The murky dealings of Brightwater

King County officials allocated money from the massive Brightwater sewage-treament project to fund mitigation in Snohomish County and to help a business in the vicinity of the facility relocate. That's illegal, say plaintiffs in a lawsuit. If they win, King County will take a sizable financial hit, calling the very nature of its leadership into question.
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Crews working on the Brightwater outfall, an effluent discharge pipe that is part of the sewage treatment system. (King County)

King County officials allocated money from the massive Brightwater sewage-treament project to fund mitigation in Snohomish County and to help a business in the vicinity of the facility relocate. That's illegal, say plaintiffs in a lawsuit. If they win, King County will take a sizable financial hit, calling the very nature of its leadership into question.

On the sunny weekend of Sept. 6, workers towed two mile-long pipelines into position at Point Wells, from which they will ultimately carry treated effluent from King County's new Brightwater treatment plant out into 600 feet of salt water.

Just a month earlier, it looked as though King County itself had gotten into water well over its head during the effort to build Brightwater. Already facing a sea of red ink, the county may soon have to dredge millions more from its general fund, as pay-back for allegedly misusing wastewater fees.

The Cedar River and Soos Creek water and sewer districts, which contract with King County for wastewater treatment and disposal, have sued to enjoin the county from using wastewater fees for anything else. They also want the county to reimburse its Water Quality Fund for money they allege has been illegally spent. The issues are complex, and King County has been granted extra time in which to answer the water districts' complaint. The case is scheduled for trial next year.

The suit [PDF] focuses on, but doesn't confine itself to, Brightwater, which is currently under construction in southern Snohomish County. The county wants another 56 million gallons per day of wastewater treatment capacity. It decided to expand its Renton treatment plant by 20 million gallons per day and to build Brightwater beside the Sammamish River, near Woodinville. Most of the waste processed at Brightwater will actually come, under contract, from Snohomish County. Most of the treated effluent will be piped some 13 miles to Puget Sound, near Edmonds, and then be discharged nearly a mile offshore. Some effluent is supposed to be sold for irrigation and industrial uses.

After planning was well underway, Snohomish County dug in its heels. It refused to grant demolition or grading permits, and it demanded more money for "mitigation." To get Snohomish County's approval, King County agreed to pay some $70 million for parks and pedestrian and bicycle paths, and other projects unrelated to Brightwater's actual impact.

The county also committed more than $23 million of the wastewater funds to buy the property of and relocate a Campbell Soup subsidiary, StockPot Soup, which had threatened to abandon a 250-job plant near Brightwater, because proximity to a sewage treatment plant wouldn't do much for its image. King County agreed not only to buy the underlying property, which it did not need for the Brightwater system, but also to pay more than $16 million in relocation expenses if StockPot moved to another location near Puget Sound.

The money to placate both StockPot and Snohomish County comes from King County's Water Quality Fund. The plaintiffs say these payments were illegal. King County could make or have made them legally from its general fund, but it can't spend sewage fees that way.

The plaintiffs cite state law, the county charter, the county code, contracts with local sewer districts, and bond ordinances. All say that you can't use waste water fees to pay for anything but waste water disposal. The county code says specifically that the "assets of the wastewater system are [...] to be used for the exclusive benefit of the wastewater system." The statute says more generally that "no department, public improvement, undertaking, institution, or public service industry shall benefit in any financial manner whatever by an appropriation or fund made for the support of another."

Critics suspected from the start that the agreement with Snohomish County was illegal. Evidently, King County officials shared that suspicion. The complaint quotes a 2005 letter from King County Executive Ron Sims saying bluntly, "Use of King County funds for these extraneous purposes is not authorized by law." The settlement agreement with Snohomish County also reflects at least an educated guess that the payments were less than kosher. It specifies that if King County's expenditure for Snohomish projects turn out to be illegal, Snohomish will return any unexpended money that a court orders it to pay back, and will enter into discussions with King County about how to deal with money already spent.

Even before this suit was filed, Brightwater had its share of critics. And no wonder. The cost increases are already staggering. The total cost of both Brightwater and the Renton expansion was originally supposed to be $859 million. As the complaint — perhaps gratuitously — points out, the projected cost of Brightwater alone has risen beyond $1.8 billion, or more than double the original total.

Explaining a 2007 cost revision, King County attributed much of the rise to the worldwide inflation in the price of building materials, and to the unforeseen price of Snohomish "mitigation." Even without overruns, the sheer distance from salt water makes the project more expensive than a differently sited treatment plant, as does a system of big pipes for distributing reclaimed water.

Re-using water is a virtuous endeavor, but critics wonder whether or not it's a good investment. The use of reclaimed water figures prominently in King County's plan to protect salmon. Leaving more water in the Sammamish River, for example, would marginally lower the summer temperature. It would thereby make the Sammamish marginally more hospitable to salmon. At the Brightwater groundbreaking two years ago, King County Executive Ron Sims said: "King County's plan to expand the use of reclaimed water from Brightwater for irrigation and industry will [...] significantly reduce the amount of water being taken from the Sammamish River for irrigation. This will help preserve critical salmon habitat."

But critics argue that reclaimed water will provide very little environmental bang for the buck. They say one could get the same ecological benefits for less money in other ways — by, for example, planting vegetation along the river banks, which would lower the temperature just as much for around one percent of the cost.

The plaintiffs in the Soos Creek case don't argue against reclaiming water. They concede that producing reclaimed water qualifies as sewage treatment. But they say that transporting and selling it does not; therefore, creating the infrastructure — i.e., laying miles of big pipe — for transportation and sale constitutes another illegal use of funds. If they prevail on that one, either the county's general fund takes a big hit, or somebody's gonna have to re-think Brightwater. (Actually, Brightwater could function just fine without reclaiming water. The county would have to re-think part of its salmon strategy, however.)

The plaintiffs allege that Snohomish County is merely the largest illegal beneficiary of King County wastewater funds. They explain that money in the "so-called Culver Fund" is used for "projects unrelated to sewage disposal, including projects 'earmarked' or promoted by individual King County Council members to, in the County's own words, fund 'pet projects' for councilmembers."

If a court rules in the plaintiffs' favor, the county will find itself required to reimburse the Water Quality Fund for all the money paid illegally to Snohomish County for unrelated "mitigation," plus all the money paid illegally over the past six years to StockPot, plus all the money spent on other illegal projects, including the design and construction of facilities to transport reclaimed water. The county would also have to reimburse its sewer district customers for sewage fees spent illegally.

"Although the plaintiffs concede that King County may have had an interest in 'greasing the skids' for the Brightwater project," they insist that "paying money to Snohomish County [...] is an unlawful use of sewer revenues and is unlawful."

The fact is that bribing Snohomish Country got the deal done and the project started. The financial details will work themselves out. In other words, the people will pay, one way or another. Does this represent intrepid, damn-the-torpedoes leadership? Or does it represent a cavalier, Bush-like disregard of laws and consequences?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.