Lights Out? Y2K and the Environment

It’s well-known that the Y2K computer problem—a limitation embedded in basic programming code that will cause machines all over the world to think that the year 2000 is actually 1900—could mean catastrophic operating system failures, power outages and other disasters. The potential environmental impact is less well-known.

Perhaps the most immediate consequence would be from a loss of power at local wastewater treatment facilities, or failures in the embedded chips that perform monitoring functions. Fortunately, there are backup non-computerized systems which can be used, but they require additional licensed operators to be on hand, a far from universal prospect for December 31, 1999. If pumping stations lose power, they could be forced to discharge untreated waste, causing widespread water pollution.

Real examples of these accidents have already occurred. King County, Washington diverted 41 million gallons of untreated sewage into Puget Sound from its West Point wastewater treatment plant last October, when the plant’s main power supply failed and the backup system delivered inadequate power to maintain wastewater treatment. The untreated stormwater and sewage created an enormous brown plume. Steve Clark of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water says, however, “There doesn’t seem to be a pattern of failures in plants to indicate a problem—unless, of course, there’s a power grid failure. That would cause many problems.”

Other threats come from the more toxic and hazardous materials that routinely pass through our neighborhoods. Fred Millar, director of environmental and public safety policy at the Center for Y2K and Society in Washington, D.C., says, “I’m very concerned about oil and gas operations, especially during start-up and shut-down.” Oil and gas producers, he says, use “thousands of embedded chips, and their supply chains—truck, rail and marine shipping—could experience their own problems. How many oil tankers have the staffs to run their ships manually?”

A precedent of accidents due to computer failures has already been set. A gasoline pipeline leak this past June in Bellingham, Washington may have been caused or exacerbated by the failure of the pipeline’s main computers and its backup system. An estimated 84,000 to 244,000 gallons of gas leaked into a creek and caught fire, killing three people and damaging at least 1.5 miles of river habitat. The fire also killed 10,000 to 15,000 fish, including recently reintroduced salmon.

Jerry Poge of the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) admits that, although “the oil and gas industries report substantial progress, risks do remain.” CSB was created to investigate and prevent accidents, which includes those due to the Y2K problem, but the EPA continues to perform inspections and coordinate emergency planning.

The EPA has been active in promoting Y2K compliance among operators, manufacturers, private companies and government offices. (The EPA’s website dedicated to Y2K progress is at The agency has developed a special policy regarding Y2K-related violations, and may waive civil penalties if companies demonstrate they had developed test protocols in good faith, and that a failure in the testing itself resulted in the violation.

If companies do not do adequate testing, however, they will still be liable for any accidental releases that occur as a result of Y2K. Millar is concerned that oil and gas facilities will not be prepared. “They’re either doing a lot of testing and not telling us, or [for liability reasons] they’re not doing any testing.”

Few local emergency planning committees have the information they need to prepare for industrial chemical accidents. A recent bill requiring companies to report their worst-case scenarios may be delayed, due to industry opposition that claims the information could be used by terrorists. Donna Southwell, the assistant emergency coordinator for Washtenaw County, Michigan, believes her planning committee is unique in requiring all companies in the region with 55 gallons or more of hazardous chemicals to give the county information on Y2K preparedness. “We will be much safer because we have this information,” says Southwell.

“Eighty-five million Americans live, work and play within a five-mile radius of 66,000 facilities handling regulated amounts of high-hazard chemicals,” according to a March 1999 Y2K and chemical safety report from the CSB. It estimates the biggest problems may occur in municipal facilities, small private firms with less than 50 employees, or slightly larger ones not affiliated with a multinational corporation. CSB recommends coordinating federal agencies to work to protect the power grid, and meeting with local emergency agencies to help create response plans for emergency shutdowns and manual operation of chemical facilities. Calls to the Chemical Manufacturers Association for comment on Y2K preparedness went unreturned.

The 103 nuclear power plants in the U.S. may also pose a risk, since their circulation of coolant water depends on a steady electrical supply and functioning telecommunications systems. Each American reactor has been equipped with two back-up diesel generators, which would suffice for short power outages. But a cooling systems failure would lead to a core meltdown, similar to the Chernobyl accident, which caused immediate deaths from radiation exposure.

“We’ve searched our safety systems and found no Y2K problems,” says Kelly Gilligan, a spokeswoman for Connecticut’s Northeast Utilities (NU), which operates three nuclear power plants. “We mostly use [non-digital] analog systems, and those aren’t susceptible to Y2K failures.” In July, NU reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that all “mission-critical” systems were Year 2000 ready. At the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Baltimore, Maryland, Y2K Project Director Jim Wright agrees that the industry’s inherent caution has proved helpful. We can’t just go to Radio Shack and buy a computer,” he says. “It’s too hard to demonstrate with 100 percent reliability that the computer would never fail.” Nevertheless, both plants are planning to have extra emergency staff on hand December 31.

Worldwide, the U.S. is considered one of the countries best prepared for Y2K, which leaves many remaining questions about global impact. To see Y2K unfold live (for better or worse), tune to CNN, which is planning 30 hours of continuous television coverage.