A new analysis of the catastrophic flood of King County’s West Point wastewater treatment plant describes the need for better strategic leadership in a utility division with the nation’s highest rates.
AT the peak of a Feb. 9 storm, a deluge of sewage and stormwater equal to an Olympic-sized swimming pool flowed each minute into the West Point treatment plant at Discovery Park.
The plant utterly broke down that night in a cascade of mechanical and electrical failures, as documented in a new report commissioned by the Metropolitan King County Council. As the failures compounded on each other, the control room staff were barraged with 120 alarms per minute — more than 2,300 in less than an hour. Yet none of the clanging told them that vast pools of sewage and stormwater were actually flooding the plant. It was a cacophony without hierarchy. Mass confusion.
What’s aggravating for King County ratepayers, who pay the highest water-sewer bills in the nation, is that the storm, as impressive as it was, shouldn’t have caused the catastrophic damage, which is estimated at up to $57 million. The plant on average sees more than 30 similar torrents a year.
For those high bills, ratepayers should have a gold-plated water and sewer system. But the council’s report, written by the consultant AECOM, points to poor strategic leadership and planning in King County Executive Dow Constantine’s administration.
The AECOM consultants, who have experience working in similar plants all over the world, found a surprising lack of preparation — training, backup systems and redundancy — at West Point. Those backups are critical because West Point has very little margin for error when the rain is really falling.
For example, the first system to fail — the outflow pumps — should have had redundant power supply in case the first source failed, as it did that night. It does now, as part of a massive rebuild at the plant which replaced 14 transformers, 54 electrical panels, 101 motors, 22 HVAC units and three boilers.
The control-room staff also needed better guidance about hitting the main bypass switch — the one that shunts stormwater and sewage directly into the Puget Sound. The “no bypass philosophy” embedded in King County’s training left staff members unclear when they should hit that switch. It wasn’t hit until after catastrophic damage to the plant, and that in turn caused hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage and stormwater to flow straight into Puget Sound over the coming weeks.
From the AECOM report, it is clear the West Point workers did all they knew how to do in an extraordinary event. But they deserved better training, more redundant backup systems and more forward-looking management.
King County already has followed most of the technical suggestions in the AECOM report, but it still needs to figure out how to build in a wider margin of error before the next big storm. It needs to do so without further jacking up the already sky-high water and sewer rates in King County. For what we’re paying, we deserve better.