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Home > Local News > Analysis | The Energy 202: Seattle opens clean air centers as worsening wildfires spark concerns about smoky skies – The Washington Post

Analysis | The Energy 202: Seattle opens clean air centers as worsening wildfires spark concerns about smoky skies – The Washington Post


The wildfire smoke has been so bad in the Seattle area in recent years that city officials wanted to give people a respite — a place to breathe freely even as communities brace for another summer of poor air quality.

Seattle’s Democratic Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last month that the city is investing in five facilities to provide clean and cool air for free and for the public if and when wildfires begin to flare on the West Coast in what has become a major environmental problem and health hazard. For this pilot project, recreational facilities and event spaces that had central cooling will be retrofitted to include advanced air filtration systems that could clear out the harmful particles that fill the air when there’s smoke. 

Smoke-filled air has become a regular feature of Seattle summers, as worsening wildfires not only in Washington state but in neighboring Oregon, California and Canada mean smoke drifts and hovers over the city. The fires bring harmful microscopic particles that can be especially dangerous for children, elderly people or people with heart and respiratory conditions. Scientists have pointed to human-driven climate change as a major factor in these worsening blazes — across the West, as conditions get warmer and drier, conditions are ripe for fires to start and to spread. 

Durkan told me that when she became mayor, she recognized clean air centers were part of a “whole range of things we needed to do to be ready for the climate changes we’re experiencing in Seattle.” This is just the latest example of cities and local officials stepping in to address and adapt to the consequences of climate change to fill a void they say has been left by the Trump administration’s inaction — including the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. 

“It points to yet another example of local governments shouldering the burden of climate change because the federal government isn’t,” she said.

Seattle experienced two dozen days between July and September in the past two summers with increased air pollution because of wildfire smoke, according to a city news release. It said last summer, there were four days when the air quality reached a level deemed “unhealthy for all,” compared with two days in 2017. According to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, the most recent outlook predicts above-normal wildland fire potential for July, August and September this year in the northwest part of Washington state, citing warm and dry conditions.

The problem is especially acute in Seattle, where 60 to 70 percent of homes don’t have air conditioning units or indoor air filtration systems, according to the city.

Dan Jaffe, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Washington who will help the city assess the centers’ effectiveness, explained that his home, like most around the city, relies on natural ventilation in the summers. “Usually what I do at night is crank on the fan, which cools it down nicely,” he said. “But if smoke comes, I can’t do that because now I’d be blowing in dirty air.”

While officials hope to eventually expand, the pilot project is starting in commonly used spaces that are in communities that include particularly vulnerable residents, such as low-income populations that can’t access upgraded housing with cooling units or elderly populations who may not be able to leave when the air is unsafe.

Jaffe said the centers are part of broader efforts necessary for climate adaptation — tackling the risks related to climate change’s impacts rather than addressing what actually causes the warming. 

The long-term trend includes “strong wildfires, much larger than normal,” regardless of the predictions for this year. 

“It’s going to get worse. How much worse we don’t know, but we need to adapt,” he told me. “Whether that’s thinking about clean air, cool spaces to go to during the daytime, or whether that means shoring up beaches, or whatever it means, communities across the country need to adapt to climate change.”

Other wildfire-prone cities are considering similar programs. Alan Abbs, legislative officer at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told me his Northern California agency is working with local officials and organizations such as the Red Cross to identify spaces that could be used as clean air centers in a smoke emergency. Like in Seattle, a lot of people in the region don’t have air conditioning in their homes, making it harder to cool down or filter polluted air. Abbs said a team is whittling down a list of hundreds of facilities that have been used as emergency shelters or have HVAC systems that could be updated with advanced filtration.

Abbs said the agency has also sponsored a bill, which has passed the state Assembly and is awaiting action in the state Senate, to provide funding through a grant program to create these kinds of clean air centers statewide. He told me the agency hopes to move forward with centers even if the bill doesn’t pass, but added that “we’re hoping to get the governor’s attention” on the issue.

In Seattle, while the city is footing the bill for the pilot project, Craig Kenworthy, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, said he expects there will be conversations about whether the state can help fund additional centers.

He said people will have to pay for the cost of climate change “one way or another.”

“Either we’re going to have to invest in a lot of public health dollars or we’re going to invest in infrastructure to minimize exposure [to smoke] — If we decided we’re going to have air conditioning everywhere, in every housing unit to reduce exposure, that’s a massive investment,” he said.

He suggested resources could also be spent to rein in climate-warming emissions that can fuel fires, such as with investments in “clean transportation and clean energy sources and all the benefits you get with that rather than trying to figure out how do you make things a little less hellish.”

Durkan said although city governments have stepped in to try to mitigate and adapt to climate change, they can’t fix the issues alone.

“After the federal government said it was withdrawing from the Paris accord, cities across the world said ‘Okay, then cities will step up,’” she said. “Seattle has a whole range of things it’s doing to reverse the effects of climate change … but we have impacts we have to deal with today and those impacts are only going to get worse unless the federal government acts.” 

Note to readers: Dino Grandoni is on vacation and will be back at the helm of this newsletter on Monday, July 15. Meanwhile, we have an all-star lineup of Post writers to keep you up-to-date on all your energy and environmental needs. Thanks for reading.


— “An awakening of interest”: Governors from 22 states and Puerto Rico joined California in releasing a joint statement Tuesday that urged the Trump administration to agree to aggressive gas mileage requirements and to reconsider its move to weaken existing standards, The Post’s Brady Dennis reports. Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, said the call from the governors highlights support for the state as it pushes for stricter emissions standards. “We’ve doubled our support,” Nichols told Dennis. “We’re seeing an awakening of interest on the part of other states that recognize the need for cleaner cars. This is not just about climate change, although that is certainly the major thrust of the regulations we’re fighting to maintain.”

— The White House climate review panel may be dead for now: The effort by the White House to set up a panel to challenge the government’s own findings on climate change has stalled. “The monthslong push from within the National Security Council to review established science on climate change divided White House advisers and generated sharp opposition from researchers across the country,” E&E News reports. “The effort, led by a physicist overseeing technology issues at the NSC, William Happer, stalled indefinitely amid internal disagreements within the White House, according to two sources.” The news comes as the president looks to publicly tout the administration’s environmental record ahead of his reelection bid, including with a speech this week that drew criticism from environmental advocates who say Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t line up with reality.

— “This is an emergency”: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) formally introduced a joint bicameral resolution to call climate change an emergency. The resolution declares that the climate crisis “severely and urgently impacts the economic and social well-bring, health and safety, and national security of the Untied Sates” and “demands a national, social, industrial and economic mobilization of the resources and labor of the United States at a massive scale, to halt reverse, mitigate and prepare for the consequences of the climate emergency and to restore the climate for future generations.”

— He’s running: Billionaire investor and environmental activist Tom Steyer formally announced his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in a four-minute video that outlined his platform to address corporate influence in policies and to combat climate change. “Steyer’s political organizations, Need to Impeach and NextGen America, offer him a grass-roots network on which he will have to lean as he jumps into the race later than most,” The Post’s Chelsea Janes reports. The Post’s Jacqueline Alemany also writes this morning on concerns about why Steyer is investing in a presidential bid rather than on 2020 Senate races.  


  — Qatar inks deal with U.S. companies: Chevron Phillips made a deal with Qatar Petroleum during a White House ceremony to develop an $8 billion plant on the Gulf Coast. “Chevron Phillips hasn’t named the spot for its latest project but said it would have direct access to natural gas from the Permian Basin,” the Houston Chronicle reports. “… It’s the second major project Chevron Phillips has undertaken in the region in the past two years after it recently opened its new ethane cracker in Cedar Bayou. The region is in the midst of a second wave of petrochemical projects as major oil and chemical companies are hoping to further capitalize on the growing supply of natural gas feed stock from Texas.” The agreement was one of the commercial contracts that the Qatari government signed with five U.S. companies, The Post’s Karen DeYoung reports, including with Boeing, General Electric, Raytheon and Gulfstream.


— Man, it’s a hot one: Alaska has been experience stifling conditions — and a historic weekend heat wave in some parts of the state made it official. The state’s average temperature reached its highest-ever level. “Anchorage posted its hottest day on record Thursday, hitting 90 degrees, and then twice matched its previous all-time highest temperature of 85 degrees Sunday and Monday, notching its warmest week on record in the process,” The Post’s Ian Livingston reports. “To top or tie an all-time record three times in five days is practically unheard of.” 

— That’s … a lot of water: If you live in the Washington area, you may have noticed the deluge that poured down Monday morning, leading to the first flash flood emergency declared in the District. The Post’s Jason Samenow and Matthew Cappucci write that 3 billion gallons of water came down in the Washington perimeter alone, with other estimates finding nearly half a trillion gallons of water fell if you include all of Virginia and Maryland. “All that water could also fill the White House — floor to ceiling — 103 times,” they write.

— The season’s second tropical cyclone may be coming: The National Hurricane Center says a tropical depression or storm is expected to form as soon as Wednesday, to be named Barry. “Although odds favor storm development over the Gulf of Mexico, there is a small chance the disturbance remains disorganized and never earns a name. Even if it doesn’t become a depression or storm, one thing is certain: It will rain along the Gulf Coast. A lot,” Brian McNoldy reports for The Post. “As of now, very hefty rainfall totals are forecast along the northern Gulf Coast, and inland throughout Mississippi and especially over Louisiana and eastern Texas. Amounts of at least five inches may be widespread, and more than 10 inches could fall in some areas.”



  • The House Transportation Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on Water Resources Development Acts.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands holds a legislative hearing.

Coming Up

  • The House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds a hearing on glacial and ice sheet melt and climate change on Thursday.


— A wave of quakes: A video shows how mini earthquakes increased in the hours before and through two major earthquakes that struck Southern California last week, The Post’s Morgan Krakow reports