Accountability for Seattle’s environmental catastrophe

March 15, 2017

An environmental catastrophe continues in Seattle, while Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Mayor Ed Murray, and many environmental groups have been relatively silent given the magnitude of the issue.

What happened?

On Feb. 9, heavy rainfall overwhelmed the West Point Treatment Plant in Seattle and caused major system damage. This resulted in millions of gallons of untreated storm water and raw sewage being dumped directly into Puget Sound. It also forced some people out of their homes and closed local beaches.

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski correctly called it an “environmental catastrophe.”

This March 12 article in The Seattle Times shows a startling aerial picture of a discolored Puget Sound around the West Point Treatment Plant. It also contains a graph that reveals the tons of solids that are pouring into Puget Sound every day because of the damage to the facility.

Unfortunately, more than a month later, there is no specific timeline for when this serious problem will be fixed. It is still also unclear exactly what happened and why. Meanwhile, Puget Sound and its ecosystem continue to suffer greatly.

Independent, third-party investigation

If there is any good news to share it is that the King County Council voted on March 13 to launch an independent, third-party investigation to find out what happened. The report is expected by July 1. According to this editorial, the council acted after becoming frustrated with the answers being given by King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office on the matter.

Another Seattle environmental failure

The environmental failure at the West Point Treatment Plant is not the only one that happened in Seattle in February. King County’s 63rd Avenue Pump Station in West Seattle also experienced problems, resulting in 330,000 gallons of storm and waste water being dumped into Puget Sound. This issue did not receive as much media attention.

Where are the calls for accountability?

The lack of outrage and calls for accountability for these failures are surprising. If these problems were caused by a company or private citizen, there would have likely been news conferences from politicians, news releases from environmental groups, lawsuits, protests and activism. It would appear that government is being held to a different standard.

In June 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine wrote a letter to Premier Christy Clark expressing their frustration with the lack of progress in treating sewage in Victoria and what it could mean for Puget Sound. The people of Victoria will now face the environmental consequences of our state’s leadership failures.

Our op-ed

Reps. Vincent Buys, Drew MacEwen and David Taylor expressed their concern about this environmental catastrophe in March 6 op-ed in The Seattle Times entitled, “Sewage spill reveals double standard in environmental priorities.” These members, who represent many communities that have been hurt by federal and state policies and judicial overreach over the years, talked about how there is a double standard when it comes to environmental issues in rural and urban communities. They are right.

Republican support for environmental solutions

One other highlight of this op-ed is the fact that Republicans in the Legislature have supported several environmental solutions in the past. For example:

  • cleaning up toxic sites;
  • removing legacy nets;
  • clearing fish passages;
  • improving oil train safety; and
  • combatting synthetic and pharmaceutical runoff.

We will continue to demand accountability and support common-sense legislation to protect our environment. However, we will oppose controversial ideas that would threaten our state’s advantage of low-cost energy and result in people paying more for their gas, energy bills and groceries. Fortunately, most of these proposals have not come to the House floor for a vote because they lack even full Democratic support.

‘Silence reigns as sewage spews into Puget Sound. Here’s why.’

This March 15 article (not a column or editorial) in The Seattle Times from an environmental reporter echoes some of the sentiments from our March 6 op-ed. The reporter sheds some light on why there has been little response from environmental groups and activists despite the fact tons of waste continue to be dumped into Puget Sound.

Update on Seattle’s environmental catastrophe | May 11, 2017 

After three months of sending untreated wastewater into Puget Sound, King County officials announce its West Point Treatment Plan is finally back in compliance with its state and federal environmental permits. An independent investigation into the causes continues. This special report from The Seattle Times on April 28 concluded a cascade of errors, including errors of judgment and poor communications, led to the environmental catastrophe.

Independent assessment outlines West Point Treatment Plant failures, ongoing problems | July 18, 2017

An independent assessment of the West Point Treatment Plant was released to the King County Council on July 18, 2017. You can find it here. The assessment highlighted the critical failures that led to the environmental catastrophe in Puget Sound that lasted three months. It also outlined how the plant is ill-prepared for heavy rains in the future, lacks adequate backup systems, needs better management practices and that problems will get worse as the region grows.

Important questions moving forward are: 1) What reforms will need to be implemented to prevent another environmental catastrophe? 2) Who will be held accountable for future outcomes?

King County fined, ordered to make improvements for failures at West Point Treatment Plant | September 1, 2017

The Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) levied a $361,000 fine and ordered significant improvement requirements on King County for its failures at the West Point Treatment Plant. According to this DOE news release, under administrative order King County must:

  • Improve redundancy and reliability of key equipment.
  • Improve how the plant’s control system communicates critical alarms to operators.
  • Develop and Implement better emergency training for operators.
  • Improve the ability to monitor emergency bypasses should they occur.

This isn’t the first time the failed plant has harmed the environment. As this September 12 story in The Seattle Times notes, “The plant has seen flooding, near misses and millions of gallons of raw wastewater dumped into Puget Sound in 2000, 2006 and 2009.”