Oil Train Derails in Seattle

Loaded train off the rails under Magnolia Bridge.
This post is 43 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Multiple news accounts reported just now that a loaded oil train derailed under the Magnolia Bridge, about a mile north of downtown Seattle. Joel Connelly’s account here. Many others here. The derailment apparently happened at slow speeds; no fuel spilled and no fire resulted.

Here are some important resources on oil trains:


Global Warming and Monster Wildfires

The fingerprints of climate change are all over "monster" wildfire crime scenes.
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards

This week, the LA Times reported on the wildfire raging in Washington State, describing “tornadoes of fire” engulfing a small town. It’s a scary picture and a bleak reminder that global warming is amplifying certain kinds of destruction here, now, right in our backyard:

The Carlton Complex fire will probably go down as the biggest conflagration in Washington state history, torching about 240,000 acres and counting. Pateros, one of Washington’s littlest towns, was no match for its fury. An estimated 20% of the buildings in the city, population 600 or so, have been destroyed. There is no electricity, no drinking water.

Speaking about the fire, President Obama said, “A lot of it has to do with drought, a lot of it has to do with changing precipitation patterns and a lot of that has to do with climate change.”

Climate change is making for wildfires in the American West that are more severe and more difficult to fight. Some are calling the new climate-fueled wildfires “monster” or “mega” fires. It’s important to put wildfires into context the way Obama has. So, we’re reissuing our talking points on global warming and wildfires.

Read more »

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American Mom and Pops Want Climate Fixes

Poll: American small business owners favor climate action.

American small business owners. When it comes to politics, they’re portrayed as mythic heroes of the American economy, the salt-of-the-earth “mom and pops,” the real job creators, a constituency to be catered to, a force to be reckoned with. Like apple pie. And conventional wisdom would have it that this powerful, Republican-leaning slice of the electorate would fall in with the far-right when it comes to climate attitudes.

But a June 2014 survey of small business owners across the US conducted by the American Sustainable Business Council this month found that the nation’s local, bedrock employers support action on climate change.

And significantly, these views cut across party lines. A plurality of those surveyed (43 percent) self-identified as either Republican or Republican-leaning Independent. These scientific survey results counter the argument that the business community generally resists action on climate change. It found the opposite, with small business owners particularly concerned about climate change’s impact on their bottom line.

The national phone survey of 555 owners of small businesses (2 to 99 employees) found that clear majorities of small business owners are concerned about how climate change will affect their companies, including its impact on energy costs, health care costs and the infrastructure they depend on.

In fact, survey respondents voiced strong support for government action to address climate change, specifically, efforts to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Read more »

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Back to the Future

Modernizing regulation, reimbursement, and care for our teens.
This post is 6 in the series: Teen Pregnancy: Going... Going...

More than 80 percent of teen pregnancies are accidents. A girl with other hopes and dreams—or maybe a girl who is floundering, who hasn’t even begun to explore her hopes and dreams—finds herself unexpectedly slated for either an abortion or 4,000 diapers. Given the shame and stigma surrounding abortion in many American subcultures, that can seem like a choice between the proverbial rock and hard place. The exciting news that launched this Sightline series is that teen pregnancy is in decline across the United States and across all major ethnic groups. Fewer and fewer young women are facing hard decisions after the fact.

All the same, America continues to have the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country, and Canada looks stellar only when compared to the States. Even in Cascadia, which is better off than most regions, several thousand babies are born each year to girls between the ages of 15 and 17, and thousands more to young women aged 18 or 19 (e.g., Oregon 2012, Washington 2012, British Columbia 2010). Across the United States, almost 1,000 infants are born to teens each day. And approximately 30 to 50 percent of teen girls who give birth will experience a rapid repeat pregnancy within 24 months, which multiplies medical complications and the risk of lifelong poverty.

Economic Inequality

Early unplanned childbearing widens the gulf of income inequality. Pregnancy often compels girls to drop out of school, and fewer than 40 percent of those who give birth before graduating go on to complete high school by age 22. In a survey of high school dropouts aged 19–35, only 17 percent held full-time jobs, and half of those employed said they had no opportunity to advance beyond their current position. By age 25, even those who do work full time earn 30 percent less than their peers who completed high school and 60 percent less than college graduates. Their loss of productivity and income has been called a permanent recession.

Racial Justice

Early unplanned childbearing also widens racial disparities. Birthrates for black and Hispanic teens are more than double that of their white peers and quadruple the rate for Asian/Pacific Islanders. Since the birthrate is highest among Latinas, some people assume that early childbearing is simply a cultural norm. But a wide-ranging survey of US Hispanics found that Hispanic parents had other dreams for their daughters, and so did the girls who ended up pregnant. In the words of one advocate, Ruthie Flores, “There’s a big disconnect between pregnancy rates and what Latina families want and value.” Read more »

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Northwest Knows Best?

But Citizens United left us some nasty residue.
This post is 5 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Research by Jane Harvey

Last time, I described Buckley v Valeo, the seminal Supreme Court ruling that teed up Citizens United and that forbids caps on political spending in the United States. In that case, Chief Justice Warren Burger dissented, writing, “What remains after today’s holding leaves no more than a shadow of what Congress contemplated. I question whether the residue leaves a workable program.”

This article documents the residue—the unworkable program that attempts to regulate money in politics—in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. What rules of disclosure, contribution limits, and public funding govern democracy in the Northwest states?


“Sunlight is . . . the best of disinfectants,” said early 20th Century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and disclosure rules of varying stringency cover all of the Northwest. Yet loopholes puncture them, and obfuscation remains widespread. As bad, even when they work, disclosure rules mostly make public long lists of donor names and dollar amounts, leaving voters with little usable information about whom politicians listen to and why. In fact, regular media reports on fundraising totals amp up the fundraising pressure on candidates.

Federal candidates must report the contributions they receive, their expenditures, and other financial information to the Federal Election Commission seven times on specified dates during election years. Donors who give more than $200 must reveal their name, occupation, employer, and address to the campaign, which must report that information. Some independent expenditure campaigns must also disclose contributors and spending. Read more »

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Highest and Best Use…Or Not.

When NOT improving property is highly profitable.
This post is 4 in the series: Love for Land-Value Taxes

­­With the sharp rise in Seattle real estate values over the last several years, you might assume that landowners have been champing at the bit to redevelop some of the low-value, dilapidated properties that they own in and around downtown.

Yet in many cases you’d be wrong. As it turns out, holding onto a crumbling building, and even letting it slowly deteriorate, can be a terrific business proposition. As the surrounding neighborhood develops, growing in value by attracting new residents and businesses, a rundown piece of property can skyrocket in price. Landowners themselves have done nothing to boost the value of the neighborhood; they’re just taking a free ride on the coattails of their neighbors.

The King County Department of Assessments appraises property with the express intent of reflecting property at its “highest and best use,” defined by the Assessment office as:

If improved: Based on neighborhood trends, both demographic and current development patterns, the existing buildings represent the highest and best use of most sites.

We find that the current improvements do add value to the property, in most cases, and are therefore the highest and best use of the property as improved. In those properties where the property is not at its highest and best use, a nominal value of $1,000 is assigned to the improvements.

So based on appraisal data, most assessors seem to assume that downtown properties are put to their “best” use. Yet you can find quite a few properties assigned the default value—a measly $1,000—indicating that the “improvements” on the property are virtually worthless, and would be better replaced with, well, practically anything else. At times, assessors even assign buildings a value of $0, certainly the strongest possible statement that the property is not being put to good economic use.

What does a Seattle property with improvements assessed at $1,000 look like? What about one assessed at $0? Walking through Seattle’s Central Business District, six specific sites stuck out to my eye. Read more »


A Downtown School Just Dropped in Seattle’s Lap

For free (maybe). Will the school district take it on?
This post is 5 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

Andrea Miller’s third-grader has never been to school on May Day. She stays home each year, rather than risk the chance that her school bus will become hopelessly mired in the occasionally violent protests that engulf downtown Seattle streets.

Theoretically, it’s only an 8-minute drive between the Millers’ downtown Seattle apartment and John Hay Elementary, the public elementary school near the top of Queen Anne Hill to which (until recently) most children living downtown were assigned. But the family doesn’t own a car.

If the school calls because her daughter is sick or hurt, it can take anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes for Miller and her two younger children to find a Zipcar or get there on a bus. Her eldest spends an hour and a half on a school bus each day. And that won’t improve much when she starts this fall at Lowell Elementary, the Capitol Hill school to which many downtown families were recently reassigned because of overcrowding at John Hay.

Those tortured logistics are at odds with the very reasons many families live downtown—to shorten commutes, have everyone and everything close by, and actually see more of each other. As Miller put it:

You throw in homework, and family time is pretty much gone Monday through Thursday. It’s also harder for us as parents to be involved in the school.  You can’t say you’ll go volunteer for an hour because you know one hour will be three. I don’t know a lot of the other parents because I’m never on the playground after school, and you just really miss having that sense of community.

That could all change, given an insanely rare opportunity for Seattle Public Schools (SPS) to acquire a 100,000 square foot building in downtown Seattle—for free. Read more »


Weekend Reading 7/18/14

Readers make the best lovers, the 8-minute Comcast plea, and more.
This post is 163 in the series: Weekend Reading


Why readers, scientifically, are the best people to fall in love with.


The Gaza-Israel situation is beyond words. InFocus had a stunning set of photos of the conflict’s impact (warning to the weak of stomach: some are graphic) last week.

“Corrupt, f*****, and broken.” That, essentially, is what Millennials think of their political system. Alternatively (worse?), we are just completely confused. Argument #1,436 for why we need better civic education in this country.

Okay, we actually just need a better public education system and evaluation criteria in general. Here’s a fascinating story of what one Georgia school was reduced to in order to attempt to meet its test score goals.

And now for your Friday cry:

My daughter recently passed away after a long battle in the children’s hospital. Since she was in the hospital her whole life we never were able to get a photo without all her tubes. Can someone remove the tubes from this photo?

That was one Reddit user’s request—and the response was, well…

An interesting addition to the working moms conversation. Though I don’t have kids myself, I remember a number of long babysitting jobs—I know, I know, seriously not comparable to motherhood—that drove energetic, teenage me to a state of exhausted, speechless stupor:

Moms who worked full time reported significantly better physical and mental health than moms who worked part time, research involving more than 2,500 mothers found. And mothers who worked part time reported better health than moms who didn’t work at all.

Read more »

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A Move to Ban the Most Dangerous Oil Trains

Environmental law group petitions regulators to follow safety recommendations.
This post is 42 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Yesterday, EarthJustice announced that it was filing a formal legal petition to compel the Secretary of the US Department of Transportation to issue an Emergency Order within thirty days to ban the use of unsafe legacy DOT-111 tank cars for transporting Bakken and other dangerous crude oils.

In what appears to be a case of “coincidental” timing, industry and federal regulators leaked news the evening before the EarthJustice announcement that they had sketched out an agreement for a three-year (or longer) phase-out of legacy DOT-111s.

The EarthJustice petition references extensive documentation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) going back to the 1990s that identifies severe flaws in the DOT-111 design specifications. The weaknesses are so profound that they make it almost inevitable that the tank cars will spill their contents upon derailment, even at slow speeds. EarthJustice argues that there is an urgent need to ban the legacy tank cars from transporting explosive crude oil. In 2013 alone:

…more than 1.1 million gallons of crude oil spilled in the U.S., more in one year than the total amount spilled from 1975-2012. More than 4,000 people were evacuated from their homes due to crude-by-rail train explosions in 2013, dwarfing the total number evacuated due to pipeline and rail accidents from 2002-2012…

To which industry spokesperson Tom Simpson replied, “[Legacy DOT-111s]are not rolling time bombs. They are not Pintos on rails,” referring to the older model Ford cars known to catch fire in accidents.

In June, Sightline identified a federal Emergency Order as the mechanism most likely to pop the Bakken bubble.

What happens next? According to Earthjustice’s FAQ document, the Transportation Department is required to respond to the legal petition, either by issuing the requested Emergency Order, issuing some alternative order, or denying it. If the administration fails to take appropriate action promptly, EarthJustice promises to turn to the courts to force DOT to act.

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5 Elements of Good Stories—5 Deadly Sins

How to win (or lose) the "Story Wars" (Part I).
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards
Photo Credit: susivinh via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: susivinh via Compfight cc

Story Wars? That’s right. Sometimes today’s fast-paced, 24-hour, digital media landscape can indeed seem like a battlefield. Every time we lob a new message into the fray, we hope it’ll win hearts and minds, but we aren’t surprised when it “bombs.”

Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future, says that either our stories inspire participation and evangelism by audiences or they wither.

Sachs makes the case that the storyteller who will “rule the future” must begin to see herself as a modern-day myth-maker—someone who sees gaps in the stories we’ve been telling ourselves and fills them, creating new meaning and rituals and encouraging her audiences on their path to fulfillment.

He knows what he’s talking about. He’s the brain behind some of the most popular, viral, for-good-not-just-profit messages of our time, including Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, The Meatrix, Grocery Store Wars and many others. He’s a co-founder and CEO of Free Range Studios.

The book came out in 2012 and I’ve been meaning to write about it every since. I’ll be issuing a series of Flashcards that sum up the key lessons. (I also recommend reading the book and checking out the resources at winningthestorywars.com)

Let’s start with the basics—five elements of winning stories and five pitfalls to avoid (Sachs calls them the Deadly Sins!).

5 Elements of Good Stories—5 Deadly Sins

Your story should be…1) Tangible—It’s like we can touch and see your ideas.
2) Relatable—
Good behavior is rewarded and bad is punished. Our values are reinforced.
3) Immersive—We can imagine ourselves in the story. 4) Memorable—Paint vivid “pictures in our minds.” 5) Emotional—Facts and data aren’t enough; you make us feel something.

Don’t default to…1) Vanity—It’s about you, not your audience. 2) Authority—Spewing facts without saying why it matters. 3) Puffery—Commands, not inspiration to act, join, or engage. 4) Insincerity—Telling us what we want to hear, not expanding our thinking.
5) Gimmickry—Going for quick laughs and missing meaningful connections.

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