Sewage spills in Puget Sound over the past two years, totaling more than 6 million gallons, have driven the Suquamish Tribe to threaten a lawsuit against King County for the violation of clean-water laws.
In a letter to King County officials Tuesday, lawyers representing the tribe stated the tribe’s intent to sue the county within 60 days for violation of the Clean Water Act because of sewage spills from its West Point Treatment Plant in 2018 and 2019 — in addition to other violations of county permits reported by King County to its regulator, the state Department of Ecology.
The biggest spill noted by the tribe came on July 19 last year just as the Suquamish Tribe was welcoming 40 canoe paddlers and hundreds of guests to its reservation for the annual Tribal Canoe Journey. An order from the health department warning to have no contact with the water put the tribe scrambling for clean shirts and washing stations for guests as they arrived on their shores. Popular beaches at Discovery Park also were closed.
It was a blow that still stings for the people from the Place of Clear Saltwater, who pride themselves on hospitality.
“It was rather difficult, and embarrassing,” Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, located on the Kitsap Peninsula, said in an interview Wednesday.
The spill was caused by a sag in power supply to the West Point Treatment Plant for less than a second that turned off some of the pumps at the plant. The spill and possible fines are still under investigation by Ecology.
King County has made major improvements to wastewater treatment facilities and operations over the last several years, and is investing an additional $9 billion this decade alone in clean water and healthy habitat, according to a statement from the county’s Wastewater Treatment Division in response to the tribe’s letter.
The tribe’s complaint also comes as the county has initiated work on a new comprehensive plan for further investment in wastewater infrastructure.
The county has hundreds of miles of pipes, pumps, tanks, treatment plants and other equipment, some of it 50 years old, and is facing a growing population and a changing climate that will hammer the system with more intense storms that increase the volume of wastewater it must manage. Wastewater is comprised mostly of storm water, in addition to raw sewage from homes and businesses.
The county will spend billions of dollars over the next few decades on upgrades and expansions to the system, all paid for with utility rates that are already among the highest in the country. The planning process is intended to guide those investments to the best outcomes.
Yet failures, however inadvertent, still happen — and the tribe has had enough, Forsman said. The tribe recently also settled a lawsuit with the U.S. Navy, joined by the state attorney general, for chipping the equivalent of 73 dump-truck loads of contaminated hull scrapings into Sinclair Inlet.
The Navy agreed to a 10-year moratorium on underwater scraping, with the work done instead in dry dock. The Navy also agreed to put a layer of 6 to 9 inches of clean sand over 8 acres of the sediment floor of Sinclair Inlet to cover scraping debris.
Meanwhile, pollution from the county’s facilities has over the years disrupted the tribe’s cultural practices, denied harvest of shellfish from 30 miles of beaches in its traditional use area, and even required tribal recalls of shellfish from commercial sale because of possible wastewater contamination.
“This is the hard part of the job for me sometimes as a chairman, when we have to take these drastic actions against people we have partnered with before,” Forsman said. He has long relationships with county managers and King County Executive Dow Constantine.
“I’ve known Dow for a long time and know his commitment to this, and his meaningful government-to-government commitment with tribes and to protecting the environment,” Forsman said. “The problem is, this keeps happening … Our fishermen and our elders expect us to protect our ancestral waters.”
In its letter to the county, the tribe listed 11 specific spills from January 2018 through November 2019, totaling 6.4 million gallons of untreated or improperly treated sewage illegally entering the tribe’s traditional use area in Puget Sound. The spills typically would have been mostly storm water, but some would have included a portion of raw sewage.
Forsman acknowledged the county’s efforts to date but insisted it must do better. “King County has been a leader in trying to address wastewater treatment in the past,” Forsman said. “I appreciate they have done a lot of things to try to manage their growth of the population. But I don’t feel their wastewater system has kept up.”
The county in 2017 also weathered a major disaster at its West Point plant, which flooded and was so badly damaged it had to be largely rebuilt and could not function properly for months.
Christie True, director of King County Natural Resources and Parks, which has authority over the Wastewater Treatment Division, said the county highly values its relationship with the Suquamish.
“I am sure we will be talking soon with the Suquamish Tribe about this,” she said. “It is very important to us that we have this dialogue because the relationship is just incredibly important.
“We all want the same thing in the end.”