Writings and observations

Washington Senator Maria Cantwell has put some emphasis on her time as an upper-level type at RealNetworks, and there could be something relevatory in that. We have no particular insight into the management at Real, but many leading high-tech companies are led by people who are, to put it simply, difficult to work for or with. A description by a former staffer running in this week’s Seattle Weekly suggests Cantwell picked up the industry’s executive ethos in spades.

The piece was written by a former press staffer, Mike Seely (who has also been a staffer for the Weekly). Its basic point was that critics from the left who have blasted Cantwell for being insufficiently anti-war should bear in mind that the alternative in this year’s election, Republican Mike McGavick, would likely be a loyal vote for Republican President Bush.

By way of establishing bona fides for his position, he makes clear that the reasons for his support for Cantwell – he calls her “a brilliant, driven public servant who rarely lets political expediency enter her sphere of consideration” – didn’t result from personal charm.

“The seven months I spent in her charge felt like seven years,” he wrote. “The campaign, larded with her RealNetworks stock windfall, spent more money on Red Vines than most candidates spend on direct mail. And conspicuous consumption during happy hour became all but a necessity, as it was invariably better to be half in the bag when Cantwell, a paranoid hellcat of a boss who rolls through staff like toilet paper, would make her daily sweep through the office, berating everyone in sight. On the trail, Cantwell often handled small groups of constituents in closed settings well. But she was not what you would call warm—a trait that should be preternatural for politicians of her stature. Her stump speeches were uninspiring and her grace with would-be donors flaccid at best. Most of the people who helped guide her to victory were motivated almost exclusively by their disdain for her opponent . . . Essentially, we worked for Maria in spite of Maria. Yet if you were to ask Cantwell, the only person responsible for her victory over [Slade] Gorton was the person who stared back at her in the bathroom mirror each morning. Her lack of gratitude and common human decency were simply repulsive.”

This election, Cantwell still seems to be massively out-fundraising and spending McGavick and has loads of advantages in what looks like a solidly Democratic year, and yet has maintained only modest leads in the polls that have surfaced. Might Seely’s portrait be touching on some reasons why?

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Building projects that have to go through an environmental impact statement process, and more besides, presumably have a solid track record for safety in place before construction. That still doesn’t mean something ugly can’t slip through.

Put another way, if Washington state Representative Toby Nixon’s concerns about the underway Brightwater sewage treatment plant are even close to on target, some important officials in King and Snohomish counties might one day wish they weren’t in such a hurry to build.

Brightwater schematic

Brightwater is a planned sewage plant planned for the Woodinville area, near the King-Snohomish county line – north of the line, in Snohomish – on the east side. This is fast-growing country, and you can get the concern about planning ahead for it. The plant is basically King’s project, though a few weeks ago the Snohomish County governing board, after some controversy, agreed to a bilateral deal that eases the red tape in pressing forward. Ground was broken in April.

Getting to this point hasn’t been an overnight thing. King county people started work on planning in 2000, and its proposal for siting happened in December 2003. Then there was the EIS and related research work, which as anyone familiar with the process knows is extensive. (The project people even have posted a library on line – that’s their term, and when you see the roster of documents you’ll think the description reasonable.) And there are, by the way, seismic and geologic studies in the pack.

That said, you can always still miss something.

Toby NixonThere is a lawsuit against the project, which the developers seem to dismiss as minor. Maybe less minor are the concerns of a state legislator, Nixon, R-Kirkland, who is no crank and brings some specifics to the table. In a guest opinion in the Woodinville Weekly, he has some potent warnings:

Brightwater is wedged between major branches of the South Whidbey Island Fault, on a site prone to liquefaction. Other potential plant sites were rejected because of proximity to faults that were much farther away.

King County did seismic trenching to confirm the fault location at the north end of Brightwater, and moved structures south as a result. However, it has refused to trench the potential fault to the south. Why is that?

Because the county knows that if that fault were confirmed, it would become illegal to build Brightwater on that site.

International Building Codes, now state law, don’t permit any structure, including sewage tunnels, to be built across known surface faults.

The 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, showed why that’s good policy. In that disaster, sewage lines like Brightwater’s ruptured where they crossed a surface fault. The entire contents of Kobe’s sewage system – over 100 million gallons – emptied into Osaka Bay.

If that happened here, where would all the sewage and toxic chemicals go? Directly into the aquifer, polluting it for decades. Erupting to the surface, millions of gallons of raw sewage would devastate Little Bear Creek, flow through downtown Woodinville, down the Sammamish River, and into Lake Washington.

King County claims it can shut off the pumps and stop that from happening. But in a major earthquake, would human operators remember to, or be able to, turn off the pumps and valves?

They also say such an earthquake is unlikely during the plant’s 50-year design lifetime. Are you willing to take that bet?

King County is now determined to make it impossible to find the fault at the south end of the site. Claiming it’s doing “grading,” it’s about to dig a hole 90 feet long, 24 feet wide and 54 feet deep for a conveyance tunnel portal. Such deep soil disturbance would prevent seismic trenching from verifying faults on the site.

Why the rush to dig this hole? When the evidence is unfavorable, bury it.

On one hand, this project doesn’t seem to have been rushed with wild haste. But on the other, Nixon has raised issues that may resonate.

You can easily imagine some of the people in the area posing these questions as the work progresses over the next few years. This questions especially: Is the cost of slowing down a bit and getting these questions answered worth the risk that the concerns are real? Put another way: Can you really be that sure none of us have anything to worry about? And put still another: If the project is sound, why not prove it with solid answers?

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