Post-Quake Environmental Considerations Revitalize Utilities

The damage to vital utility lines done by the quake seemed irrecoverable ten years ago. From fallen power lines to structural damage, utility destruction throughout King County prevented quick and efficient response during the crisis. Residents remember being forced to live without electricity and water, having to adapt to alternative living conditions for a time following the disaster. But community enthusiasm has been restored now that the reconstruction plan has finally been completed, which included many popular environmentally friendly utility improvement projects.

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.

Infrastructure throughout the county suffered large amounts of damage as a result of the seismic activity ten years ago. The vulnerability of the county’s power lines was emphasized after electric services were severed in most areas. Damage to communication towers inhibited contact between loved ones and emergency responders, alike. Natural gas utilities presented huge problems for firefighters, as they broke and threatened the county with further damage from fire (that were luckily sparse and quickly extinguished). Water and wastewater utilities suffered toppled equipment, damage to pump stations, and many broken pipe connections.

Past utility infrastructure shows that an economic interest was put ahead of the long- term goals of providing a sustainable, resilient and long lasting network of utilities in King County. Following the quake, it became necessary to replace outdated infrastructure with long lasting materials in strategic locations. The World Commission on Environment and Development states that, “Recognition of the negative relationship between development and vulnerability, especially as it is mediated through the environment, has produced a strong and growing concern with the defining and pursuing sustainable development, that is, development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Pre- event planning by Resilient King County recognized the importance of sustainable development for utility infrastructure and successfully achieved environmentally friendly rebuilding.

Post earthquake reconstruction of utilities began after agreements were made on many challenging issues regarding the most desired engineering and construction approaches. The first obstacle faced by rebuilding efforts was dealing with city, county and state level regulations that conflicted with reconstruction planning goals. However, collaboration with the Department of Permitting and Environmental Review provided utility companies with right of way use permits, allowing them to abandon and relocate utility infrastructure in smarter locations.

The cost of replacement and improvement to utilities emerged as another difficulty. Disputes occurred regarding whether building back more resilient would be an affordable investment, when replacement costs were already high. The issue of cost triggered conflicting visions for King County reconstruction.

On one end of the spectrum, decision makers wanted to replace some utilities that previously existed to restore functioning as fast as possible. There were others who saw the quake as an opportunity to replace outdated utility infrastructure with new, more sustainable and resilient technologies. Pre-event planning of rebuilding efforts helped to eventually resolve such conflicts and provided opportunity to achieve a vibrant community. For example, new water utilities are built with seismically resilient practices and are run by energy efficient pumps.. Improvements to water utilities have limited the environmental impacts of runoff and have enhanced water quality in the Puget Sound.

Rethinking King County’s utilities has transformed the county into one of the greenest in the United States.

Washington State resident Nick Woods sees the county as, “a model for all counties in the state to increase their efficiency and resilience. The State of Washington, can eventually reduce its environmental footprint by embracing strategies innovated after the earthquake.”

Jill Darnet elaborated that, “through collaborative efforts with local businesses, residents, government officials and numerous other partners, King County’s wastewater system will be more efficient, sustainable, and resilient. Our system is design to accommodate the growth in population and meet environmental objectives to improve Puget Sound water quality.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the achievement of sustainable utilities reconstruction efforts helped the County gain the trust of the community and has sparked a restored pride among residents. The County’s pre-event planning efforts wound up saving the government and contributed to the overall well being of this area.

One popular project involved the use of cogeneration technology to power wastewater utility facilities. Cogeneration is combined heat and power, which is fueled by biomass created from anaerobic digesters at the water treatment plan. The installation of these systems allows wastewater systems to run on power produced on site, independent of electrical grids. This means that pumps and other equipment can continue to function even when electric power is lost. The technology is also cost efficient and decreases the high-energy consumption that was previously needed to powerDeer_Island_MA the site.

As part of the rebuilding process, high efficiency heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems were installed in many facilities. These strategies have greatly reduced energy use. New air conditioners have decreased electricity consumption 30-40%. Heat pumps have reduced electricity use by 20-35%.

Other utilities have also adopted new means of sustainable and resilient design and construction. Puget Sound Energy placed many power lines underground during reconstruction rather than restoring above ground power lines, making them less vulnerable to high winds and severe storms. This has improved King County’s resiliency to hazards but it has also improved the aesthetics of the community and added value to residential areas. This project was popular with the public because of its dual value. New natural gas lines were also installed by PSE, replacing the old and sometimes dangerous components of the original network. This replacement would not have been possible pre-earthquake because of the lack of community support.

Joint efforts among groups provided a multitude of resources that made the ease of reconstruction seamless with very little need for further support. The improvement and replacement to these utility infrastructures was only possible with collaboration between statewide stakeholders. Funding for many reconstruction projects was provided by a combination of governments at all levels. The local and federal government were primary donors, with other larger stakeholders providing additional financial assets.

Government collaboration was also required in the approval of permits to facilitate relocation of systems or the use of new technology. Utility consultants from PSE and the Wastewater Treatment Division contributed to this community restoration by providing the plans and relocation sites, in addition to mapping out specific utility networks.

Advocacy groups, academia and community members were critical contributors to the success in rebuilding green, as well. These local associations provided suggestions and proposed plans in which county officials and the local government took into consideration when making final decisions. Each group played very different roles, but they all collaborated to create a rejuvenated community. The vibrancy of King County was achieved through the dedication that utility and government powers had to addressing the community’s wants and public values.

The success of developing strong social capital and revitalizing community pride upon the completion of new infrastructure in King County was also seen in the reconstruction of New Orleans. While many citizens wanted to rebuild in the same areas, “A new urbanism envisions a smaller but carefully planned cities” (PNAS 2006). Relocations were a crucial aspect to reducing the areas vulnerability to hazard events, but in the end it improved community resilience and esteem, as the infrastructure would be more likely to sustain events in the future.

The collaborative approach to reconstruction helped to manage conflicts and tradeoffs. Tradeoffs about reconstruction time were particularly controversial. Many sustainable and environmentally efficient project designs took longer to accomplish. This forced conversations as to whether speed in replacing utilities was a higher priority than the inclusion of sustainable or resilience efforts. However this was ultimately a tradeoff made for the inclusion of environmental considerations and reduced vulnerability to future hazards.

Another tradeoff of course was the cost of building back the same versus building back better. Some projects, like the installation of underground power lines, were very expensive and required increased utility rates. Not everyone was pleased at the time with the tradeoff of extra cost, but the overall support now for the revitalization of King Country seems to justify many decisions.

During a ribbon cutting for the reopening of a green utility facility Donald Arstrom said, “I applaud the mitigation efforts adopted by PSE in their reconstruction efforts. I challenge other private companies to strive for the same level of resilience that will prevent disasters in the future.”

Sustainable and resilient utility infrastructure has led to the revitalization of the community thanks to the preparedness of Resilient King County Planning.