King Co. fined $24,000 for spilling millions of gallons of raw sewage
Totally preventable — that’s the conclusion investigators drew about the 8.7 million gallons of raw sewage that spilled into Elliott Bay from King County’s West Point wastewater treatment plant last month, prompting a four-day closure of the North Beach recreation area near Discovery Park. On Wednesday, the state Department of Ecology announced it fined the county $24,000 for three violations, including violating the state’s Clean Water Act.
“King County has taken this incident very seriously, but significant errors led to the spill and made what could have been a small release much larger,” said Ecology’s Water Quality Section manager Kevin Fitzpatrick in a press release. “The backup system was tested and ready, but inexplicably not used
during the very time for which it is designed.”
“I’ve made it clear, and our wastewater managers agree, that this incident was unnecessary and unacceptable, and that the division must be accountable,” said Dow Constantine in a county press release. “I’ve asked the division to review the chain of events that led to the overflow and to take a hard look at their operating procedures, and I will be following up to make sure any necessary reforms are made.”
So, what happened?
Operator error, according to separate investigations by Ecology and King County.
More specifically, an electrical short circuit in a no-longer-used system, coupled with operator error, caused an emergency bypass gate to open around 10 p.m. Dec. 14, which diverted a portion of the incoming wastewater around the treatment system and into Puget Sound off West Point, according to the Ecology press release.
For nearly three hours, sewage spilled.
Ecology investigators determined that after the electrical malfunction occurred, operators: 1) failed to implement the facility’s standard operating procedures, and, 2) did not use a backup system that can override the controls and close the gate within minutes.
The county’s statement put it this way: The overflow began when employees prepared an emergency bypass gate to open automatically during rainy weather to prevent high, rapid flows from damaging equipment or injuring workers. An electrical problem caused the bypass gate to open, though the county’s investigation indicates that operators could have taken steps to prevent or minimize the duration and amount of overflow.
The good news is less sewage spilled than the 10 million gallons originally estimated. Laboratory samples showed a progressive improvement in water quality within days after the overflow, the county said, so the beach reopened four days later.
“The penalty is tough but fair, and we accept Ecology’s findings because the overflow was serious,” said Wastewater Treatment Division Director Christie True in the county press release. “We also agree with Executive Constantine on the importance of accountability and have enacted corrective measures to ensure that standard operating procedures are followed.”
It’s not all crying over spilled sewage.
You may recall reading that sewage may be the reason the bodies of some male English sole in Elliott Bay contain a protein normally produced by female fish to help egg yolks develop. And scientists guess that may be caused by hormones in women’s urine or birth control pills.
And, oh, there’s the ongoing campaign to save polluted Puget Sound.
Holy, uh, Toledo: 10 million gallons of sewage flows into Elliott Bay; no swimming by spit