Mindful of contamination concerns, council approves hospital fuel tanks

October 13, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

City Council members approved underground fuel storage tanks planned for the Swedish Medical Center campus in the Issaquah Highlands less than a month after residents raised concerns about the prospect of ground water contamination.The council amended the development agreement Oct. 5 between the city and highlands developer Port Blakely Communities to allow the tanks at the hospital site. Officials approved the amendment in a 7-0 vote.

Concerns about leaky tanks and contamination to the Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer — a crucial source of drinking water for city residents — delayed the measure. When the highlands development agreement was drafted, questions about potential ground water contamination led officials to prohibit underground fuel storage tanks and certain businesses, such as gas stations.

City Major Development Review Team Program Manager Keith Niven said advances had made underground fuel storage tanks safer in the years since the agreement was approved.

“We believe the appropriate safeguards will be in place,” he said. “There will be double-walled tanks, there will be under-tank collection systems, there will be monitoring, there will be reporting. Basically all the precautions that will be in place were not contemplated back in 1995, when the development agreement was originally approved with this restriction in place.”

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

Plans for the hospital call for three tanks with a combined capacity of 60,000 gallons. Fuel oil and propane tanks would be tapped to run emergency generators. City and hospital officials have said the double-walled tanks will be equipped with sensors to monitor for leaks.

When the council discussed the measure Sept. 21, hospital developers discussed the option to enclose the tanks in open-air concrete vaults built below surface level. But a representative from the developer said the vaults would be costly.

At the Oct. 5 meeting, Councilman David Kappler said he chose to vote for the measure because conditions would be attached to the installation of the tanks. He also cited the need for a backup fuel supply at the hospital.

“The big need for this is in an earthquake,” Kappler said. “Not only do you lose your gas supply and your electrical supply, you’re likely to have a lot more patients. The need for a hospital is going to be greatest during an earthquake. I just happen to think that having that tank properly buried is a better place for it to be than somehow supported in a vault.”

City Attorney Wayne Tanaka discouraged council members from tacking conditions onto the revised development agreement. He said several issues raised by the council would be addressed when hospital planners enter the city permitting process.

The council limited underground storage tanks to hospitals instead of the “essential public facilities” defined under state law. The initial change would have allowed tanks at buildings such as state education facilities and transportation facilities.

“As was pointed out, this is exactly what was driving this particular change to the agreement,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said. “To make no bones about it, we’re not talking about underground storage tanks for anything but Swedish hospital.”

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

“It would be ironic if it were a hospital, a place of safety and health, that caused a catastrophic health crisis with these fuel tanks,” Schaer said. “I think that’s something that I’m sure that, as an institution that prides itself on the well-being and care of individuals and the community, steps are going to be taken to ensure the health and safety of individuals, including our drinking water.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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