Officials weigh ground water concerns and hospital plans

September 29, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

City Council members will work to accommodate plans for underground fuel tanks at a hospital in the Issaquah Highlands and residents who questioned whether leaky tanks could contaminate ground water.Crews began excavation work last month on a Swedish Medical Center campus in the highlands. Hospital executives asked Issaquah officials to change the agreement between the city and highlands developer Port Blakely Communities to allow underground fuel-storage tanks at the hospital.

The bus-size tanks — two for fuel oil and another for propane — would be tapped to run emergency generators. The tanks would hold up to 60,000 gallons of fuel.

But officials and residents raised questions about what would happen to the Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer if a tank leaked. The aquifer is a crucial source of drinking water for city residents.

Concerns about geology beneath the highlands led officials to ban underground fuel tanks and businesses, such as gas stations, when the development agreement was drafted in 1995. City Major Development Review Team Program Manager Keith Niven said then that planners believed storm water from the highlands would drain into the aquifer. Niven said the years since the highlands were developed have shown that water from the community did not reach the aquifer.

“One thing we know about Issaquah Highlands today, which I don’t think we knew when the development agreement was put together, is that the geologic makeup of the property is a lot more complicated than what was imagined,” Niven added.

The amendment debated by council members Sept. 21 would allow underground tanks for “essential public facilities,” such as hospitals. Council members voted 7-0 to direct city staffers to revise the development agreement. The council will consider the measure Oct. 5.

A separate proposal to allow construction of a gas station in the highlands is under consideration by city officials.

Plans call for a Swedish hospital campus built across 18 acres at the southwestern corner of Highlands Drive Northeast and Ninth Avenue Northeast. Physicians will offer inpatient and outpatient services such as cardiac care, obstetrics and neurosciences.

The first phase of the campus is planned to open in summer 2011. A second phase — with 80 hospital beds — would open during the first quarter of 2012 and eventually expand to 175 beds.

At the Sept. 21 meeting, former Councilman Hank Thomas praised Swedish Medical Center physicians, but said concerns about potential ground water contamination prompted him to question the proposed change.

“I would ask you to ask yourselves: Does the aquifer have the ability to recognize the difference in a contaminant that comes from a privately-owned gas station as compared to an essential public facility, such as a hospital?” Thomas said.

Thomas endorsed a proposal to enclose the tanks in open-air concrete vaults built below surface level. He questioned what would happen if officials detected a leak in the double-walled tanks proposed by Swedish.

“Are we going to stop, get out the shovels, dig it up and repair it?” Thomas said. “I doubt that.”

Dr. John Milne, medical director for strategic development and a physician at the Swedish/Issaquah emergency room, said the cost of a vault for the storage tanks would be about the cost of a CT scanner.

“To put this in perspective, how much more health care can I provide for the citizens of this community, for the homeless, for the indigent, for our community here, with that $860,000?” Milne asked. He also serves on the city Urban Village Development Commission, the board that oversees projects in the highlands and Talus.

Milne said the price tag for surface tanks would total $880,000. Burying the tanks would cost an additional $350,000. The most expensive option — open-air, below-grade vaults — would add $860,000 atop the initial cost, Milne said.

Dan Coxall, project executive at hospital developer Hammes Co., said buried tanks would be less vulnerable to earthquake damage. Regulations require hospitals to be self-sufficient for up to 96 hours after a disaster.

Addressing concerns raised by Councilman David Kappler, Coxall said the tanks would be monitored “24/7.”

“Anything that leaks would send an alarm to the command center at the hospital, which will have remote notification to someone on the facilities staff to say there is a problem and somebody needs to come out and check it,” Coxall said.

Niven said placing tanks on the surface would be difficult at many highlands sites. A surface tank “means there’s less parking or there’s less building that these facilities can basically put on the site,” he said

“By being able to put them underground, it allows the landowner the ability to park on top of it, to use the area above the tanks for some other purpose, therefore improving the efficiency of the property,” he added.

Before the council vote, citizen activist Connie Marsh said allowing the tanks to be buried without a full understanding of the geology of the highlands could have unintended consequences.

“I think we play with our drinking water,” she said.

Besides possible impact to the aquifer, Marsh said salmon habitat could be affected if tanks at the Swedish site leaked.

“Every single time we will deal with this — maybe once, maybe twice — we are going to be dealing with a situation where we don’t know where the water goes, and potential contaminants,” Marsh said.

Issaquah resident Milne said he understood the issues raised by Marsh and Thomas. But he said burying the fuel tanks made the most sense.

“Nothing is perfect. I can’t give you the 100 percent guarantee these will never leak,” he said. “But I would not be standing here saying we want to propose something that we anticipate developing that type of a problem.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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