There has been little response from environmentalists since the region’s largest wastewater-treatment plant was disabled in a catastrophic flood last month, though it continues to send tons of waste into Puget Sound.
It’s the proverbial tree that fell in the forest without making a sound, or perhaps the raw sewage that spewed into Puget Sound without making a splash.
Since the region’s largest wastewater-treatment plant was disabled in a catastrophic flood last month, the Metropolitan King County Council and Regional Water Quality Committee between them have held multiple public hearings on the disaster.
Not a single person from an environmental group or the public turned out to testify or demand action on the crippled West Point Treatment Plant, or even take notice of one of the largest local public infrastructure failures in decades.
Tons of solids are pouring into Puget Sound every day because the plant is too broken to treat wastewater properly. Yet council members say they’ve barely heard a peep from environmental groups.
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The Seattle area is no slacker for environmental activism; hundreds of people have turned out of late in the streets to demand the city change banks to punish Wells Fargo for lending money to help build the Dakota Access Pipeline. And Elliott Bay swarmed with “kayaktivists” in 2015 to protest drilling in the Arctic when Shell staged equipment at the Port of Seattle docks.
“It’s odd, I have to say, I haven’t heard from any of them, not at all,” said King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, whose district includes the plant. “It is bizarre.”
- How West Point processes sewage (April 28)
- Silence reigns as sewage spews into Puget Sound. Here’s why. (March 15)
- Sludge bugs: Sewage-eating microbes in peril at crippled West Point plant (March 12)
- Damage to West Point treatment plant could top $25 million (Feb. 27)
- 'It's a war zone': How crews are braving raw sewage to fix the West Point plant Feb. 25)
- Officials say damage to sewage plant in Discovery Park is catastrophic (Feb. 16)
- Millions of gallons of wastewater dumping into Puget Sound after heavy rainfall (Feb. 9)
- Complete coverage »
There have been no news conferences except by county government. No citizen group has pressed for answers. “It’s complacency; everyone thinks someone else is going to take care of it,” said Maria Mason, of Bainbridge Island, who has taken it upon herself to dig into water-quality impacts and more since the plant was disabled. “Why don’t people care?”
Councilmember Rod Dembowski said he, too, has heard very little from the public. “No environmental group has contacted my office; one possible explanation might be that so much of the pollution is invisible, except for shortly after it happened, with closing the beaches,” Dembowski said. “People aren’t on the shore or in the water as much as in the summer. I do wonder if it had happened in July or August.”
Environmental groups will meet with Christie True, director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, which runs the wastewater-treatment division, on Wednesday for a briefing on the breakdown and what’s being done about it. The county initiated the meeting.
That is the kind of close alliance that may be forestalling some of the outcry, some surmised.
“King County reached out to us,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “Nobody wanted to see this happen. I don’t think there is anything we as advocate groups can do to hasten the recovery, because they are working around the clock.”
The county also has a good record of compliance, Wilke said. His group wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Seattle Times decrying the magnitude of the crisis that has not yet been published.
To some, the lack of a bigger outcry is a continuation of a silent crisis plaguing Puget Sound, a large marine water body with environmental problems — from species threatened with extinction to pollutants hidden beneath the surface.
Emergency discharges from the plant on three occasions since the flood, totaling 235 million gallons of untreated wastewater — including 30 million gallons of raw sewage — make a highly visible plume.
The last emergency discharge was Feb. 16, and the beaches have been open since Feb. 21.
Wastewater is being screened of garbage, briefly settled, disinfected and dechlorinated before it is sent to Puget Sound, still cloudy with solids.
But discharges of wastewater less than 30 percent clean for solids — rather than 85 percent clean as required by state permit — are ongoing from the plant’s deep-water discharge, three-quarters of a mile offshore.
“It’s not something you see,” said Mindy Roberts, director of the Puget Sound Program for the Washington Environmental Council (WEC). “It’s an out of sight, out of mind problem.”
Outfalls from the Seattle area have the potential to eventually work their way to south Puget Sound, she said. “This is not just a Seattle problem. The impact is all over Puget Sound; it’s in all of our best interest to make sure the West Point Treatment Plant is working.”
She said people at WEC also were scrambling to deal with other crises, including the threatened cutback in federal funding for restoring Puget Sound. “It has been nonstop since January.”
Randy Pepple, a GOP communications strategist, said he was not surprised to hear little from environmental groups. “The reality is they work with government, not against government. If this happened in the private sector, those environmental groups would be all over it demanding there be fines and people held accountable.”
True, of King County, said the Wastewater Treatment Division will be increasing its monitoring of water quality to better understand the impact of the damage. “I think people are very concerned about it,” she said about the plant. “But I think they also know how hard we have been working on the restoration.”