Bremerton leads Seattle in cleaning up raw sewage

The city of Seattle and King County have signed legal agreements to reduce the annual discharge into Puget Sound of nearly 2 billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with stormwater.

The agreements follow legal actions by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to information released today. See EPA’s news release.

We’re talking about “combined sewer overflows” or CSOs, which occur in many older cities where stormwater and sewage get mixed together in antiquated piping networks. At lows flows, all the water gets treated, but at high flows the mixed wastewater exceeds the capacity of the pipes and gets dumped into Puget Sound.

I’m surprised it has taken this long to come to terms with the problem in Seattle and King County. For 14 years, Bremerton officials have been working to resolve their CSO problems, costing sewer customers some $54 million, according to city figures.

I’m sure Bremerton officials have chafed at the idea that while they were rushing to address the problem, other cities were going at a relatively slow pace. It took a lawsuit by the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance to get Bremerton to clean up its waters. But once city officials agreed to do the work, they have never looked back.

I called Bremerton Public Works Director Phil Williams to ask if the city had completed the task.

“We’re done,” he told me. “We’re now in compliance. It has been a long and expensive process… We are really proud of the work we have done.”

Bremerton residents will be paying high sewer bills for many years to pay off loans to complete the work, he said, “so I guess it’s never really over until it is paid for.”

EPA’s news release does not include an estimate of the cost for Seattle or King County. But it does point out that the city manages 92 CSO outfalls and King County 38. Those are far more than the 15 or so that Bremerton had to contend with.

In 2007, Seattle’s system overflowed an estimated 249 times and King County’s system overflowed an estimated 87 times. Untreated sewage flowed into Lake Union, Lake Washington, the Duwamish River and Puget Sound.

Why didn’t Puget Soundkeeper Alliance go after Seattle or King County or other older cities that operate CSO systems?

For one thing, I understand that the overflow data for Bremerton was easily acquired and dropped into the lap of the Puget Soundkeeper. Violations of the federal Clean Water Act were easily proven.

Phil Williams, who was not in Bremerton at the time, speculates that Bremerton was perhaps an easier legal target than the larger governments across Puget Sound.

Leaders in the alliance told me years ago that they intended to take on other cities when they were finished with Bremerton, but they never did.

“I’m glad to see the bigger players taking this on,” Phil told me. “I am rather pleased that I’m not the one to solve the problems the size of those they will have to face.”

Click here for information about Bremerton’s CSO Reduction Program.

Under the EPA compliance order, Seattle needs to prepare an overflow emergency response plan, a plan to ensure the collection system is cleaned systematically, a plan to create more storage in the collection system, a plan to reduce the number of basement backups and a plan to reduce the number of dry weather overflows.

This is not a simple engineering problem, and once the planning is done, there will be more expensive work to complete. For additional information, check out Seattle’s Combined Sewer Overflow Reduction Plan.

King County’s task is easier. The county must submit a plan to observe and document some of King County’s CSO outfalls after a rainfall event to ensure there is no “debris” being discharged. The order requires King County to upgrade the Elliott West CSO Treatment Plant to ensure treatment of overflows before release. That deadline also is March 2010.

For more info, check out King County’s Combined Sewer Overflow Control Program.

NOTE (Thursday, 7:35 a.m):
When I first wrote this entry yesterday, I was willing to offer odds that Seattle would not complete its planning by the deadline. Feeling more optimistic today, I’d like to say that I’m sure that Seattle can get it done, but it will take some focus and money. I’ve taken down my bet.

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