Tag Archives: combined sewer overflows

Following the money into raw sewage overflows

Water-quality leaders in the Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were quick to respond yesterday to a Seattle Times’ story, which begins:

“Seattle and King County are poised to spend more than $1.3 billion of ratepayer money on pollution-cleanup programs that won’t even move the water-quality needle in Puget Sound.”

Yesterday’s story, by reporter Linda Mapes, is about combined sewage overflows — something that Bremerton knows a little about, having completed a cleanup program after 20 years and $50 million in expenditures. See my story from May 30 in the Kitsap Sun.

The premise of Linda’s story is that it might be better for local governments to focus on reducing stormwater overall rather trying to meet a 1988 state pollution standard focused on raw sewage discharges. After all, the reasoning goes, stormwater containing toxic chemicals may be worse for Puget Sound than stormwater mixed with sewage.

The state requirement, by the way, limits discharges of raw sewage in stormwater to one overflow per year, on average, for each outfall pipe.

There is plenty of room for disagreement, as the Times’ story points out. Christie True, director of King County Natural Resources and Parks, stresses that upcoming CSO projects will reduce the public’s exposure to untreated sewage. But Larry Phillips, a member of the King County Council, says dollars spent on CSO projects can’t be spent on buying habitat or attacking the surface-runoff problem, which the Puget Sound Partnership has deemed the region’s top priority.

Bill Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA and former chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, was quoted as saying:

“This is just crazy; we don’t have unlimited funds in this country, and whatever we do, we ought to spend where we get the most bang for the buck … Cost-benefit has not been part of the discussion.”

David Dicks, former executive director of the partnership and now a member of the Leadership Council, said this:

“It’s just momentum. And what you learn in these things is you can go in and scream and yell and be a revolutionary for a while, but the institutional momentum of these laws has a lot of power, and it is just dumb power. … What we need to do is turn off the autopilot and see what makes sense here.”

Ecology and EPA officials took a stand in favor of the existing rules for reducing sewage discharges. Both issued quick responses to the Seattle Times article, writing on a blog called ECOconnect

From Kelly Susewind, manager of Ecology’s Water Quality Program:

“Infrastructure investments are needed to address water pollution caused by both CSO and stormwater discharges. In areas served by combined systems, CSO projects provide solutions to both CSO and stormwater pollution.

“The investments ratepayers make in their communities’ CSO programs protect public health and Washington’s waters, two principal missions of sewer and stormwater utilities. The success of these projects advances the goals of our state and federal laws to protect, clean up and preserve our waters for present and future generations.”

Adds Dennis McLerran, EPA’s regional administrator:

“Discharging large amounts of raw sewage to Puget Sound and Lake Washington is simply not acceptable. That’s why EPA has worked closely with the state, King County and Seattle over many years to address sewage treatment and the ongoing problem of Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) pollution. With that work nearly completed, now is not the time to lose our resolve to finish the job visionary leaders in the Puget Sound region started some 40 years ago.”

Cost versus benefits for Bremerton CSO project (click to enlarge)
Kitsap Sun graphic

Shellfish were not mentioned in this discussion — maybe because it was focused on Seattle and King County, where industrial pollution is a major problem. In Kitsap County, shellfish are worth millions of dollars a year to the local and regional economy. For Dyes Inlet, the reopening of shellfish beds probably would not have happened except for a lawsuit that forced the city of Bremerton to comply with the federal Clean Water Act on a strict time schedule.

Lisa Stiffler, former PI reporter who now works for Sightline Institute, discussed Bremerton’s accomplishment with a focus on the cost. See “How Bremerton cleaned its waters, and came to wonder about the costs” in the online publication Crosscut.

A case can be made that shellfish beds in Dyes Inlet could have been cleaned up enough to be reopened by spending just the first $33 million, thereby saving the extra $17 million that it took to bring the city into full compliance with federal law.

But state and county health officials have told me on many occasions that Bremerton and Kitsap County, along with local residents, must continue to work hard to keep the Dyes Inlet shellfish beds open. Beaches in the inlet remain on the verge of closure again, and population growth tends to exacerbate the bacterial pollution.

Kitsap County Health District is respected for its monitoring and pollution-fighting program, but it does help to know that release of raw sewage into the inlet has become a very rare event.

Lisa makes a good point when she says Bremerton would have saved money if engineers would have known more about low-impact development during the planning for CSO reductions. Infiltrating rain water near the source (preferably before it runs off the property) reduces the need to deal with stormwater flowing through pipes. Keeping stormwater out of sewer lines by using LID techniques effectively allows the pipes to carry all the sewage to the treatment plants, even during heavy rains.

Bremerton has become a leader in LID. If city officials had known 20 years ago what they know today, they probably would have spent more on pervious pavement and rain gardens and less on expensive piping networks. But it appears they did their best with the knowledge they had — and LID has become a major part of ongoing efforts to address stormwater.

Cities still working on CSO problems may find Bremerton’s experience helpful. Keeping stormwater out of pipes is proving effective, whether or not those pipes also contain sewage.

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.