Category Archives: Pollution and spills

Petition seeks upgrades to Puget Sound sewage treatment plants

UPDATE, Feb. 12
Northwest Environmental Advocates has taken its case to court in an effort to obtain a new Washington state sewage-treatment standard under AKART — “All Known, Available and Reasonable Treatment.” For information about the case, refer to the NWEA news release and the lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court.
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An environmental group, Northwest Environmental Advocates, is calling on the Washington Department of Ecology and Gov. Jay Inslee to invoke a 1945 law in hopes of forcing cities and counties to improve their sewage-treatment plants.

Large ribbons of the plankton Noctiluca can be seen in this photo taken at Poverty Bay near Federal Way on June 28 last year. Excess nitrogen can stimulate plankton growth, leading to low-oxygen conditions.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Department of Ecology

In a petition to Ecology, the group says the state agency should require cities and counties to upgrade their plants to “tertiary treatment” before the wastewater gets discharged into Puget Sound. Such advanced treatment would remove excess nitrogen along with some toxic chemicals that create problems for sea life, according to Nina Bell, executive director of NWEA, based in Portland.

Most sewage-treatment plants in the region rely on “secondary treatment,” which removes most solids but does little to reduce nitrogen or toxic chemicals. Secondary treatment is an outdated process, Nina told me, adding that Ecology needs to lead the way to a more advanced treatment technology.

“It’s a travesty that cities around Puget Sound continue to use 100-year-old sewage-treatment technology when cities across the nation have demonstrated that solutions are available and practical,” she said.

According to Nina, state law requires the use of “all known, available and reasonable treatment,” or AKART for short. Secondary treatment is the current AKART standard of treatment, she said, but tertiary treatment is known, available and reasonable — and it should become the new AKART standard.

The petition to Ecology (PDF 793 kb), filed in November, was denied earlier this month.

“Although Ecology has decided to deny your petition, we share your concerns regarding existing nutrient impacts and dissolved oxygen impairments within Puget Sound,” states the response (857 kb) signed by Ecology Director Maia Bellon. “However, Ecology does not agree that revising (state regulations) to define AKART as tertiary treatment … is a reasonable approach to address Puget Sound water quality impairments.”

Tertiary treatment is “neither affordable nor necessary for all wastewater treatment plants,” the Ecology director says in the letter, adding that Ecology’s approach is to set effluent limits for each discharger at levels that avoid water quality violations.

A major effort, called the Puget Sound Nutrient Source Reduction Project is using a computer model to look at the effects of nitrogen releases from various sewage-treatment plants at current rates of loading and to consider what would happen if tertiary treatment were installed at specific problem locations.

Meanwhile, future discharge permits issued by Ecology will consider nitrogen loading and require treatment plant operators to evaluate the effects of potential nitrogen-reduction targets, Maia noted.

Preliminary studies showed that if nitrogen-removal equipment were installed at the five largest plants in Puget Sound, the population could double without increasing nitrogen loading. Installing the equipment at all treatment plants in Puget Sound could lead to a 40-percent reduction in nitrogen, according to information I reviewed for a series of stories last year in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Taking the next step before considering a possible lawsuit, Northwest Environmental Advocates appealed to Gov. Inslee this week to overturn Ecology’s finding and support a requirement that all discharges to Puget Sound meet the higher level of treatment. Check out the appeal petition (PDF 217 kb).

Noctiluca scintillans bloom at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines recorded June 4 of last year.
Video: Washington Department of Ecology

Tertiary treatment is being used in some areas of Puget Sound where excess nitrogen has produced massive plankton blooms, creating low-oxygen conditions that can be deadly to sea life. The Olympia region in South Puget Sound is one example. Check out my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Excess nitrogen in Puget Sound can trigger massive plankton blooms, which can lead to deadly low-oxygen conditions for fish and other marine life.

Other than sewage-treatment plants, sources of nitrogen include fertilizers from farm fields and septic systems in rural areas, as well as natural sources such as decomposing vegetation, nitrogen-releasing plants and salmon that have spawned and died.

The greatest obstacle to upgrading all 87 sewage-treatment plants in Puget Sound is cost, according to local and state officials who peg the total costs of sewer upgrades in the billions of dollars.

The largest sewage facility in Puget Sound is King County’s West Point plant in Seattle, which has no room to grow, according to county officials. To upgrade the plant to tertiary treatment would require that new equipment be installed elsewhere, with the sewage piped to the new plant.

Nina Bell said if the state declared that tertiary treatment was “known, available and reasonable” under the AKART requirement, then individual treatment facilities could seek a variance for such hardships, or at least be given adequate time to design and install the equipment.

“It may be difficult,” she said, “but difficult translates to using different approaches to the problem. Getting a rule change is the first step to making this a priority. The state makes all sorts of decisions that cost large amounts of money, including stadiums and such. It takes leadership to get something done.”

When the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, secondary treatment became the requirement for most facilities across the country. New sewage-treatment plants were required in many areas. At first, the federal government offered grants of 90 percent for construction, leaving local governments to pick up the remaining 10 percent. Later, when those grants expired, Washington state launched its own program with 50 percent grants.

The value of fish, shellfish and recreation that results from having a healthy Puget Sound cannot be overlooked, Nina said. “Like all things, Puget Sound requires maintenance.”

Tertiary-treatment systems are designed to remove nitrogen, Nina said. But studies have shown that they can also remove some level of toxic chemicals, including medicines, personal-care products and other “contaminants of emerging concern” that currently go unregulated.

She cited an Ecology study (PDF 9.7 mb), which showed that secondary treatment systems were able to reduce 21 percent of the 172 compounds tested to levels below reporting limits. But advanced nutrient-removal systems, such as tertiary treatment, were able to clean up 53 percent of the chemicals.

Reducing those toxic compounds in Puget Sound would provide benefits for all species, including highly contaminated salmon and orcas, she said.

The AKART standard, adopted as state policy in 1945, was envisioned to keep the waters of the state clean, Nina said. It only makes sense to use the latest technology in a reasonable way. At this point, she added, it would be better late than never.

European Union charges forward to reduce dangerous plastic litter

By 2021, the 28 countries in the European Union are expected to ban single-use plastics — including straws, plates, cutlery and drink stirrers, as well as plastic sticks for cotton swabs, balloons and candy.

The latest development, announced this past week, involves the approval of a provisional agreement by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union. Formal approval is expected next. The ban carries through on an initiative launched in May that also seeks to limit the use of plastic drink cups, food containers, grocery bags and candy wrappers. Review Water Ways, May 31,2018, or take a look at this EU brochure.

World production of plastic materials by region (2013). Click to enlarge // Source: European Union

Most plastic in Europe is landfilled or incinerated, rather than being recycled, which is a loss to the economy, according to EU documents contained in the European Strategy for Plastics. In the environment, many plastics take hundreds of years to break down, and the amount of plastic getting into the ocean has raised alarm bells throughout the world.

“When we have a situation where one year you can bring your fish home in a plastic bag, and the next year you are bringing that bag home in a fish, we have to work hard and work fast,” Karmenu Vella, EU commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, said in a statement released Wednesday. “So I am happy that with the agreement of today between Parliament and Council. We have taken a big stride towards reducing the amount of single-use plastic items in our economy, our ocean and ultimately our bodies.”

“This agreement truly helps protect our people and our planet,” said First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development. “Europeans are conscious that plastic waste is an enormous problem and the EU as a whole has shown true courage in addressing it, making us the global leader in tackling plastic marine litter.”

The measures are expected to reduce litter by more than half for the top-10 plastic litter items, saving 22 billion Euros (about $25 billion) by 2030 and avoiding 3.4 million metric tons (3.75 million U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, according to a fact sheet.

The United Nations has launched a campaign to reduce plastic pollution.
Source: UN

Peter Harris, a graduate of North Kitsap High School who is working on an environmental assessment for the United Nations, told me in June that plastics pollution is one of the three greatest problems facing the world’s oceans. The others are the bleaching of coral reefs caused by global warming and overfishing, which is driving some species to extinction. See Water Ways, June 6, 2018.

The European Union has carefully examined how plastics affect the ocean. EU countries should be recognized for their courage in tackling the problem in Europe, not waiting for a worldwide agreement before taking action. Non-European countries would be wise to consider their own plastic impacts on the environment.

So far, actions in the United States have been limited to a relatively small number of cities and counties, along with a few states. Because plastics wash downstream in stormwater and into rivers before reaching the ocean, every American has a role to play in the problem. Whether we address the challenges internationally, nationally or locally, everyone should take time to understand this serious issue, consider practical solutions and support actions that can save marine life before it’s too late.

Amusing Monday: Bill Gates talks toilets again

Microsoft founder Bill Gates remains obsessed with human waste — in a good way, of course. His goal is to improve sanitation throughout the world and thereby reduce suffering from disease.

Poop is a subject that never goes out of style with comedians, and Ronny Chieng of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” is right on top of the subject. In a conversation with Bill Gates, shown in the first video, Chieng demands to know why Gates has been carrying around a jar of human feces.

“Toilets are something that we take for granted,” Gates responds, “but billions of people don’t have them.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a major campaign to get engineers and other smart people to design a small-scale treatment device that generates energy while producing useable water. It’s called the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Ronnie Chieng is asking some good questions, but I’m not sure why he needs to blurt out a bunch of four-letter words, when five-letter words like “waste” and “feces” work quite well.

“We’ve put several hundred million into this to show it can be done,” Bill says.

“Several hundred million dollars?” Ronnie responds. “Oh my god, is Bill Gates literally flushing his fortune down the toilet?”

Those who have been following Bill Gates’ efforts for a few years won’t be surprised at his desire to improve sanitation in places around the world where flush toilets are just a pipe dream.

Last month, Gates carried a jar of human feces onto the stage with him in Beijing where he addressed an audience at the Reinvented Toilet Expo.

“This small amount of feces could contain as many as 200 trillion rotavirus cells, 20 billion shigella bacteria and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs,” Gates said, as quoted by National Public Radio. His prepared speech can be found on the website of the Gates Foundation, along with a press release.

About 20 exhibitors were able to show off their inventions, including household toilets capable of internally processing small amounts of waste as well as commercial-sized treatment plants that turn waste into drinking water, electricity and ash.

Sedron Technologies, based in Sedro Woolley, is working at both ends of the spectrum. On the larger scale, its Janicki Omni Processor dries out solid waste and uses it as fuel. On the smaller scale, its new Firelight Toilet was just unveiled at the recent expo and explained in a news story by reporter Julia-Grace Sanders of the Skagit Valley Herald.

Gates discusses what he calls “clever toilet” technologies in the second and third videos on this page. In addition to NPR, the Expo was covered by Popular Science and The Hindu, which localizes the story for its audience in India where sanitation is a monstrous issue.

As I said, Bill Gates has been obsessed with this issue for quite awhile. In 2015, I featured a video about the “ultimate taste test” using sewage effluent. The tasters were Gates and Jimmy Fallon of “The Tonight Show.” See Water Ways, Feb. 9, 2015.

Hydrophones open a world of underwater sound to people at home

Listening to the sound of whales in Puget Sound from your computer at home is becoming easier than ever, thanks to a new hydrophone on Whidbey Island and its connection to a more sophisticated computer network.

Organizers anticipate that thousands of human listeners could add a new dimension to scientific studies, raise awareness about the noise that orcas endure and perhaps alert authorities when sounds are loud enough to harm marine mammals in the vicinity.

The new hydrophone (underwater microphone) at Whidbey’s Bush Point was installed last summer, but it stopped working soon after it was announced to the world in early November, when news stories appeared in print and on radio and television. The timing couldn’t have been worse, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a partner in the venture.

“We finally got the word out just as it crashed and just as J pod came into Puget Sound,” Howie told me. “We got it working after J pod had left.”

It appears that there was a problem with both the hydrophone itself and the power supply that runs a critical computer, experts say. I decided to wait and write about the new hydrophone when readers could go right to the Orcasound webpage and listen to the live sounds of underwater activity. With Whidbey’s hydrophone back in operation, one can now listen to sounds from two hydrophone locations using a web browser:

  • Orcasound Lab: This location on the west side of San Juan Island is a major thoroughfare for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales as they come east through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or south from the Strait of Georgia.
  • Bush Point: This location on the west side of Whidbey Island picks up the orcas as the enter or leave Puget Sound through Admiralty Inlet, their primary route to and from Central and South Puget Sound.

Sounds from hydrophones in several areas of Puget Sound have been available for years, thanks to the efforts of Val Veirs and his son Scott, affiliated with Beam Reach Marine Science, along with a host of other volunteers and organizations who have helped maintain the hydrophones. In the past, network users would need to launch a media player, such as iTunes, on their computer to receive the live audio stream. The new browser-based system requires no additional software.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

One can also listen to a hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse, a favorite spot of the orcas on the west side of San Juan Island. The Lime Kiln live stream, a project of SMRU Consulting and The Whale Museum, can be heard on SMRU’s website. I’m hoping that Scott can add the hydrophone to his list. Orcasound, which is managed by Scott, still has a link to Lime Kiln that requires iTunes or another player.

At the moment, hydrophones that had been in operation at Port Townsend Marine Science Center, Seattle Aquarium and Neah Bay are out of operation for various reasons, Scott said, but he is working with folks at each location to see if the hydrophones could be brought back online using his new browser-based software. He would also like to expand the network with more hydrophones to pick up whale movements.

Scott’s vision of this hydrophone network involves using the technology to organize people to improve our understanding of orcas and other marine mammals while building a community concerned about the effects of underwater noise.

Scott said he has been surprised at the number of average people who have caught on to specific calls made by the whales. By identifying the calls, one can learn to tell the difference between fish-eating residents and marine-mammal-eating transients. More advanced listeners can distinguish between J, K and L pods. Check out Orcasound’s “Listen” page for information about sharing observations, learning about orca calls, and listening to archived recordings of calls.

One story I’ve never told goes back to 1997, when 19 orcas from L pod were in Dyes Inlet. It involves a phone call I received from my wife Sue. I was working at the Kitsap Sun office and away from my desk when the call came in. When I checked my voicemail, I heard what I thought was the mewing of tiny kittens. That made sense, I thought, because we had recently adopted two one-day-old kittens whose mother had abandoned them at birth. But the sound on my phone was not kittens after all but killer whales. My wife was in a boat on Dyes Inlet helping researchers who had lowered a hydrophone to listen to the orcas. Sue was holding up her cellphone and leaving me a voicemail from the whales.

The sound I heard on my phone was something like the following call, although multiplied by many voices:

      1. K-pod-S16-stereo

Scott told me that he would like to come up with names instead of numbers for the various calls. The one above is already being called “kitten’s mew,” although it is better known as “S16” among the scientific community. See the website “Listening for orcas” or the longer “Southern Resident Call Vocabulary.”

Orca Network is well known for collecting information about whale sightings, but now people are also reporting in when they hear the sounds of whales. That is especially helpful when visibility is poor. Both the sighting and sounding information can at times be useful to researchers who follow the whales at a distance and collect fecal samples to check out their health conditions. Observers can send notes via Orca Network’s Facebook page or via email.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

Howard Garrett of Orca Network mentioned that many people are tuning in to the underwater sounds even when whales are not around. They may listen for hours with an expectation of hearing something interesting, but listeners also come to understand the world occupied by the whales.

“You get to experience what the orcas’ lives are like,” Howie told me. “It’s a noisy world for the killer whales.”

Scott agreed. “The most powerful thing that these live streams do is inspire people to listen. What they come to understand is what quiet is and that ships are the dominant source of noise out there.”

Knowing where a hydrophone is located, one can go to MarineTraffic.com and identify one or more ships that may be making the noise. “I do want people to call out outlier noise polluters,” Scott said.

Because federal funds for running the hydrophones has mostly dried up, Scott launched a Kickstarter campaign to design and get the new system up and running. It was great to learn who the supporters are, he said, noting that he knew only about a third of the people who are regular listeners. One woman in Romania became an expert in listening to the whales and wrote a paper about how to improve the hydrophone network.

“We are poised to become a much better organizer of people,” Scott said. “One option is for notifications. We can send out notifications using a new app that allows people to tune in when the whales can be heard.”

Notifications are not yet an option, but I told Scott that I would let people know when this option becomes available.

Computer programs have been developed to recognize the sounds of orcas, record various data and send out an alert, but the human brain has unique capabilities for understanding sound. Together, computers and human listeners can capture more information than either one alone. Scott said.

“I think we might have a friendly competition between humans and machines,” he noted.

Most hydrophones are designed for listening in the human range of hearing, but Scott would like to install more advanced devices capable of capturing the full vocal range of an orca. Such sounds could then be more completely analyzed. Perhaps someone will discover the still-hidden meanings of the orca vocalizations.

Legal settlement could help protect salmon eggs incubating in gravel

Washington Department of Ecology has agreed to take steps to protect wild salmon eggs incubating in gravel by developing entirely new water-quality standards to control fine sediment going into streams.

The new standards, yet to be developed, could ultimately limit silty runoff coming from logging operations, housing construction and other operations that can affect water quality. The idea is maintain adequate oxygen to salmon eggs, thus increasing the rate of survival as well as the health of the young fish.

The legal agreement with Ecology grew out of a lawsuit brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates against the federal Environmental Protection Agency. NWEA claimed that the EPA had failed to consult with natural resource agencies while reviewing changes in state water-quality standards, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

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Hood Canal avoids a major fish kill following unwelcome conditions

Southern Hood Canal avoided a major fish kill this year, but for a few days in September it looked like conditions were set for low-oxygen waters to rise to the surface, leaving fish in a critical state with no place to go, experts say.

Data from the Hoodsport buoy show the rise of low-oxygen waters to the surface over time (purple color in top two graphs). // Graphic: NANOOS

Seth Book, a biologist with the Skokomish Tribe, has been keeping a close watch on a monitoring buoy at Hoodsport. Dissolved oxygen in deep waters reached a very low concentration near the end of September, raising concerns that if these waters were to rise to the surface they could suddenly lead to a deadly low-oxygen condition. This typically happens when south winds blow the surface waters to the north.

“I started asking around the community to see if anyone had seen evidence of low DO (fish at surface; dead fish; deep fish being observed or found in fishing nets at surface; diver observations) and luckily I had no reports,” Seth wrote to me in an email.

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New film celebrates the history of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and I was pleased to see that producer/director Shane Anderson and Pacific Rivers are allowing the documentary “Run Wild Run Free” to be shown online for three days before the film goes back into limited showings.

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Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Less boater pollution allows more shellfish harvesting near marinas

State health officials have reduced shellfish-closure areas around 20 marinas in Puget Sound, allowing more commercial shellfish harvesting while inching toward a goal of upgrading 10,800 acres of shellfish beds by 2020.

In all, 661 acres of shellfish beds were removed from a long-standing “prohibited” classification that has been applied around marinas, based on assumptions about the dumping of sewage from boats confined to small areas.

Poulsbo Marina // Photo: Nick Hoke via Wikimedia

“We have seen pretty significant changes in boat-waste management,” said Scott Berbells, shellfish growing area manager for the Washington Department of Health, explaining how the upgrades came about.

New calculations of discharges from boats in marinas and the resulting risks of eating nearby shellfish have allowed health authorities to reduce, but not eliminate, the closure zones around the marinas.

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Focus on chinook salmon creates troubles for Southern Resident orcas

I’ve often wondered how well Puget Sound’s endangered orcas would be doing today if these whales had not grown up within a culture of eating chinook salmon.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

In Iceland, some killer whales apparently feed on both fish and seals, depending on the time of year, according to researcher Sara Tavares of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The same animals have been seen among large groups of orcas as they pursue schools of herring in the North Atlantic, she writes in her blog, Icelandic Orcas.

The Icelandic whales have a different social structure than the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea. Both groups are also quite different from the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound more frequently in recent years.

It is now widely accepted that groups of killer whales each have their own culture, passed down from mothers to offspring, with older relatives playing an integral role in the lessons. Culture is simply learned behavior, and the message delivered from the elders to the young is: “This is the way we do it.”

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