High staff turnover and insufficient training are long-standing problems at the West Point Treatment Plant, where human error contributed to a catastrophic flood this year.
It’s not a new complaint at the West Point Treatment Plant — the cost of living is too high for operators to live near the Magnolia facility and the commute is a bear.
The result is employees transfer elsewhere, leaving the largest and most complex treatment plant in the Pacific Northwest in the hands of less experienced and less trained crews.
A recent report by AECOM, a contractor hired by King County to determine causes and contributing factors to the Feb. 9 catastrophic flood at West Point, found the facility had the highest turnover of employees among the three county plants and a lack of consistent training.
The Seattle Times discovered these are long-standing problems the county has failed to solve.
Several times over the past decade West Point managers pointed to a lack of worker retention and training when the plant, in error, flushed untreated wastewater near Discovery Park beach, according to Department of Ecology records obtained through a public records request.
AECOM stated overall there is a shortage of experienced operators and several of them lacked the training to deal with emergencies like the one they faced Feb. 9, which caused 235 million gallons of untreated wastewater to enter the Puget Sound and up to $57 million in damage to the plant.
Of the three King County plants, West Point has had the most transfers out, retirements and terminations from November 2010 through November 2013, according to the AECOM report, which cost taxpayers $414,000.
West Point lost 20 employees due to transfers during that same time, while South Plant in Renton gained 12 and Brightwater in Snohomish County got eight.
Another 20 people retired from or left West Point during those three years. A King County official said the county is just starting to explore ideas to curb the West Point departures.
“The challenge is that you lose that knowledge and more importantly you have to hire and train new people about a complex facility,” said Dick Finger, who said it was a problem even when he was the plant manager from 1996 to 2005.
He said that when he managed the plant the employees felt stuck there, located on the western tip of the neighborhood, because they couldn’t transfer out until someone left another plant, and commuting during rush hour was so difficult.
“People can’t live close by because they can’t afford housing,” he said. “West Point is a rotten place to get to. I had people transferring out regularly.”
Home prices have skyrocketed and commutes have become longer since Finger’s retirement, making it an even more challenging problem for the county.
Now the median price of a home in Magnolia is $900,000, according to Zillow. The salaries, including overtime, of operators and senior operators range from $87,000 to $100,000, said plant manager Robert Waddle.
Often people who work at the West Point plant live north, in Lynnwood and Edmonds, an area more affordable than Seattle, but still have a hectic commute on congested highways and meandering local streets. Their commutes home at 6 p.m., after a 12-hour shift, are typically an hour, and many times an hour and a half, long.
A recently retired senior operator at South Plant said King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division saw employee after employee retire or transfer out of the West Point plant.
“They knew people were leaving and they didn’t get their ducks in a row on how to replace people,” said Rick Ames, an employee for 17 years who retired last month.
Christie True, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Parks, which oversees the wastewater division, said she wouldn’t characterize retention at West Point or training as big problems.
“It’s not like people are leaving and we don’t have anyone to work,” she added.
She also said employees could always use more training but added that the crew working the night of the flood was highly trained.
“You are leaping to make a case they weren’t trained adequately, and that’s not accurate,” she said.
But by most employees’ own admissions they either felt uncomfortable making decisions during the emergency or felt they didn’t have adequate training, according to King County records obtained through a public-records request.
While the crew working that night, with three to 32 years of experience, had taken all required training necessary, AECOM reports several hadn’t taken emergency training in the past three years.
In fact, only two of the nine people working that night had completed the Wastewater Treatment Division’s annual wet-weather exercise last year, the report stated.
More than a decade ago, West Point faced a similar disaster when the plant partially flooded and more than 59 million gallons of untreated wastewater spewed into Puget Sound after float switches failed to transmit alarms.
Jim Pitts, the West Point plant manager at the time, stated in a letter to the Department of Ecology that during the incident on Dec. 14, 2006, inexperienced operators failed to notify main control in a timely manner that part of the plant was flooding.
“The series of events would have challenged the most experienced operators,” Pitts stated. “However, the less-experienced staff, unfamiliarity to unusual plant conditions could have (affected) the decisions and actions made, and their timeliness. … In recent years, the average number of years of experience of plant operators at West Point has trended downward with retirements and transfers.”
To prevent these types of errors, Pitts said, the plant initiated additional technical training.
Two years later, West Point plant manager Pam Elardo wrote the same sentence, expressing concerns about problems with transfers in a letter to the DOE when employees had made mistakes.
Then two more incidents, one in 2009 and another in 2010, led Elardo to again promise the DOE that operators would be retrained.
In one instance, workers spent three hours troubleshooting a malfunction that swung the emergency bypass gate open instead of just closing it. Millions of gallons of untreated wastewater spewed into Puget Sound and forced the closure of nearby beaches for four days. One employee was fired and the DOE fined the county $24,000 for the error.
“Training will also include role-playing mock emergencies to practice and develop the critical thinking necessary during a response,” Elardo wrote on May 26, 2010.
AECOM reports there is a need for similar emergency response training.
True said in addition to training at a conference table, employees will enact scenarios and do more hands-on training.
West Point has hired 121 employees since 2007, including six since the Feb. 9 disaster, according to AECOM.
Currently, new hires must start at the West Point Treatment Plant and work there for five years. Then they are eligible to apply for a transfer to either South Plant or Brightwater.
True said that the 2014 policy has helped with the problem of retention at West Point.
But Ames said that doesn’t solve the long-term problem.
He said often it takes four to five years of experience at a plant for someone to really be trained, efficient and effective at his or her job. But by then, Ames said, “they have another flock of people wanting to leave” to another plant.
Based on the recommendations of AECOM, True said officials are considering an increase in pay to keep people at the plant longer and to offer van pools to reduce commuting problems. She also said that after 2020 retirements will slow down.
Ames and others say retention at the plant is a hard problem to solve.
“Bottom line, I don’t know what they could do,” he added. “There’s no magic bullet to fix it.”
An operator-in-training, Emily Carlson, who injured her leg escaping the fast-rushing waters at West Point, has since transferred to Brightwater.