Craig Welch at the Seattle Times authored a good article on the ongoing Quincy Data Center air permit appeal in today’s paper. His article gives a good summary of the background and the issues, which involve Clean Air Act permits issued by Ecology for massive data centers sited in Quincy, Washington. Those data centers rely on cheap and reliable power from the Columbia River hydroelectric facilities, but also need large diesel-fired backup generators if there is a power outage. The air permits for those generators are the subject of an appeal by local citizens concerned with cancer risks associated with diesel emissions from those backup generators.

The article contains a great summary of the role of cancer risk estimates in regulatory decisions. In this case, Ecology’s permit for Microsoft’s data center required Microsoft to keep the “excess cancer risk” associated with the data center below 10 out of 1 million, or a 10-5 excess cancer risk, and Ecology capped the total cancer risk from all air sources in the area at 100 in a million. Craig Welch summarizes that risk and puts it in context by noting that:

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.

This context is critical in understanding regulatory decisions–and it is something that the general public should pay close attention to. Cancer is admittedly scary, it sneaks up on people, can impact those that are otherwise very healthy, and can kill swiftly in a brutal manner. I don’t blame the general public for fearing cancer, but do think more needs to be said about how that fear translates into regulatory decisions.

Depending on your gender, you have about a 40% (4 out of 10) chance of getting cancer in a lifetime, and about a 1/3 chance of dying from cancer. Regulations aimed at capping excess cancer risk at the 1 to 100 in a million level are really nibbling on the margins in terms of an individual’s overall chances of dying of cancer. Using the Quincy Data Center as an example, if the capacity of air emissions set by EPA is reached, that may change that 40% chance to, say a 40.01% chance. You can do better by eating your vegetables and not smoking.

Here are some other examples of how this regulatory approach is applied:

The Duwamish Superfund Site: As I’ve detailed elsewhere, cleanups in Washington under the Model Toxics Control Act must be done to a risk level of 1 in a million–or 10 times lower than the hypothetical risk from the Quincy Data Center. The risk assessment for the Duwamish is a huge document, but one can summarize that document by noting that the 1-in-a-million risk-level goal  applies to an adult tribal fisher who eats 90 grams of fish a day from the river (half being clams), or roughly 15 meals of fish per month from the Duwamish for 70 years.This results in sediment cleanup goals that are so low they may be unattainable, and a cleanup cost somewhere in the range of $300 million.

Portland Harbor Superfund Site: A similar situation to the Duwamish is playing out in Portland Harbor. There, the risk assessments are based on 10 to 19 meals from the river per month, with a risk range of 1 to 100 cancers per million people. The cost? Somewhere in the range of $500 million.

Water Quality Standards: Oregon’s water quality standards for toxics are based on more than 20 meals per month, and applies an acceptable risk range of 1 to 100 excess cancers per million people. Since those standards are newly promulgated, the costs for compliance are not well understood. Washington is next in line, but those standards will be more stringent because Washington applies the lower 1 in a million excess cancer limit.

Bottom line? Even for the high exposure populations, the regulatory requirements based on cancer risk exposure are incredibly protective if achieved. But, achieving those standards comes at a significant costs– born not only by private companies like Microsoft as in the case of the Quincy Data Center, but often born by taxpayers in the case of large sediment cleanup sites like the Duwamish or Portland Harbor where municipal entities are involved.