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Digital ‘cloud’ clouds town’s skies

The rural, small farming town of Quincy, just East of the Cascades and Columbia River, has been transformed with six data centers locating there to access cheap hydroelectric power, ground water to cool the servers and lax air quality regulations.

Patty Martin
Patty Martin receives Environmental Justice Award from Sierra Club and CELP.

Patty Martin, who was mayor from late 1993 to 1997, said they may have expected little opposition from a community of 6,000 with a population that is 74 percent Latino.

 As mayor, she had become an environmental activist who challenged corporations that dumped toxic waste into fertilizer that was used in area farms. When she learned about the environmental footprint of the data centers, she went into action to do research and to protect her community.

Now, rather than looking across the cemetery outside her window at the 75 acres of a farm field, she sees 600 yards away Microsoft’s 500,000-square-foot concrete data center, a digital warehouse with rows and racks of servers, built in 2007.

Dell, Yahoo, Sabey, Intuit and Vantage have also located data centers in Quincy, which expanded its urban growth areas into fields that once grew beans, potatoes, apples, cherries, alfalfa and wheat.

These data centers are among three million of varying sizes spread across the world, according to a report, “Power, Pollution and the Internet,” published Sept. 22, 2012, in The New York Times.

The digital “cloud” that stores and transmits information for emails, websites, social media, online banking, online shopping, the virtual world and business operations has a physical footprint in Quincy.

In addition to gobbling up land, energy and water, emissions from backup diesel generators are a concern to area residents, especially when inversions trap pollution in the valley, she said. 

Just as Patty spent time researching the toxics in fertilizers, she has spent the last two years learning about the data centers and raising challenges in court and at hearings, giving workshops and doing exhibits to educate people.

She organized Safe Food and Fertilizers to address that issue, and she and Danna Dal Porto a retired teacher, formed Microsoft Yes, Toxic Air Pollution No, (MYTAPN), which has challenged permits that have not required the data centers to install pollution controls.

Patty said that when the Department of Energy in Washington granted Microsoft permits for new backup generators in October 2010, MYTAPN appealed the decision to the state’s Pollution Control Hearings Board. After a two-day hearing in February 2012,  the board upheld  Microsoft’s permit, amending it to include that Microsoft must inform administrators in the nearby elementary school when it test the generators.  MYTAPN has appealed to Superior Court, but because she is not an attorney and had not been named a party in the appeal, the case was not admitted.  Patty has intervened in the remaining cases and is now a party in the remaining appeals.

For her witness and courage to protect the environment, the Upper Columbia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy presented her with the 2013 Environmental Justice Award at their recent Winter Waters event in Spokane.

“Who would think that a woman standing up for the health and environment of her community would be met with unpopularity, rather than gratitude,” said Rusty Nelson, retired director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, who presented the award.  “When she stood up against corporations putting hazardous waste in fertilizers, the state stood with the polluters.  Patty has been a conscience for the state and her community.

“Now as high-tech corporations use energy, raising energy costs, and degrade small town life, Patty has exposed the dirty part of the cloud, shining light on corporate indifference to protecting the air, soil and water,” he said.

While referring to the industry as “the cloud” gives the impression that it may be “green,” saving use of paper, Patty has found that the data centers in Quincy use enough electricity to power more than 400,000 homes and each one uses “incredible amounts”—500,000 gallons per day—of ground water for cooling. 

Microsoft is permitted for 37 locomotive-sized diesel generators.  Dell has a permit for 28.  Yahoo has 23.  Intuit has nine.  Sabey will have 44 generators that are 3,200 horsepower.  Vantage will have 17.

“Only Vantage uses filters to reduce 90 percent of the emissions,” she said.  “The rest just build taller smokestacks.”

There will be a total of 158 diesel generators within one-and-a-half miles of each other, with some as large as 4,400 hp.  In contrast, Patty said she has been told that the generators at five data centers in Spokane have 625 hp engines because of stricter air quality regulations.  With five centers in Wenatchee and six in Quincy, there are 56 in Washington—

“The cloud produces a diesel cloud,” said Patty.  “Diesel exhaust and particulates are known carcinogens.

Diesel is toxic, emitting black carbon, which has a global warming potential 4,500 times that of carbon dioxide on a per gram emitted basis,” she said.  “Diesel particulates are seven and a half times more toxic than the combined toxicity of all 188 federally regulated hazardous pollutants.  The DOE tells me the pollutants will ‘blow away’.”

However, with so many diesel generators in such a small area, the data centers have to coordinate monthly testing so they do not exceed air quality standards, she said.

After moving from California to Canada in the military service, Patty’s father settled with his family of seven children in Quincy, where he worked with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, dealing with land and water rights.

Patty earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Gonzaga University, planning to study medicine.  At a food processing plant in Oregon, she met her husband.  They lived in Alaska for three years and then Hermiston before moving back to Quincy in 1987, where they raised their four children. 

Patty worked as the Community, Activities, Recreation and Education (Q-CARE) coordinator and started a recycling, adult literacy and after-school latchkey program.  After the  birth of her fourth child, she left that position and started an all-volunteer first-grade tutoring program. 

In the early 1990s, Patty learned of farmers having low yields, cancer in a cowherd and people developing rare diseases. Several farmers went bankrupt. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to investigate and found toxic chemicals like cadmium, beryllium, chromium, titanium, lead and arsenic and other metals.

A series of articles in The Seattle Times, “Fear in the Fields” reported on hazardous waste—from nuclear fuel processing, steel mill flue dust, mining waste, coal-fired power plants and film processing—being “recycled” in fertilizer, because it contained nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium. zinc, copper, cobalt, magnesium, calcium or other micronutrients.

Based on his investigative reports for The Seattle Times, Duff Wilson wrote the book Fateful Harvest: The true story of a small town, a global industry, and a toxic secret, published in 2001.

Under a federal loophole, U.S. industries saved millions by sending toxic waste to fertilizer makers who sold their product to farmers without disclosing what was in it, said the reports.

Washington State became the first to require fertilizer companies provide detailed chemical analyses of their products, Patty said.  The effort has influenced national policies on hazardous waste recycling.

Now she focuses her activism on “the cloud,” referring people to the 2012 New York Times article that covers the issue in detail.

She has asked state air quality managers why laws do not protect Quincy’s air quality.

While such data centers elsewhere in the state must keep emissions less than would cause 10 cancers per million, the “acceptable” cancer rate for Quincy was raised to 100 cancers per million, Patty said.

“The state also granted data centers millions of dollars worth of tax incentives to build in Quincy’s urban growth area, requiring only that each create 35 full-time jobs,” she said.  “Instead, the plants could have added $.5 billion to the state treasury.”

With construction workers coming from elsewhere, “there’s an illusion that Quincy is booming, because hotels are full and restaurants are busy,” she said. 

“Communities like Quincy are ripe for abuse.  People are disenfranchised and will not likely complain.  Many distrust government,” Patty said.

“People do not understand the cloud nor the amount of energy and water it uses,” she said.

Patty said that Microsoft has said they intend to stop using diesel engines for backup power and will replace them with hydrogen cells by 2020, but that technology may or may not be commercially available by then.

“I don’t store anything on the cloud.  I delete my email,” she said.  “I suggest others clear their email, photos, Facebook and other storage on the cloud so there is less demand.

“I believe Christians should put Christian values into practice, caring about the least among us, working to narrow the gap between the haves and have nots, challenging crimes against property, and treating people with respect and dignity,” said Patty, who grew up Catholic and active in the community.

“What I learned at home and at Gonzaga University influences my commitment to serve others,” said Patty.  “I practice my faith in my life.”

When she challenged the toxics in fertilizer, she found opposition from some people in local churches.

“I chose to run for office to make a difference.  Apathy is not my style.  When something is wrong, I try to make it right,” she affirmed.

Patty would like an environmental justice law that would “require notification of and outreach into communities, so that all members of a community can participate, regardless of language, and so that all communities are treated equally under the law, regardless of race, color, country of origin or income level.”

“I can’t be too disillusioned, because I’m still fighting.  Democracy is participatory and needs local people involved,” she said.  “I can’t imagine not working for justice.”

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Copyright © March 2013 - The Fig Tree