It could be at least April before catastrophic damage to the West Point treatment plant is repaired. Meanwhile the plant’s wastewater treatment capacity is crippled.
Clouds of steam billow and swirl in the dark amid the roar of generators as workers aim a pressure washer at the walls in the West Point treatment plant in a battle against filth.
Outside, atop a cherry picker, another worker trains 3,000 pounds per square inch of steam at the outside walls of sludge digesters that overflowed.
“It was raining sludge,” said Robert Waddle, operations manager for the West Point plant, which flooded with raw sewage and stormwater Feb. 9 when a power outage caused pumps taking effluent from the plant to fail.
As workers struggled to restart the pumps, the plant was swamping. By the time an automatic gate triggered to shut off the incoming flow of raw sewage and stormwater, shunting it to Puget Sound, damage to the plant was catastrophic.
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Some 15 million gallons of raw sewage and stormwater cascaded down stairwells, blew off doors, and flooded rooms 12 feet up, destroying motors, electrical panels, lighting, ventilation and heating systems — basically anything electrically powered. Even the light fixtures on the ceilings were submerged.
Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage and stormwater were diverted to Puget Sound as the gate, intended to save the plant from further damage, directed the flow to an emergency bypass.
“It’s a big environmental issue,” said Heather Bartlett, manager of the Water Quality program for the state Department of Ecology.
“The state has been pushing on Victoria in B.C. to deal with their release of untreated sewage. So we have experienced something that is similar to what we have being trying to get Victoria to deal with.” She expects it will be April before the plant is back to normal operation.
An investigation is underway into the flood and its cause. Meanwhile, the work of cleaning and sanitizing and repairing the plant goes on around the clock.
In dark and cold rooms with emergency lighting or flashlights and head lamps, the work is difficult and dangerous, with tripping and fall hazards amid a stomach-churning, ripe stench.
“We do the dirty work,” said Jordan Boze, a utility worker who has spent the past several weeks pumping out raw sewage, vacuuming grit or whatever else needs to be done. “You point, we go,” he said.
“It was just a shock,” he said of the state of devastation he confronted immediately after the flood. “You come in and all of a sudden, it’s a different place.”
His co-worker John Murray agreed: “It’s a war zone.”
The last few weeks have been a blur of work: “A lot of running around. As long as it takes, we will be here,” Boze said. “We’ve got to get it back,” he said of the plant.
Deep inside a storage room, workers in hazmat suits with full respirators, face masks, boots, and taped sleeves and cuffs picked through shattered light bulbs toxic with mercury.
Other rooms have been cleaned to a polish and now await reinstallation of new or repaired equipment. The county’s insurer has already sent a check for $5 million to help with cleanup and repair costs.
Some 20 people have been cleaning and sanitizing the plant, and they will be joined by 50 to 100 more to keep working at it this weekend. Meanwhile, mechanics are working to rehab destroyed motors and pumps.
Heating, ventilation and cooling systems also need to be fixed. More than 100 electrical panels need to be replaced.
At a plant where operators pride themselves on typically cleansing wastewater up to 90 to 95 percent using primary and secondary treatment, right now even normal primary treatment isn’t possible.
Wastewater typically leaves primary treatment 60 percent clean of solids, but right now it’s 40 percent clean or less, and dropping, Waddle said.
Sedimentation tanks that settle out impurities aren’t functional because motors that drive pumps and equipment to remove scum, grease and sludge were ruined by the flood.
Right now the main treatment strategies are disinfectant, dechlorination, screening out trash, and use of the deep water outfall to Puget Sound, instead of the closer-in, shallower emergency bypass, said Christie True, director of King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks, which includes the Wastewater treatment division.
The entire secondary system that polishes the wastewater 90 to 95 percent clean is offline. That’s not because it is damaged, but it’s to protect the bio-organisms within it that eat the material still in the wastewater arriving from primary treatment.
Secondary wastewater clarifier tanks and sludge digesters both do their work with beneficial microorganisms. Living ecosystems, theirs is a delicate balance that can’t be disrupted with a slug of material from the primary treatment system that the beneficial bugs are not used to handling.
“They could get sick, die,” said True. “Then we would lose secondary, too.”
That’s a complication the county doesn’t want because it can take months to revive and tune the biology of the secondary system.
The plant is required under its permit from the state Department of Ecology to provide secondary level treatment with at least 85 percent removal of impurities. Right now the county is struggling to hit 40 percent, and sometimes it’s worse.
So far, nearly 300 million gallons of raw sewage have been spilled from the plant’s emergency bypass because it can only treat half the usual volume of sewage, even to reduced primary levels. Emergency bypasses could keep happening if the region sees more big storms before the plant is fixed.
Plant managers have for 14 years in a row received platinum awards from their industry for perfect compliance with their permit, and they were on their way to a 15th before this happened.
“I’m not thinking about that,” Waddle said. “What I am thinking about is getting the plant back online.”