Since 2015, the number of parked RVs located within the Sodo and Ballard neighborhoods of Seattle has increased dramatically, now totaling hundreds. Many of these RV owners fail to follow proper waste-disposal protocols, instead discharging their accumulated sewer wastes, including “black water,” directly into the city storm drains. The result is that untreated sewage is being released directly into our local waterways.
Using Environmental Protection Agency wastewater pump-out and treatment statistics, it’s estimated that Seattle RV campers likely discharge more than 1 million gallons of untreated sewage annually into our waterways, including the Duwamish Waterway and Salmon Bay. For comparison, a July spill of 3 million gallons from the West Point Treatment Plant closed multiple King and Kitsap counties’ beaches and could lead to enforcement actions.
To better understand the potential impact of RV discharges, the Sodo Business Improvement Area and Ballard Alliance commissioned Anchor QEA, a Seattle-based environmental science and engineering firm, to evaluate existing water-quality data and collect a storm drain water sample from a heavily populated RV parking area in Sodo. The sample from the storm drain in the midst of the RVs registered 300 times greater than the state water-quality standard for fecal coliform bacteria.
Sadly, this sampling result is consistent with recent trends in deteriorating water quality in the area. For example, historic water quality monitoring data showed a decades-long improvement in the Duwamish River — until 2015, when fecal coliform bacteria measurements began to spike upward. This coincides with the movement of hundreds of RVs into Sodo.
While a more definitive pollution-identification study is needed on the relative impact of illegal black-water discharges, the data points strongly suggest that illegal dumping of sewage and trash, along with unsanitary conditions in unregulated RV encampments, increase public-health risks and could result in serious outbreaks of communicable diseases such as hepatitis A and typhus.
Not only do these poor waste-management practices have the potential to endanger RV residents, but they frustrate ongoing efforts to clean up our waterways and adversely impact the marine environment and public health.
Seattle is known worldwide as an environmental leader and the protector of Puget Sound. However, the data indicates that unchecked dumping of untreated waste into Seattle’s stormwater system threatens to undo decades of cleanup and restoration. Turning back this tide of pollution starts with stopping the proliferation of dilapidated and malfunctioning RVs — something we have raised with Mayor Jenny Durkan as well as the City Council. While the mayor’s office has engaged productively, council members turn a blind eye to the issue, choosing instead to keep the status quo and continue to allow derelict RVs to remain parked on our neighborhood streets, threatening the safety of our waterways.
Sodo BIA and the Ballard Alliance have shared this study with Seattle officials and have asked to partner with the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Washington Department of Health, King County, and Seattle Public Utilities to develop approaches to stop this ongoing problem.
It is time to stop ignoring the impacts of unregulated RV encampments and illegal raw-sewage dumping. It is disturbing to think that something as basic as enforcing city codes regarding dumping raw sewage from RVs could roll back decades of progress made in cleaning and protecting Puget Sound.