Tag: climate change

Sweltering Temperatures and Minimal Preparation Left Washington State Prisoners Struggling to Cope with Heat

Entrance to the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Credit: Washington Department of Corrections)

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday morning, Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) staff covered part of a window at the entrance of the Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County in an attempt to lower the heat inside on a day when outside temperatures peaked at 82 degrees.

But people incarcerated in the TRU say they spent the worst of the past week’s heat wave—including a high of 111 degrees in Monroe on Monday—in sweltering cells with no air conditioning and few chances to cool down, while prison staff had access to air-conditioned offices when temperatures rose into the triple digits.

The newly covered window, they said, was too little, too late. But few of those living in the unit are confident that prison administrators are planning ahead for another heat wave. “These are only going to get more common,” said David, a prisoner in the TRU who spoke with PubliCola on Wednesday. “And it’s pretty clear that [the DOC] won’t be prepared for the next one.” (PubliCola is using David’s first name only to reduce the risk of retaliation).

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According to DOC Communications Director Jacque Coe, only a handful of units in the state’s nine prisons west of the Cascades have air conditioning systems. All units in the three state prisons east of the Cascades are air-conditioned.

The temperature control systems in other units in western Washington vary from prison to prison, and even from unit to unit. At the Monroe complex, only the two units reserved for inmates with severe mental illnesses have air conditioning.

But the TRU—a unit that houses over 800 people, including some who are elderly or have chronic illnesses—is only outfitted with vents that pump air from the unit’s roof into common spaces and cells, as well as a pair of ceiling fans on both floors of the unit.

“When it got well into the triple digits,” David said, “all that system did was pump in hot air.” David, who suffers from a heart condition, added that he spent the weekend struggling to breathe and battling dizzy spells.

Another person incarcerated in the unit told PubliCola that temperatures in the TRU’s common areas rose above 100 degrees, in part because prison staff didn’t cover the skylights in the prison’s community room. In the cells on the second floor, residents claimed that temperatures reached over 110 degrees.

With indoor temperatures climbing, people living in the TRU struggled to find relief. DOC administrators loosened a handful of rules: Inmates were allowed to partially cover their cell windows and wear wet towels, and guards allowed people to spend up to an hour in two air-conditioned cafeterias before sending them back to their cells. (A kitchen was also available as a cooling station). On the prison yard, staff set up ‘misting stations’—small tents outfitted with sprinklers—where people could briefly find shade during their recreation time in the early afternoon.

But David and two other men incarcerated at the TRU said prison administrators could have done far more to keep prisoners healthy during the heat wave. One prisoner told his wife in an email that prison staff didn’t lower the temperature of the unit’s “scalding hot” showers to serve as a cooling station; instead, many of the men went without showers over the weekend. Others who spoke to PubliCola said guards restricted their access to the unit’s ice machine. Continue reading “Sweltering Temperatures and Minimal Preparation Left Washington State Prisoners Struggling to Cope with Heat”

A Ban on Natural Gas, a High-Security City Picnic, and More City Hall Departures

Gas, Fire, Hot, Cooking, Hotplate, Burner, Gas Stove
Verboten? O’Brien to propose ban on new gas hookups; image via Pixabay

1. Last Wednesday, at the direction of new Seattle Department of Human Resources Director Bobby Humes, several high-ranking staffers at the department were reportedly told to pack their bags and leave the building—a departure from the Durkan Administration’s more common practice of giving city staffers the opportunity to “resign” and stick around for a couple of weeks. I have calls out to the HR department for more information about the departures.

The three staffers reportedly included deputy director Laura Southard, who was closely associated with former director Susan Coskey and former interim director Sue McNab, and Deborah Jaquith, SDHR’s public information officer. (Southard’s and Jaquith’s outgoing voice mail messages feature the same voice saying they are no longer with the city.)

Crosscut has reported extensively on the department, which is responsible for investigating employee allegations of sexual harassment and other complaints. After Coskey resigned in 2017, Durkan appointed a succession of interim directors, including McNab, who withdrew her name from consideration for the permanent position after an internal investigation found she worked outside the city for two of her seven months in office, as Crosscut also reported.

Humes, the former HR director for the city’s parks department, was sworn in last month.

2. Amid turmoil at the city’s Human Services Department (the homelessness division is being dissolved as part of the merger into a new joint county-city public development authority overseeing homelessness, and many employees expect to lose their jobs in the process), HSD deputy director Audrey Buehring informed employees yesterday that the department had hired security guards to patrol the annual departmental picnic.

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“Because we value the safety of our employees, HSD has decided to hire security personnel to be at our event. There have been no reports of any specific safety issues; this is just to offer reassurance to you and your guests and to visibly deter any trespassers. Security personnel will be identifiable, so if you have any concerns or see anything that could pose a threat to our safety, be sure to report them immediately to security personnel,” Buehring wrote.

Asked for further details about the decision to hire security, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding responded, “There have been no reports of any specific safety issues; this is just to offer reassurance to our staff and their guests and to visibly deter any trespassers.” OK then!

The theme of this year’s HSD “Summer Jam,” by the way, was “’90s.”

3. City council member Mike O’Brien plans to introduce legislation that will, among other things, ban natural gas hookups in new buildings, another step (along with Durkan’s proposed tax on heating oil, which is designed to get homeowners to convert to cleaner energy sources by 2028) toward the city’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2050. Few details were available about the proposal, which O’Brien will introduce on Tuesday; a spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, which provides natural gas to more than 800,000 customers (many of them in Seattle) said the company had not seen O’Brien’s legislation yet. “Natural gas is critical to providing our customers with the safe, clean, affordable, and reliable energy they expect,” the spokesman, Andrew Padula, said.

4. An internal HSD email indicates that Mayor Durkan’s 2020 budget will include a 2.6 percent pay increase for front-line human service workers who work for city contractors, an increase from last year’s hotly contested 2 percent “inflationary” hike.

Last year, Durkan initially proposed a 2 percent increase just for workers funded through the city’s general fund. When council members, including Teresa Mosqueda, proposed paying for the raises with funding the mayor had added to expand the Navigation Team, Durkan initially characterized the move as a “cut” to critical services. (The Nav Team expansion had been funded with one-time dollars, but—as is often the case with such “temporary” programs—the expansion became permanent.)

Ultimately, the council found the money and the Navigation Team expansion stuck. HSD hasn’t yet confirmed the 2.6 percent increase (I sent requests for more information to the agency and the mayor’s office on Wednesday, and will update this post if I hear back), but it will be welcome news to human service workers, who often make just above minimum wage.

The City Council Just Called for a Green New Deal. Here’s What’s Next.

Wastewater tanks at fracking site, via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Alec Connon, an organizer with 350 Seattle, a group that has instrumental in pushing for a local Green New Deal for Seattle.

The Seattle City Council just passed a resolution calling for a transformational Green New Deal that will eliminate our city’s climate pollution by 2030, address current and historical injustices, and create thousands of jobs. So — what now? Does that mean we’ve solved even our portion of the global climate crisis? Hardly.

It does mean that the current City Council recognizes that we are in the midst of a global emergency that requires unprecedented action across all levels of government. It does mean that the City Council has recognized that unless we act Seattle greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, as they have in recent years. And it does mean that our city may be poised to finally do much more on climate.

The City Council should begin implementing a Green New Deal for Seattle by ensuring that we’re not making the problem even worse than it already is. We can do that by passing common sense legislation that will ensure all new buildings in Seattle get their heating from renewable sources, and not climate-destroying fossil fuels, such as fracked gas. (Seattle’s natural gas provider, Puget Sound Energy, is heavily dependent on fracking.)

Last month, the City of Berkeley passed a first-in-the-nation policy that has been widely heralded as an innovative way to protect the health and safety of its residents. The Berkeley ordinance ensures that all new residential and commercial buildings receive their heating and power sources from electricity, and not fossil fuels.

The Seattle City Council just unanimously passed a resolution calling for a transformational Green New Deal for Seattle. The first step to making that a reality is to stop making the problem worse.

It’s a common-sense policy for a number of reasons. 

The use of natural gas in our buildings causes asthma and other respiratory health issues. Half of residences that use gas for cooking with no range hood have indoor air pollution levels that exceed EPA pollution standards for outdoor air. This fact is doubly startling when you consider that air pollution kills an estimated 8.8 million people around the world every year — more than war, terrorism, and malaria combined.

In addition to threatening our health, gas in our homes threatens us with death by fireball. Gas pipelines connected to our homes explode and endanger communities. Remember that explosion that decimated several Greenwood businesses a couple of years back? That was a gas pipeline. It also wasn’t unusual. Gas pipelines explode with alarming frequency. The last deadly gas pipeline in the explosion in the U.S at the time of writing? Eleven days ago. This is of additional consequence for cities like Seattle that sit atop earthquake zones. Should “the big one” hit Seattle one thing we can be assured of is that gas pipelines will explode. Unless, of course, there aren’t any. Continue reading “The City Council Just Called for a Green New Deal. Here’s What’s Next.”

Electric Vehicle Owners Will Soon Be Able to Charge Curbside

This post originally appeared on Seattle Magazine’s website.

Earlier this month, Mayor Jenny Durkan officially opened a 156-station charging facility for the city’s fleet of electric vehicles— “the first of its kind for an American city and one of one of the largest indoor electric vehicle charging stations in the country,” according to the press release.

But the development that will have a more significant impact for ordinary drivers, the city hopes, is a program called Electric Vehicle Charging in the Right-of-Way—EVCROW, for short(ish).

Part of a larger plan to get 30 percent of the city’s car owners to switch to electric vehicles by 2030, the EVCROW pilot will set aside dozens of curbside parking spots throughout the city for use EV drivers in 2018, with the goal of expanding the program if the pilot is successful.

Durkan unveiled the first iteration of the program earlier this month—two charging stations operated by Seattle City Light, the first in a network that will eventually include 20 stations across the city—but EVCROW’s real potential may be in the private sector. At least two private companies are seeking city approval to install potentially dozens of charging stations, which resemble standard gas pumps, in city rights-of-way, alongside parking spots set aside exclusively for electric vehicles.

The German charging station company eluminocity is close to getting city approval for one charging station, with six to eight more sites in the permitting pipeline; Greenlots, a California company, is seeking approval for several dozen charging stations, although the number of stations they actually install will depend on future funding.

The on-street spots will be reserved exclusively for EV owners to use while charging their vehicles, a process that takes between roughly 30 minutes and four hours, depending on the type of charger. That will take some of Seattle’s on-street parking out of commission for people who drive gas-powered cars.

Chris Bast, climate and transportation policy advisor at the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, says the program will be restricted primarily to designated urban villages and urban centers—relatively dense, transit-rich areas along major arterial streets— to “help encourage electrification of high-mileage fleets,” such as car sharing and taxi companies.

The on-street spots will be reserved exclusively for EV owners to use while charging their vehicles, a process that takes between roughly 30 minutes and four hours, depending on the type of charger. That will take some of Seattle’s on-street parking out of commission for people who drive gas-powered cars.

Bast acknowledges that reserved parking for EV users could be perceived as a class issue—a new Nissan Leaf starts at about $30,000, out of range for low- and moderate-income drivers—but notes that the program is open to all EV cars, although Tesla, which has a proprietary charging system, could not install its chargers in the right-of-way under the new program.

In theory, as EVs become cheaper (and used EVs become more widely available), the stations could see more use from people without high incomes. Tesla, Bast notes, has put its own, proprietary charging stations mostly in small towns along major highways, and has yet to expand much into urban areas.

One thing Bast says the city won’t do in its quest to encourage EV use is allow private homeowners to install their own parking stations in the parking strips in front of their property, which is owned by the city. “You maintain it, but we don’t let you put a hot tub there. We can’t allow you that exclusive use, just like we can’t guarantee you the parking space in front of your house.”

Almost half the climate-changing carbon emissions in Seattle come from passenger vehicles—a higher percentage than most parts of the country, because Seattle City Light’s electricity comes from zero-emission hydropower.

“We need to reduce pollution in our transportation sector, and electrification across our whole system is the best way to do that,” Bast says. “Every gas vehicle we exchange for an electric vehicle is a 100 percent [emissions] reduction.”

That said, every car added to Seattle streets contributes to traffic congestion and sprawl, making public transportation (especially electric public transit) a greener option, overall, than driving.