Earthquake Catalyzes Sustainable Development

The Seattle Fault earthquake that occurred ten years ago allowed King County to experience a fresh start for development. Residents and stakeholders chose to rebuild in a way that was sustainable in the long run. This goal was accomplished largely because sustainable development was favored in recovery plans and by much of the public before the earthquake.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

Working to implement sustainable develop concepts in the recovery had the drawback of causing discontent for those who wanted to rebuild in a faster and more predictable manner. Despite the longer time needed for most projects, the county has succeeded in reaching sustainable development goals, such as energy conservation, within ten years post earthquake.

With the aftermath of the Seattle Fault earthquake came a large amount of debris from destroyed structures. The disaster debris consisted of various types of building materials, appliances, equipment, and industrial waste. This posed several dilemmas regarding the legal, safe, and ethical management of the debris.

King County Officials, along with the EPA and Washington State Department of Ecology, decided to reuse as much of the debris as possible. One form of reuse was using the material for building reconstruction. Other cases included selling the material to construction material suppliers or directly to consumers outside of the county. In those cases, the county was able to use the funds to fund recycling efforts and other sustainable waste management efforts.

The debris was sorted based upon its potential for use. Debris sorting had the side benefit of creating waste management technician jobs. This job creation was an unexpected boost to the King County economy, which lasted several years because of the size of the task.

There were many sorting locations throughout the county. Shortly after the earthquake every few blocks contained a debris pile, but time allowed for the material to become better consolidated. Through a public-private partnership, King County and their partners were able to sell the reclaimed material back to consumers at a lower price than retail while appealing to consumers’ desire for sustainable products.

The amount of debris generated from the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquakes of 2011 was remarkably comparable to the debris generated from the Seattle fault quake. In New Zealand, they implemented an expansive debris cleanup and recycling program that promoted the reuse and utilization of the debris and material scattered across the region.

Examples of sorting, recycling and reusing household and industrial items like doors, windows, toilets, and repurposed concrete, bricks and masonry material was extensive and spanned across the region. Hundreds of thousands of tons of damaged concrete was crushed and used among other inert debris for fill.

Given the extensive liquefaction and land subsidence of the region, this recycled fill was used for rebuilding ports and abandoned basements throughout the greater Christchurch region. In addition, plasterboard from structures was repurposed as a soil application to obtain adequate pH levels for agricultural production. The list of the repurposing and recycled material from Christchurch is extensive and despite the devastation has exemplified the benefits of utilizing what some consider as waste material.

The County did run into some difficulty with the disposal of certain materials, such as washing machines and other (what are called) white goods. White goods required cleaning and approval before they could be used again or even disposed. So the return on investment for reclaiming these types of debris wasrelatively small. The goal of sustainability and goal of reusing as much of the as possible made the benefits still out weight the costs

Before the earthquake, several segments of the population, as well as businesses and experts, in King County favored sustainable development. King County Office of Emergency Management realized this in the recovery planning they did before the earthquake. KCOEM saw real benefit in facilitating building back more sustainably.

This type of debris reuse and sustainably building can be exhibited in Japan. The tsunami and subsequent earthquake generated much more debris than the Seattle fault quake. Japan’s utilization and repurposing of the debris exemplified multiple innovative projects that can be done.

In particular, Japan has begun to collect the biogas that has been created from the decomposing organic materials within the rubble and debris left behind the disastrous events. They are producing gas and electricity in the order of tens of megawatts and have the capacity to produce more as additional funds and infrastructure is built.

Shortly after the earthquake occurred the County saw the immediate need to implement sustainability ratings for structures that were soon going to be rebuilt. After working with organizations such as the Cascade Green Building Council, the County released sustainability ratings for new and repaired structures. These ratings include criteria for energy conservation and material usage. Based on this work, the County also adopted specific regulation that set minimal requirements for new buildings to use less energy and more recycled materials.

Heath Saimons, the executive director of the King County Sustainable Development Agency (KCSDA), says that these ratings have completely changed the direction of King County.

“By giving individuals guidelines for how to build their home, we created a new status quo for the County. It is now normal to have multiple skylights or large windows in your home, or to use all LED light bulbs. We as a County now have the most amount of residential solar panel usage per capita.”

Saimons notes that the County could have taken a completely different direction after the earthquake but is very glad that the new ratings were adopted.

“I can’t imagine how much worse off we would be if we didn’t have these ratings. Other counties in the country are coming to us for guidance on how to implement sustainable development. That’s something to be proud of.”

Saimons also notes that the ratings couldn’t be near as effective as they are without the support from King County residents and area businesses. Early on in the process the County held public meetings to gather input from community members. This input helped shape the guidelines themselves, as well as the work necessary to inform the community of them.

Rose Kilgore, a resident in Fall City, says that she was very pleased with the County’s decision to assist in building back sustainably. She worked with the County as a volunteer and worked directly with families who rebuilt their homes.

“Sometimes these ratings can be hard to understand for someone who hasn’t heard of or seen them before. I assisted homeowners in understanding and developing plans around the guidelines for their homes.”

Kilgore has been working with communities since the first year of the ratings’ implementation—one year after the earthquake. Her degree in Urban Planning and Sustainability from Western Washington University gave her the technical knowledge and helped her to facilitate community groups.

“I found that a lot of homeowners are really open to the idea of building back in a way that impacts the environmental less. It makes me wonder why this type of action wasn’t taken earlier.”

The sustainable development movement in King County had its fair share of opposition amongst citizens, organizations, and businesses. The process of building back sustainably and reusing materials was or at least was seen as being slower. The mandate to reuse old material meant that building owners had to wait for the material to be sorted and approved before they could receive some items that they needed.

Hardware stores in King County often protested the disaster debris recycle mandate because it took away from their business. Steve Miller owns a local hardware store in Issaquah. His business has had a difficult time ever since the earthquake because of the debris reuse requirements.

“There are certain items that I’ve had in stock for over 10 years because people basically aren’t allowed to buy them from me or at least don’t have much incentive to,” he said. “They instead have to wait months, even years, when I have the items right here in stock. I don’t see why I have to suffer from these rules when the County is benefitting.”

Business owners are not the only ones to suffer impositions from these recycle mandates. Some homeowners feel they experienced decreases in values of their homes because of the recycled materials in them. Jackson Kolb, a homeowner in Bellevue, refuses to include disaster debris into his home.

“Each day I try to forget the pain that that earthquake has caused. I don’t want my place of refuge to be filled with reminders of mortality, pain, and sorrow. I just can’t do it.”

The new mandate required enforcement, was and continues to be difficult. There has also been difficultly controlling the quality of the materials that were reclaimed. Some quality control problems even led to lawsuits from individual homeowners towards the county in the years after the earthquake.

But Saimons says these examples only represent a small minority of the amount of building owners.

“King County worked alongside the Master Builders Association to make sure that homeowners receive the materials and expertise that he or she needs. We have received positive responses about this program from many organizations, agencies, departments, communities and individuals.”

The success of these recycling and energy conservation movements has inspired similar initiatives for non-disaster construction.

The King County Sustainable Development Agency has plans to develop sustainability measures for new construction to be implemented within the next two years. These measures will push the developers to use fewer resources and create an even greener King County.

“It’s definitely possible,” says Saimons. “We can absolutely do much more for sustainability than we are now. With these new measurements comes new frontiers in education about sustainability. We hope that this mindset will be a part of every young person in King County, and from that, spread outward.”