The catastrophic failure of King County’s sewage treatment plant at Discovery Park needs a thorough, independent scrubbing.
SINCE the catastrophic failure of King County’s sewage treatment plant at Discovery Park on Feb. 9, nearly 235 million gallons of untreated stormwater and raw sewage — enough to fill about 352 Olympic-sized swimming pools — have dumped into Puget Sound.
The worst of the dumping has ended, but the plant, which flooded rooms up to 12 feet, is still limping along and not fully treating sewage. That likely won’t happen until the end of April. Replacing the ruined guts of the plant — boilers, breakers, pumps and miles of wiring — will cost at least $25 million, according to the county insurers. But with government projects, there’s reason to be skeptical of timelines and cost estimates.
That much we know. What we don’t know is why.
King County needs a thorough, independent investigation of the breakdown at the West Point plant — and it should be led by the County Council.
County Executive Dow Constantine’s office has already commissioned a California firm. But members of the Metropolitan King County Council met with The Seattle Times editorial board this week to air frustrations about the answers it has received from Constantine’s administration. The council should take the lead on an investigation.
County taxpayers should not have to pay for two investigations. Nor should they pay for a whitewashed investigation. They deserve unbiased answers to some important questions.
Why did this important piece of infrastructure fail so badly? A preliminary analysis cites a cascade of breakdowns. Outflow pumps that should’ve helped empty the plant failed for unclear reasons. Then emergency switches, intended to stop the treatment ponds from overflowing, broke. Stormwater and sewage flowed in, unchecked, and flooded the plant with a slimy fur.
Was there human error? In a memo to council members this week, King County officials said staff at the plant “followed appropriate training and protocols,” and pointed the finger at mechanical failures. That reads a bit like a pre-emptive exoneration. An independent investigation should determine if that’s true, and if the county’s training and protocols were sufficient.
Who will pay? The West Point plant is insured, and Constantine’s office said there is no indication that insurance won’t cover the debacle. But Seattle already has the nation’s highest water and sewer fees, in part because King County built the extraordinarily expensive, $1.8 billion Brightwater treatment plant.
How can a similar event be prevented? Rain happens here, sometimes in torrents. And King County is appropriately under pressure to avoid dumping untreated stormwater and sewage into Puget Sound.
The West Point plant failure reminds us of a regional irony. Constantine joined in a chorus of boos from the Pacific Northwest over Victoria, B.C.’s, systemic, decades-long policy of dumping of sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Victoria’s intentional dumping of sewage, of course, is worse than an infrastructure breakdown. But solutions and transparency around West Point are urgent.