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Originally published Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 4:41 PM

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Former Quincy mayor battles tech firms over potential server-farm pollution

Former Quincy Mayor Patty Martin is battling the state and high-tech powerhouses such as Microsoft and Yahoo, arguing that server farms being built in her small town pose a pollution risk. The state says the server farms are safe.

Seattle Times environment reporter

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QUINCY, Grant County —

When the concrete warehouses began popping up across the train tracks, Patty Martin did what she does best: ask questions.

Leading technology companies were building server farms in her town so city folk miles away could keep plinking on their laptops.

The tech powerhouses were capitalizing on the region's cheap power. In return, her community would get a new industry.

But Martin, a former mayor, wanted to know more. Quincy is her home — a place of open spaces and, she presumed, fresh breezes. So she and a few friends wrangled reams of data from state regulators and learned that the information storehouses hailed as Quincy's renaissance also happened to pollute its air — at least a little.

To guarantee the power-thirsty data centers will never lose electricity, each came equipped with massive backup generators. By the time Quincy's half-dozen or more server farms are built, at least 141 generators will ring Martin's town, most emitting toxic diesel fumes when they run.

Whether that exhaust is enough to harm a single Quincy resident is a matter of debate. The state Department of Ecology insists pollution is so minute that Quincy's air, at worst, will remain far less dirty than many of Western Washington's cleanest communities, from Olympia to Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood.

Air pollution from diesel exhaust "is probably several times worse at almost any home in King County than it would be in the worst part of Quincy," said Gary Palcisko, a toxicologist at Ecology.

Still, an outside expert working with Martin believes the state miscalculated. For two years the two factions have wrangled before the state's Pollution Control Hearings Board.

The board has agreed with Ecology on nearly every issue, but two significant questions remain: Did the state err in calculating emissions? Should Ecology require more pollution controls?

"I didn't want to be a Chicken Little," Martin said. "I'm not an extremist. I'm no radical. But I got tired of being told I shouldn't worry."

Transforming town

Quincy is tucked into Central Washington's sagebrush less than a dozen miles north of Interstate 90 near the Gorge Amphitheater. Farmers grow apples, alfalfa, wheat and vegetables, and processors slice and package them for sale.

Like many rural towns, Quincy has struggled. Unemployment at times has hovered at 10 percent. Growth stagnated for years.

But Columbia River dams keep electricity cheap and keep it flowing, according to the Grant County Public Utility District, 99 percent of the time. So Microsoft, in the mid-2000s, decided to make Quincy home to a data center.

Few dispute the need. When Internet users access email or perform searches, those queries travel through fiber optic cables to servers that hold massive amounts of information. With Internet use skyrocketing, many companies need more storage.

"The day they announced they were coming to Quincy, that made headlines coast to coast," said Terry Brewer, Grant County Economic Development Council director. "We started getting calls from companies saying 'Show us property across the street from Microsoft. That's where we want to be.' "

Yahoo agreed to build in Quincy. A new fiber optic network was installed. The Legislature adopted tax incentives. Dell, Intuit, Vantage and Sabey all announced they were coming, too. Other companies are in talks.

City leaders were ecstatic. Construction crews and a high-tech work force flooded in. Developers built spec homes. Restaurants were busy past lunch. Quincy's assessed property value tripled.

"In a city like Seattle, that may not sound like much, but in Quincy — it's a lot," Mayor Jim Hemberry said. "We're booming."

Plus, although data centers are huge — Microsoft's is the size of 10 football fields and houses thousands of servers — they are easy to ignore. Martin suspects few neighbors noticed them. But she did.

How much risk?

Martin learned years earlier to challenge authority. As Quincy's mayor in the mid-1990s, she discovered major agribusinesses were recycling hazardous waste as fertilizer. Farmers unwittingly spread the metals and chemicals on their land.

No one could prove toxics were killing their land, but the find rattled businesses and regulators. The Environmental Protection Agency tightened fertilizer rules.

The fight alienated some neighbors, but Martin stayed put. She liked the small schools, safe streets and familiarity: "It's hard to get lost in a small town," she said.

In 2010, she demanded thousands of pages of data-center records. She and a few friends learned that generators were for emergencies, but ran often enough for testing and maintenance that even Ecology had worried about potential increases in cancer risks. If Microsoft ran generators as often as allowed, cancer risks would exceed 10 in a million — higher than typically allowed.

Microsoft declined to answer questions for this story.

"Everybody had dollar signs in their eyes," Martin said. "But they put us right in harm's way."

State air toxics experts disagree. Air pollution is complex, and hard to grasp.

Diesel exhaust contains ozone that can cause short-term breathing problems and tiny particles that can lodge in the lungs and cause cancer with longterm exposure.

Since Microsoft's was just the first data center, the state capped allowable cancer risks in Quincy from all exhaust, including background sources such as trains and trucks, at 100 cancers in a million — 10 times more than allowed by a single company. That meant if a million people were exposed for 70 years to the worst spot of air in Quincy, an additional 100 could get cancer.

But Quincy has only 6,220 residents, and although there are homes across the street from some server farms, computer modeling showed the dirtiest air is concentrated over vacant land — not a neighborhood.

"The maximum area of risk that we have estimated is at a location that is not currently developed at all," said Jeff Johnston, who oversees air quality for Ecology.

Even there, risks were far below those in every major city in the country. Average cancer risk from air toxics in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties is 300 in a million, according to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. In port areas such as South Seattle, it nears 1,000 in a million.

"It's all in the eye of the beholder as to how people perceive risk," said Kathy Strange, with the clean-air agency. "There's a huge qualitative aspect to it. It's all relative. If you're here living in the urban soup of Seattle, you're probably more willing to accept it."

Microsoft's and Yahoo's numbers were higher than 10 in a million because they were built before the state regulated diesel toxics. But when the companies later expanded, the state wrangled concessions — a limit on fuel consumption and a cap on the hours a year generators can run — that cut cancer risk closer to 10 in a million.

"We just don't really have a potential for adverse effects the way it looked at first like we might," said Matt Kadlec, an Ecology air toxicologist.

Decision ahead

Martin remains skeptical.

When a data center was built in Olympia, the state required more pollution controls. "Why is it good enough for Olympia and not for Quincy?" she asked.

Ecology officials said Olympia's background air is dirtier and its data-center emissions were more likely to spread in neighborhoods.

Martin fears Ecology ignored the potential for extended power outages to cause generators to all run at once for long periods.

While Ecology agreed that could cause short-term breathing trouble for some asthma sufferers, officials said it wouldn't alter cancer risks. And extended outages remain unlikely.

"The reason these data centers chose Quincy is because power here is so reliable," Johnston said.

Still, Ron Sahu, an air expert working with Martin, believes Ecology's estimates don't consider that emissions could be higher depending on how engines are run. "I don't know the answer to the health question because it's my belief that proper analysis has not been done," he said.

He agrees pollution controls aren't cheap, but "that's nothing to a company with the resources of Microsoft."

Microsoft, in documents filed with the state, said cancer risk is so infinitesimally low that applying filters that could eliminate just one more case of cancer in a town as small as Quincy would cost the company $3.7 billion — a number Martin considers a gross exaggeration.

Mayor Hemberry doesn't get the fuss.

"Most people are pretty happy with the data centers," he said. "I've only heard about this issue from Patty and one or two others."

But Martin won't be satisfied without more pollution controls.

"No business has a right to come into my community and pollute," she said.

The Pollution Control Hearings Board will decide this case later this spring.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @craigawelch.

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