A gate malfunctioned on a King County sewer overflow pipe backed raw sewage into 11 homes in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood.
Nino Canto thought he was going to be putting a coat of fresh paint on the walls in his finished basement. But instead the downstairs is so damaged by raw sewage he can’t stay at his house.
His was one of 11 homes swamped by a sewage backup Feb. 9 that displaced 24 residents after a gate malfunctioned on a King County sewer overflow pipe.
The gate was supposed to open to allow sewage and stormwater to overflow into the Duwamish River in South Park. But the gate didn’t open, and the sewage instead backed up through drains and toilets into the homes, in some cases more than a foot up the wall.
The sewage backup was just part of the mayhem during heavy rain that day.
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The West Point treatment plant in the early-morning hours also sustained catastrophic damage when power failed to pumps carrying effluent from the plant, causing it to back up into the facility and flood the plant, damaging electric panels, pumps and other equipment.
It likely will be months before the plant is back in proper working order, said Robert Waddle, operations and maintenance section manager for King County Wastewater. Repairs and cleaning are expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
Work is underway 24 hours a day, with dozens of specialized workers and hazardous-materials crews.
Meanwhile in South Park, residents have been put up in hotels since the sewage backup, courtesy of King County, as contractors hired by the county clean, sanitize and demolish the ruined areas of the homes. Most of the backup happened in residences in the 700 block of South Kenyon Street.
Next, contractors will rebuild the damaged rooms, also at county expense. The residents’ belongings that could be saved are in storage. They will be paid replacement value for items that could not be salvaged.
So far only two people have been able to return to their homes. The others could be out for weeks, said Annie Kolb-Nelson, spokeswoman for King County Waste Water.
Cantu was at work when his son, who is autistic and about to move into the basement at their home, called to say there was a flood. It turned out to be far worse than that.
Rushing home, Cantu discovered raw sewage had climbed the walls in the basement that he had recently carpeted and moved furnishings into. Paint swatches are still on the walls for the decorating he was planning. But instead the walls had to be gutted back to the studs some 2 feet up from the floor.
Sanitized and cleaned by the county, there was no longer any smell in the downstairs rooms. A big improvement, Cantu said. “It was bad. Gross!” Cantu said. “Let me tell you.
“My first thought was what do I do? Where do we stay, the impact on the day-to-day, how do I clean it up?”
He lost three vacation days, sorting through his belongings with county workers, determining what could be saved, and what was trashed, Cantu said. “They have been great,” he said of King County. “So far. We will see what happens from here on.”
The county is still investigating why the gate failed, Kolb-Nelson said. Meanwhile, the county also is working to take care of the displaced residents, who have also been issued debit cards to cover per diem costs for food. “We’ll take care of people, and make it right,” she said. “They lost their possessions, not being able to come home at night, it had a huge impact on people.”
Community Services Program Manager Chris Townsend said county staff went door to door informing people right after the backup that they could not stay in their homes because of the danger of raw wastewater, which carries pathogens and contaminants.
The team was on the ground for days, working with residents to sort through their belongings and deal with the mess. Many of the residents are non-English- speaking or low income or both, requiring extra assistance.
ECOSS a nonprofit, has been hired by King County to help residents with claim forms.
The neighborhood is low- lying and just a block from the Duwamish River. Homes are interspersed with heavy-industrial facilities. Most are single-family homes in which some, like Andy Hatfield, live with many roommates.
Hatfield works two jobs, as a paralegal and at a popcorn factory. He was less than pleased to come home to find his basement room had been doused with raw sewage.
“My mattress was soaked,” Hatfield said. “I had papers on the ground, and my computer, they were all pretty wet. It didn’t smell good.”
He doesn’t expect to be back in his house until mid-March.
But he’s grateful for all the assistance.
“When it first happened, I was pretty sad,” Hatfield said. “I don’t have anything anymore. All my clothes, even all my shoes, except the ones I have on. My room got messed up. But they have really helped; I can’t believe how responsive King County has been.”
Getting the West Point facility back on track is a larger task.
Work is continuing to clean and repair the plant, and understand what happened. Meanwhile, the plant has no secondary treatment working and is providing only screening, minimal settling and disinfecting of wastewater.
The plant has capacity to provide limited wastewater treatment for up to 250 million gallons per day — nearly double the amount needed on an average day this time of year, but well below the plant’s designed capacity of 450 million gallons per day, according to Doug Williams, also a spokesman for King County Wastewater.
Hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage has overflowed through an emergency outfall to Puget Sound during high-water events since the flood crippled the plant.