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Regulators Take On Dual Roles Dealing With King County’s Broken Wastewater Treatment Plant

Ned Ahrens
King County Wastewater Treatment Division

The breakdown last month of Seattle’s wastewater treatment plant has poured hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated stormwater and raw sewage into Puget Sound. Repairs alone will cost an estimated $25 million. And it’s expected to take till the end of April to get the West Point Treatment Plant back to normal. Until then, the broken wastewater facility will be violating its permit and polluting Puget Sound.

The state’s Department of Ecology has a dual role to play as it works with the county to help it get back in compliance, which is the ultimate goal. But it will also levy penalties against the county’s Wastewater Treatment Division for all the illegal pollution it continues to release since the catastrophic event on Feb. 9, when stormwater overwhelmed the facility.

The worst is over at West Point. Right now, King County is providing partial treatment of the combined stormwater and sewage that flows into the big plant right next to Discovery Park. It’s being screened to remove large debris and then disinfected and dechlorinated before it’s discharged into Puget Sound.

“So it’s not letting any live bacteria out into Puget Sound, but it’s not being cleaned up to the level that it needs to be cleaned up, ” said Sandy Howard, a spokeswoman for the Department of Ecology’s water-quality program.

The illegal discharges are not dangerous for people anymore. Beaches have reopened. And the outfall they’re using  for substandard releases goes deep into the ocean currents, so the hope is that any damage done won’t be extreme.But it’s still a big deal, because it’s adding lots of unwanted extra nutrients to the water.

“In Puget Sound, [those added nutrients cause] algae to grow — plants to grow,” said Howard.

And when they die off, they suck oxygen out of the ecosystem, making it unhealthy.

Howard says the Department of Ecology will wait till the results of the King County Council’s investigation are in this summer to decide what’s appropriate in terms of fines and mitigation. But the state can charge violators up to $10,000 a day per incident.

She says it’s not possible to speculate right now what they will actually be. No fines have been issued yet and lots of factors determine how those are calculated.

The money from fines collected by the state would be used for restoration work. The cost of any needed repairs would likely land on the county’s wastewater budget. That’s expected to affect ratepayers eventually.  But it’s impossible to say at this point just how much it will raise consumers' water bills.

Corrected on March 16, 2017 - An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that fines collected by the state are sometimes used for repairs. In fact, the state does not pay for repairs using revenue collected from fines.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to