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Where does this toxic pollution come from? The raw sewage part of the CSOs includes toxic pollutants from our homes such as cleansers, pharmaceuticals, and other products that get washed down the drain. Another large load comes from the 64 industrial and commercial facilities that contribute 860,000 gallons of caustic, petroleum and/or metal-laden, or other toxic wastewater to the combined sewer system daily (according to King County’s 2009 West Point Sewage Treatment Plant permit). This is combined with stormwater flows containing oils, heavy metals, and muck from our roads. In some cases, the sediments and muds around the outfalls still bear traces of historic industrial sources or old spills.
What about stormwater pollution? As mentioned earlier, stormwater is a major constituent of CSO discharges. The Department of Ecology recently completed a series of regional studies of pollutants in stormwater. They found that stormwater runoff has elevated levels of copper, lead, zinc, mercury, PCBs, phthalates, petroleum products, PAHs, and some pesticides, with much higher levels coming from commercial/industrial areas than in residential areas. Copper and zinc come from brake and tire wear, PAHs from fuel combustion, and petroleum from motor oil drips and leaks as well as refueling operations. Cadmium, copper, and zinc and possibly phthalates come from plastic pipes and zinc coated pipes fences and sign posts, and roofing materials. These same pollutants are present in CSO discharges thanks to the stormwater flows that mix with the wastewater.
We are currently well into the process of cleaning up the Duwamish River and East Waterway, which are federal Superfund sites and two of the most toxic waterways in the country. When done we will have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up these two sites from a legacy of industrial activity and our ongoing pollution: PCBs, PAHs, arsenic, dioxin/furans, and 40 other toxic organic chemicals and metals that are currently in the sediments and muds at levels above federal and state cleanup standards. Lake Union and the Ship Canal are also contaminated with high levels of similar pollutants but have not yet been designated as Superfund sites. Do we really want to put the success of the cleanups in jeopardy by repolluting the river with CSO discharges? This is in fact already happening at one early-action priority cleanup site near the Duwamish-Diagonal CSO outfall. If this is allowed to continue throughout the river, it could put taxpayers on the hook for future cleanup.
There is also an environmental justice issue. Many CSO outfall locations are in environmental justice communities that are less affluent and more ethnically diverse and bear the brunt of a toxic history such as the Duwamish Valley. In some cases the same areas support a higher reliance on harvesting local seafood for subsistence. And Native American tribes have cultural resources in these areas; they also have treaty rights in some of these spots or actively fish, or both.
In these areas, however, even the act of fishing is unsafe because of CSO discharges, let alone the safety of the catch. Nearly every outfall in Seattle has a sign warning not to swim or fish after a significant rainstorm due to the possibility of a sewage overflow.
The key strategies for tackling these problems include reducing the amount of water flowing into the system, expanding the capacity of the system to handle peak flows, and finally, treating CSOs when overflows are unavoidable.
The systems being proposed incorporate a combination of “green” and traditional “gray” infrastructure to account for the challenges of the built environment plus emerging technologies. Green Infrastructure like rain gardens, bioswales, porous pavement, and green roofs is a key part of the solutions and is promoted by the EPA-Ecology-City Decree, reflecting the leadership of the Pacific Northwest in this area. These features in the urban core of our city allow for reducing both the flow of stormwater and also the load of water in the combined sewer pipes, thus reducing the chances of an overflow during big storms. Where possible, it is ultimately far cheaper and more effective to filter the water on-site.
Another important method — although outside of the CSO Control plans — is source control by removing the most dangerous chemicals so they aren’t used in the first place, To that end, Washington has led the nation in passing important bills to phase out the use of toxic chemicals in products (flame retardants in computers and textiles, lead and phthalates in toys, copper in brake pads and in boat paint, and lead in wheel weights). Passing these kind of laws combined with education to reduce the use of dangerous chemicals is highly effective in keeping pollution out of our CSOs and out of stormwater. We need more of this kind of pollution prevention because until we implement these source control and green infrastructure solutions at a large scale, we will be forced to pay for and build more expensive engineered facilities to treat our runoff.
Much has been made about the ultimate price tag for finishing the job, estimated at $711 million for the county and $500 million for the city, which will be spread out over many years as is typical for large public works projects. The estimates by the City and County show costs rising moderately at first, and ultimately by the year 2025 amounting to around $7 a month additional for county households on the regional sewer system and roughly twice that for city households that pay into both systems through the wastewater utility. In the context of expensive highways, tunnels, bridges, arenas, or maybe a premium coffee beverage a few days a week, this is something we can indeed afford, and must do to control our waste.
Important questions are: Who pays? And what are the costs of delay? Delay in addressing an issue like toxic chemicals transfers the cost from those who are polluting today to those that will live here in the future. With continual introduction of new toxic chemicals and with increased population the next generation will have even more costs to deal with contaminated CSOs and stormwater. It is not fair to ask the next generation to clean up after our mess. Delay increases the cost of the treatment that will ultimately be required anyway. Delay also increases the costs of the additional restoration that will be needed, increases the costs resulting from increased health and safety risks, and reduces the value of natural resources used by future residents. These costs should be included in any cost assessment. So postponing the cost of treatment does not reduce costs or save money.
It is important to note that money spent on these projects is not going simply down the drain. CSO projects will in fact create jobs (as many as 1,400 green jobs, according to King County’s analysis) and support quality local businesses in the process, thereby helping to rebuild our local economy and infrastructure at the same time. You can’t outsource offshore a plumber after all, and this is nothing if not a big plumbing project. This investment will also restore our valuable resources and the cultural and economic benefits they offer.
For the first time the EPA is introducing an integrated approach that will create additional flexibility for the cities and counties across the US to plan around CSO and stormwater requirements in order to prioritize the highest-benefit projects and to ensure that all work will be completed to meet all Clean Water Act standards. This feature is incorporated in the Seattle CSO Consent Decree and is expected in the upcoming King County Consent Decree.
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