Heather Trim/People for Puget Sound
Heather Trim/People for Puget Sound
Heather Trim/People for Puget Sound
People who live in Seattle, King County, and the rest of the Puget Sound region appreciate a clean environment and clean water. For us, our children and our grandchildren, we value safe swimming beaches, fresh local seafood, and abundant wildlife. Fortunately for us, clean water is also the law.
The year 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act. The act created for the first time a national mandate to protect and restore all waters to be safely swimmable and fishable, with waters so designated to be safe for drinking as well. In the process the act recognized that our waters are held in the public trust and no one has the right to pollute the water to the detriment of others. It has given us much to celebrate over the past four decades — including safer drinking water, improved sewage treatment, strict standards on industrial discharges and rivers that no longer catch fire, as the Cuyahoga River famously did in 1969.
This year we also can point to another success story in the making: Seattle and King County are close to finalizing consent decrees for their combined sewer overflow (CSO) systems. Can it really be a success story to be 40 years late in approving a long-term (13 to 18 year) plan to control a major source of pollution? You bet, we say. Better late than never.
It's important, however, for the consent decrees to go significantly further than they would do as now proposed in one key area: the treatment of toxic organic chemicals in combined sewer overflows and stormwater. Unless the local, state, and federal leaders involved in the consent decree step up to that issue, we will be doing too little for both current generations and those in the future.
Combined sewer overflows — or CSOs — are dirty and dangerous. Hundreds of times a year, to the tune of nearly a billion gallons a year just in the Seattle area alone, this mixture of untreated sewage, industrial wastewater, and polluted street runoff spews into Puget Sound, Elliott Bay, the Duwamish River, the Ship Canal, Lake Union, and Lake Washington. CSO incidents occur during peak rain events when stormwater flows into our combined sewer system and overwhelms the capacity of the pipes and discharging at designed “relief valves,” or CSO outfalls.
The combined sewer system for the entire Seattle area is integrated into one interconnected system, but Seattle and King County separately “own” individual CSO outfalls. Seattle has 92 outfalls, of which 45 are controlled to the state standard of one or less overflow event per year, on average for a total annual flow of about 190 million gallons (2010). King County has fewer but larger outfalls - 38 in total, of which 13 are considered to be controlled. These include a much larger amount of flow (about 800,000,000 gallons per year). According to Seattle’s 2010 control plan, about two-thirds of Seattle is served by a combined or partially separated sewer system (971 miles of sewer) and environmentally safer separated storm and sewer systems serve the other one-third (455 miles of sewer).
Controlling CSOs is a national priority, with over 700 systems in need of work to protect their waterways. All over the nation, communities are finding ways to deal with the problem and the Environmental Protection Agency is stepping in to negotiate consent decrees (an agreement with the force of a court order) with many municipalities that have CSO systems to ensure the work gets done. New York City, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis have all begun work under their agreements. Closer to home the cities of Portland, Snohomish, and Bremerton have actually completed their major CSO infrastructure projects, with each already achieving impressive results.
When not properly controlled or treated, the pollution from these overflows threatens human health, reduces recreational opportunities and poisons the aquatic food chain with toxic chemicals, some of which persist for decades and accumulate up the food chain. Ultimately this is our waste and it’s up to us to deal with it.
It may be tempting when confronting difficult pollution problems to suggest that we just deal with the biggest problems first, and wait on the rest. But what constitutes a “biggest” problem? Some people have observed that stormwater pollution — water that drains streets, rooftops, parking lots and industrial sites, without mixing with sewage and wastewater — is well documented as the leading overall source of toxic pollution to the Sound. Seattle’s study shows that 8,200 tons of toxic chemicals are transported by stormwater annually. They may suggest this as a reason for delaying or weakening CSO requirements, in favor of putting more effort toward controlling stormwater runoff.
Controlling stormwater is very important. However this analysis misses several key points. First, combined sewer overflows are incredibly damaging on a local level. While stormwater is everywhere, CSOs happen at a few specific locations where they can have significantly higher toxic and bacterial loading than straight stormwater. If you average a problem out over a large area, it does not reduce the severity of the immediate impacts in front of the outfall.
CSOs are essentially stormwater plus industrial wastewater and domestic sewage. This includes the toxic chemicals that accumulate in the sediments and muds near the outfall and get into our fish and wildlife as well as bacteria and other pathogens from human waste. Because of the high risk they pose, CSOs are regulated as wastewater and subject to stricter standards under the Clean Water Act than stormwater runoff, which means that discharges must be controlled to protect aquatic life, recreational opportunities, and human health.
Pollutants in wastewater and in stormwater, while there is some overlap, are different. A key problem with CSOs is the presence of toxic organic chemicals, which accumulate in the muds and get into our fish and wildlife.
Toxic organic chemicals, however, are omitted from the list of chemicals to consider in the consent decree between the EPA, the state Department of Ecology, and the City of Seattle that is on the verge of being voted on by the City Council. A similar consent decree is expected for King County later this summer.
Water quality data collected from King County CSOs in the past five years show that the flows contain toxic heavy metals such as mercury and lead, as well as toxic organic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), phthalates (plasticizers), biphenyl-A (chemical that hardens plastics), 1-4 dichlorobenzene (fumigant and toilet deodorant), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs from automobile exhaust and industrial sources), phenol, and dioxins/furans (one of the most toxic chemicals we find in Puget Sound). In addition, CSO flows include other typical raw sewage constituents such as oxygen-depleting nutrients, bacteria, viruses, and other human pathogens.
Toxic chemicals tend to bind to the small particles in the flows — the reason the flows look murky rather than clear — and these particles settle out when the CSOs discharge to the quieter water in the lakes, rivers, and the Sound. According to data assessments by state Ecology, the city, and the county, the list of toxic chemicals that have accumulated in the sediment near these outfalls is large and includes: PCBs, PAHs, benzoic acid, 4-methyl phenol, phthalates, benzyl alcohol, methylene chloride, carbozole, dibenzofuran, tributyltin, mercury, lead, arsenic, silver, and zinc. This is a nasty stew of chemicals, often in concentrations above cleanup standards. These chemicals end up contaminating the small organisms that live in the sediment and mud, which are then eaten by small fish, which are in turn eaten by bigger fish and get magnified by many times on up to the top of the food chain — severely impacting our seals, orcas, eagles, osprey, and potentially people who eat local fish.
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