weigh in. The bill concerns the safety of those, like sports referees, helping out in elementary and secondary schools. It would broaden those who are protected against threats of violence or actual violence and increase the penalties. Mr. West’s advocacy for this bill stems from an incident he details in his story pasted below. Read through Bob’s post and then continue below to follow the steps you can use to support a bill that is up for consideration like this one.
My name is Bob West. I was the wrestling referee that was headbutted by a wrestler and knocked unconscious, back in 1996, in Colville, WA. Since that time I have been an advocate at a local and national level in promoting sportsmanship issues and helping get legislation passed that makes those that assault sports officials accountable. I have been to Olympia over the years and have been unsuccessful so far, but have gotten a resolution passed out of the house. I am asking to take a few minutes and click on the link above, register, and please sign up “pro” for this bill. It is imperative that we get as many as possible to show the Safety and Justice Committee that this is a problem, that assaults continue to increase, and that we are losing sports officials to call our games.
I maintain a webpage at www.ur-safe.org (Umpires and Referees Stopping Assaults For Ever) and have authored a book called (Rage on the Field, the Decline of Sportsmanship in Sports Today) www.rageonthefield.com. This link shows the vicious assault I incurred, along with ending my officiating career, and 4 neck surgeries later.
For additional information you can contact your state legislator or reach me at:
Clicking that link will take you to a page “House Committee Sign In” with the Committee, Meeting Date, and the Bill you wish to comment on already selected. You then click how you wish to express yourself from the short list in the next section.
If you’re not prepared to submit a written comment or to sign up to testify (in person or electronically) you can still register your “Pro” or “Con” view of the legislation for the record by simply clicking “I would like my position noted for the legislative record” and filling in your information on the page that appears. I understand that the numbers of people who take the time to weigh in with a simple “Pro” or “Con” really do get considered and can make a difference to whether or not a bill moves forward.
HB 2079 – 2023-24 has bipartisan sponsors. It’s a good bill, but, like so much we wish the legislature would take up, it competes for attention with many bills—and the way the help it move forward is to support it. So if you agree with what Bob’s bill proposes take a few minutes to register your opinion. This is how representative democracy works.
One More Thing—A Ranked Choice Voting Bill
Now reinforce what you just learned by going through the same exercise with HB 2250 – 2023-24, a bill to be heard THIS AFTERNOON in Committee. HB 2250 further opens the door to adopting ranked choice voting by ensuring the Washington Administrative Code provides clear and consistent standards for implementing ranked-choice voting in Washington and streamlines the process for doing so. If you would like more information, here is a link.
If HB 2250 – 2023-24 makes sense to you they way it does to me, click and follow the same process as I outlined above for Bob’s bill to register “Pro” for this one.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. I’ve been told that the method I outlined above for citizens to comment on legislation this conveniently is quite new. At least parts of it have been available only as a result of Covid—one of very few good things that Covid brought any of us. Either way, having this ability to comment without the considerable investment of time, energy, and expense necessary to travel to Olympia to testify is a considerable boon for those of us relatively isolated on the eastern side of the state. Let’s use it!
Spokane County Commissioner Al French and the public good
There is trouble brewing on Spokane’s West Plains, and the most powerful, embedded, and connected politician in Spokane County, County Commissioner Al French, along with the Spokane International Airport’s CEO, Larry Krauter, really want the trouble just to go away. The excellent article by long-time investigative reporter Tim Connor reveals how Commissioner French quietly stifled efforts to have the county assist in gathering data on the possible contamination of the West Plains well water. It is one thing for a powerful elected official to personally question if a contamination threat to the health and well-being of some of his constituents is overblown, but it is quite another to unilaterally use one’s political power to block acceptance of a $450,000 grant to do the testing necessary to quantify the problem. Apparently, Mr. French is convinced his understanding of the risks of chemical contamination of the West Plains is superior to that of the scientific community. (Note the parallels to fervent Republican denials of the mechanism and importance of global heating.)
If you’ve been around as long as I have you’ll remember the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry.” Those words frequently uttered on radio and TV were part of an ad campaign of the DuPont Corporation from 1935 to 1982. At the time new chemicals with trade names like Teflon and Freon were marvels of modern science. Barely a passing thought was spent on their possible effects on human health and the environment.
If it were not for observant, questioning lay people, physicians, epidemiologists, environmental scientists, and plaintiffs’ attorneys, the long term effects of these chemicals would still be unknown—and, since ignorance is bliss, the corporations that manufacture and market these chemical products to the public would be blithely delivering profits at the public’s expense. The combination of internal corporate evaluations and passive surveillance by government agencies like the EPA are inadequate to the task of deciding what is safe and what is not.
“Forever Chemicals” = all of the “PFAS(s)”
The naming of organic chemicals is mind-numbing, which is why the name “forever chemicals” was first applied to “PFAS” chemicals in an op ed in the Washington Post in 2018 (that is an excellent explanatory article that is worth reading if you’re not blocked by a paywall.) PFAS stands for “Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances”, a class which includes what are now more than ten thousand chemicals that go by a number of abbreviations you might see in print, like PFOS and PFOA (two of the PFAS chemicals that are major constituents of firefighting foams that have been used both at Fairchild and Spokane International). They are all dubbed “forever chemicals” because, once synthesized, they resist breakdown in nature (and in our bodies) for millennia on account of the tremendous stability of carbon-fluorine chemical bonds.
PFAS did not exist in nature before they were first chemically synthesized in the 1930s. As a class of chemicals PFAS possess properties that made them extremely useful in applications like non-stick cook pans (Teflon), fire-fighting foams (like those used in quantity for decades at Fairchild—and—it turns out—Spokane International Airport), waterproof clothing, and stain-resistant fabrics. PFAS have been produced and used in quantity from the 1940s and 1950s onward. There are now thousands of members of the PFAS family of chemicals. Now, if one checks, after eighty years of industrial production and use, PFAS can be found at some concentration nearly everywhere on the globe—and in nearly every living being.
Although DuPont was aware as early as the 1970s that its workers exposed to PFAS had elevated serum blood levels of PFAS chemicals, PFAS were thought to be inert. Consequently, elevated serum levels were deemed by DuPont to be of little concern. It took cows dying miserably, a distressed West Virginia cattle farmer, and an extremely diligent and dedicated plaintiff’s attorney, Rob Bilott, to finally get DuPont’s attention—and to launch a class-action-funded scientific investigation that finally laid out the health risks of PFAS in the early 2000s. If you have the time, the NYTimes Feature article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” is a lengthy, but absolutely fascinating story. (The story focuses on PFOS contamination, one specific PFAS forever chemical that is among the West Plains well-contaminants.)
West Plains Water
Over a couple of decades we’ve all read articles on the possible dangers of “forever chemicals” building up in the environment—with consequences like endocrine dysfunction and increased frequency of certain cancers, pregnancy complications, sterility, and birth defects. Such concerns might have seemed far away, the stuff of national reporting with little or nothing in the way local relevance. Then in 2017 there appeared a number of local articles about “PFAS” and “PFOS” chemicals from firefighting foams used for decades at Fairchild Air Force Base that were found in high concentrations as contaminants to the municipal well water of the City of Airway Heights.
The water in the SVRP Aquifer generally (and slowly) flows westward underground along with the Spokane River. Notice that the X in the southwest corner of the map, the spot marking Spokane International Airport on the West Plains, does not lie over, nor is its source of water drawn from, the porous, sand and gravel-filled Spokane Valley—Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. When the wells supplying Airway Heights turned up with PFAS contamination the City of Airway Heights was able to draw its water from this larger, uncontaminated SVRP Aquifer via pipes connected to the seven municipal wells of the City of Spokane. (Note, as an aside, that if you live on Spokane’s South Hill or Five Mile Prairie you are also dependent on pipes that draw water from these municipal wells drilled into the SVRP Aquifer.)
Think of the SVRP Aquifer as a large, irregular bathtub filled with a thick layer of porous sand and gravel. That material was deposited by glaciers that finally melted back northward around ten thousand years ago. In contrast, the porous, water-permeable “paleochannels” that exist on the West Plains are lined with the impermeable black rocks (basalt) of the same type as you see in a number of places sticking up along I-90. These paleochannels run generally downhill on the West Plains in a northeasterly direction toward Deep Creek and the Spokane River. The black rock you see is basalt that solidified from several lava flows that rolled in from somewhere in eastern Oregon roughly twenty millions of years ago (the early Miocene Epoch). In the periods between these lava flows erosion carved other earlier paleochannels out of earlier layers of basalt. In some cases these earlier channels were partly filled in with porous sediment before another flow covered the landscape. (This is the same sort of geology that also underlies Spokane’s South Hill.) Imagine the result of this process: pockets of porous materials that can hold water (basically the definition of an aquifer) separated by layers of relatively impermeable (but often cracked and fissured) basalt.
Now imagine seeing all that in cross-section with thousands of well-holes drilled into it to various depths and you have some idea of the complexity of West Plains water supplies by comparison the large and relatively uniform Spokane Valley—Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. The take away from all this, going back to the original story, is that underground water on the West Plains exists in a complex system that flows slowly northeastward in several of paleochannels that were long ago carved in the basalt.
Below is a map of the West Plains roughly showing the paleochannels and the locations of Fairchild Air Force Base and Spokane International Airport. Take note of the light green area signifying the “Fairchild Test Zone” (west of Hayford Rd) and of the location of Spokane International Airport and its upstream (or “up-channel”) relationship to the “Airport Paleochannel.” Finally, note the dark green “Pritchard Ecology Study Area,” the proposed well water data gathering area that would have been studied under the $450,000 grant. That is the grant that Commissioner French and CEO Krauter quietly blocked in 2020.
It’s a little hard to see, but there are three areas on this map that are served by municipal water: Medical Lake (with its own wells and water system), Airway Heights (now connected to the City of Spokane municipal water system as a result of PFAS contamination from Fairchild firefighting foams) and the area surrounding Spokane International Airport (which, being technically a part of the City of Spokane, also on gets its water from the Spokane municipal system). Importantly, all those little red dots you see on the map are private wells still individually drawing water from the complex of aquifers on the West Plains. The private wells within the light green “Fairchild Test Zone” fall under the water testing regimen supported by the federal government through Fairchild Air Force Base. All those red dots in the dark green area are wells that either haven’t been tested for PFAS or were tested at private expense. A large number of those wells are at risk of PFAS contamination not so much from Fairchild but rather from PFAS use at Spokane International Airport (SIA).
Although SIA doesn’t get its water from West Plains wells, but rather from the SVRP Aquifer, in June 2017 four existing monitoring wells on SIA property (drilled earlier for a different purpose) were tested for PFAS. Three of the four wells revealed PFAS at “higher than the established screening levels”. All three wells showing PFAS contamination were at the northeast end of the airport property consistent with the generally northeasterly flow toward the Airport Paleochannel. Even with all the publicity around the Airway Heights contamination in 2017, SIA officials did not disclosure their findings. Were they just hoping the problem would go away and no one notice, that Fairchild would end up with all the blame?
The trouble is that some of the well owners “down-paleochannel” from SIA (and not in the Fairchild Test Zone) were concerned enough about the adjacent Fairchild-related well contamination to have their well water tested at personal expense. They found high levels of PFAS especially of the types of PFAS used in the firefighting foams. Hydrogeologist Chad Pritchard went to work to secure a grant of $450,000 offered by the Washington State Department of Ecology to test wells in the “Pritchard Ecology Study Area”. In February 2020:
The last box to check was a routine briefing for the county commissioners prior to their expected vote to approve the grant application. What Lindsay [the Environmental Services Manager for Spokane County’s water resources department] didn’t expect is the phone call he says he received from commissioner Al French the day before the commissioners’ meeting.
Lindsay says French called to tell him the item had been removed from the agenda. When I asked Lindsay if French had given a reason for pulling the item he said he had; that French was “concerned about the timing and the potential effect on the airport.”
It helps to understand that there are powerful monetary interests here. SIA encompasses an area of 10 square miles with major opportunities for industrial development as well as airport expansion. SIA CEO Larry Krauter and Commissioner French (a developer as well as a County Commissioner) have been working for years to grow Spokane’s business community on the West Plains. Proven PFAS contamination coming from SIA might interfere with property values and development.
Not only has SIA failed to disclosure it 2017 testing for PFAS and worked with Commissioner French to stall Pritchard’s efforts to gather more well data, but CEO Krauter has been quietly lobbying and filing legal arguments seeking to block efforts by the State of Washington to regulate PFAS. (See Erin Sellers’ excellent and exhaustive article “Airport CEO: Lawmakers should ‘wait and see’ before banning toxic PFAS” on RANGEmedia.co.
Commissioner French’s and CEO Krauter’s efforts to slow walk even the gathering of data on PFAS contamination of West Plains wells is a shameful breach of public trust. That they work instead to hide data and discredit the importance of the contamination is intolerable arrogance. It is, in Mr. French’s case at least, another example of Republican denial of science, akin to global heating denial in a misguided effort that they imagine serve the purposes of business development.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. During the mid-twentieth century asbestos was still used in fireproofing and insulation; mercury was something kids played with when a mercury thermometer was broken; and DDT was fogged from trucks in cities to kill mosquitos. Persistence in the environment and long term health effects of all these materials were little considered by the general public until the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962. Looking back, we tend toward the rosy idea that once “Silent Spring” was published everyone got right on board, but, in fact, there was considerable pushback, argument, and instilled doubt. (See the “Silent Spring” wikipedia article.) I conclude that my (and maybe your) understanding of historical events and how attitudes are changed is a gross simplification of the controversies that actually occurred. There will never be one hundred percent agreement about anything—and, as a corollary—changing attitudes in the general population is a complex and long term project. The founders and funders of libertarian think tanks like the Washington Policy Center understood this and acted on it long ago.
P.P.S. In case you cannot tell from all I’ve written here, I find local geology and hydrogeology fascinating. If you really want to dive in headfirst here is a link to an well-illustrated readable document (on a computer screen zooming in and out) that fills in a whole lot of detail:
Yesterday, January 18, The Inlander published Nate Sanford’s article “More than 200 Spokane churches were asked to open their doors to homeless people during dangerously cold weather — four agreed” Please click on that title and read it. It’s a great introduction to a new local effort grounded in the experience of Julie Garcia of Jewels Helping Hands. The four churches that agreed to do so carefully opened their doors to the unsheltered during the recent cold snap under agreements with and oversight by staffers of Jewels Helping Hands, a number of volunteers, and some help from the neighbors. With twenty beds in each church, eighty beds in total, the effort clearly does not solve the problem of unsheltered homelessness in severe weather, but it helps—and, perhaps more importantly, as an example of something that worked well, the number of participating churches could expand.
Of 227 local churches contacted:
…almost every church said they were interested in supporting the effort. But many expressed concern about potential liability, damage to their buildings and other things that could go wrong.
The biggest hurdle, Edmondson says, was fear.
Perhaps the current successful trial run of four churches and eighty beds will allay some of the fear Edmondson identifies and free up some other churches to come on board. This cooperation of the current four is an example of the kind of Christian spirit I was brought up to believe in. It focuses on caring for one’s fellow humans, the teachings of Jesus as expressed in the canonical Gospels, rather than dwelling on preparing oneself for the End Times based in the imagery of the Book of Revelation—as so many modern mega-churches seem to do. One hopes that such Christ-based cooperation of these original four churches will spread by example.
I’ve met and talked with, and count as friends. the majority of the people quoted in Nate Sanford’s article. Among those who have volunteered to take a short shift (with a Jewels staffer) at one of the church warming centers, all describe it as a very positive experience. Here’s a link to a five minute videodescribing the experience and how to sign up or help out in other ways.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Sadly, there certainly are pastors and churches in the wider Spokane community that seem unlikely to come on board. See “Can Brian Noble Hear Himself?”.
Over our recent days of sub-zero temperatures I heard rumors (at this time unconfirmed) that two members of the homeless community in Spokane died of exposure. That is two too many, but it might have been a lot worse. Keeping people from dying of exposure a low bar for a country as well off as the United States, but it’s where we’re at. Many living on the streets in Spokane found shelter thanks to the efforts and leadership of many people of goodwill who stepped up to donate or as volunteers to help those left abandoned by society and circumstance. The City of Spokane under the leadership of newly installed Mayor Lisa Brown facilitated the reopening of the Cannon Street Shelter under management by Compassionate Addiction Treatment, expanded the short-term capacity of the TRAC Shelter, and provided material help and cooperation whenever and wherever it could—in spite of being in office only two weeks. And:
“In addition to responding to this emergency, we are taking notes about the inadequacies that we want to reform,” Brown said to City Council members and assembled city officials Monday [January 8th].
Thanks to those words and efforts I feel a lot better about the moral conscience of my city than I did under then Mayor Woodward’s: “I think we need to get to the point where we’re working to make homelessness less comfortable….”
Hope House Women’s Shelter, Family Promise Open Doors, and other organizations stepped up their surge capacity.
In an ongoing effort Julie Garcia and her staff of Jewels Helping Hands provided triage, oversight, and hands-on efforts in cooperation with four small local churches to provide shelter and warmth for twenty people each. Thanks to outreach from JHH staff and volunteers, neighbors at each of the four churches assembled a “meal train” to provide supper to those sheltered. (More about the details of this JHH/”Love Spokane”/Spokane Homeless Coalition/Spokane Low Income Housing Coalition initiative in a later post.)
Now as snow falls and temperatures moderate we still have the issue we started out with: there are a growing number of our citizens who are homeless, either sheltered or unsheltered. Part of the years-long multi-faceted effort to stem the tide of those rendered homeless is the Annual Spokane Homeless Connect to be held this year on Thursday, January 25th, a week from tomorrow, from 10AM to 3PM at the Spokane Convention and Expo Center at 220 West Spokane Falls Boulevard downtown. It is fascinating to attend and even more satisfying, educational, and eye-opening to volunteer—and volunteers are still needed. Please read the news release republished below, check out the link SpokaneConnect.org/and sign up to volunteer. You won’t regret it.
Keep to the high ground, Jerry
The 12th Annual Spokane Homeless Connect is scheduled for Thursday, January 25th, 2024, from 10AM to 3PM at the Spokane Convention & Expo Center, 220 West Spokane Falls Boulevard in downtown Spokane. The annual Spokane Homeless Connect, which will enter its 12th year this January, is the largest and longest-running homeless services event in Spokane. The annual event is designed to offer as many different services as possible under one roof. How does a community event of this magnitude operate? On Volunteer Power!
“We’ll need over 100 volunteers at this year’s Connect,” said David Stone, the Homeless Connect’s Volunteer Coordinator. “Each year’s Connect runs smoothly because of community volunteers who show up and put in time serving and assisting our guests. It’s mainly light work answering questions, giving directions, and helping guests find what they need. We love it when church groups or community service groups sign their people up and get involved.”
What Volunteers Have To Say . . .
· “Before volunteering for this event, I had no idea how many agencies there were assisting this population. It was great to see so much help available.”
· “As a volunteer escort, I assisted guests in finding the resources they wanted in the vast convention center. All of the guests were so appreciative and grateful for all of the services they were able to access.”
· “This was such a great event to be a part of! It made me proud of my city that there were so many generous people helping. And gave me some confidence that we can address the issue of homelessness.”
According to Kari Stevens, Chair of the Connect Planning Committee, volunteers form the core of the Spokane Homeless Connect. For the past 12 years, the Connect has been organized and operated by a Planning Committee made up of volunteers who meet months in advance to plan each year’s event. Each committee member donates their time and expertise to make each year’s event a success. This equates to thousands of volunteer hours and is an amazing reflection of our community’s desire to address critical issues like homelessness.
“Community engagement is the obvious answer to how we effectively address homelessness in Spokane,” said Stevens. “Every year, volunteers from local homeless service providers team up with government agencies, faith communities, non-profits, grassroots service groups, local businesses, and private individuals to provide as many services as possible in one place and on one day,” said Stevens. “The goal is to remove barriers and create change for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. It really is a beautiful sight, and it brings our community together so we can improve the quality of life for everyone.”