Concerns expressed about data center diesel generators

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Charles H. Featherstone/Columbia Basin Herald Danna Dalporto holds up a muffin during a public hearing Wednesday in Quincy while Department of Ecology employees Erika Bronson and Kari Johnson look on.

QUINCY — Danna Dalporto held up a muffin to make her point.

“I have a severe peanut allergy,” she said. “How would I know this muffin has peanuts in it? You look at the ingredients.”

Dalporto, testifying at a public hearing Wednesday on Vantage Data Centers’ application to revise its air pollution permit in Quincy, said it was not enough to do computer models of emissions for diesel engine exhaust.

“Modeling is inappropriate and ineffective,” she said. “Take the air and test it!”

Dalporto was one of only three people to testify — two opposed — during a half-hour-long public hearing preceded by two and a half hours of presentations and discussion with Vantage managers and officials with the Department of Ecology.

Mark Johnson, the site operations manager with Vantage in Quincy, said the company has been unable to get the pollution control technology it has invested in to work on the five generators it has currently installed at its Quincy campus, and is asking Ecology for a permit that allows it to adhere to less-rigorous pollution standards.

“The emissions control vendors provide a guarantee they cannot meet,” Johnson said. “It’s not a fully developed technology, and it doesn’t work yet.”

According to Justin Harp, a senior engineer with Vantage, the company was never able to determine why the equipment failed to reduce diesel particulates in its exhaust. Because the technology is so new, no one else was found willing or able to try and get the technology to work.

“We’re still not sure of the root cause of the failures,” Harp said. “There are no clear answers. Other vendors refused to service equipment they don’t own, so it’s hard to find alternative support.”

So the company is seeking to run the generators — which will run only when the power fails or when they need to be tested every month — without the pollution control equipment, a downgrade Ecology allows so long as the generators adhere to pollution standards.

“This project is in compliance with air quality standards,” said Jolaine Johnson, who said the two pollutants of greatest concern — diesel soot and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — were within state guidelines for the 17 generators covered in the permit.

This cut no ice with Dalporto.

“Did the controls lower emissions? If they did, they should stay in place,” she said. “I’m sorry they made this huge investment, but economy should not allow them to remove the controls.”

Gary Palcisko, an Ecology toxicologist, explained the department’s findings, as well as the methodology behind the department’s research.

The department assumes a cancer rate of 40 percent — that is, 40 out of every 100 Americans will get cancer — so they look at the additional cancer rate that exposure to toxic substances such as soot in diesel exhaust will cause. Ten additional deaths per 1 million people is considered an unacceptable risk, Palcisko said.

The Vantage permit proposal for 17 generators will likely create an increased cancer risk of 9.9 cases per 1 million, Palcisko said.

“Vantage proposed emissions that got them just under,” he said.

However, Palcisko explained that the increased cancer risk from all sources of diesel exhaust in Quincy — data center backup generators, tractors, trucks, railroad locomotives — appears to pose a risk of 39 additional cases per 1 million people, based on Ecology studies.

“This assumes continuous exposure, highest concentration,” he said. “It’s difficult to assess the exposure of low levels of pollutants. Estimates contain a lot of uncertainty.”

NO2 levels pose less of a problem, with Jolaine Johnson noting that those most at risk from elevated NO2 are people with asthma or emphysema.

“It could cause breathing difficulties in folks with breathing issues if they all went on at the same time,” she said.

In fact, both Palcisko and Jolaine Johnson said Ecology would spend part of the next year studying the air in Quincy just to see what the cumulative effect is of all that diesel fuel being burned.

“We hope to find out what that looks like in the next year,” she said.

Currently, data centers spread across Quincy host about 200 diesel backup generators, all of which have Ecology permits.

While Ecology said the Vantage application meets all current state standards, it will not make a final decision until it reviews all of the public comment. The department will continue to accept written comment on the Vantage application until 5 p.m., Monday, July 17.

Comments can be mailed or emailed to Kari Johnson at kari.johnson@ecy.wa.gov or Department of Ecology, 4601 N. Monroe, Spokane, WA 99205.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at countygvt@columbiabasinherald.com.

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