Sewage Spill of 20 Olympic-sized Pools Y2K Related or No? : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Silence on sewage spill stirs concern Phillips and others in Magnolia not told

Friday, January 7, 2000


King County Councilman Larry Phillips is wondering why he hadn't been informed of a Tuesday morning spill of 20 million gallons of raw sewage into Puget Sound from the West Point Treatment Plant in Discovery Park.

Phillips, D-Seattle, not only represents the Magnolia area; he lives on Salmon Bay, not far from the plant.

"You did not receive notice and it's something that we again need to correct as part of this re-examination," said Don Theiler, manager of the county's wastewater treatment division.

At a special briefing called by Phillips, Theiler and plant manager Dick Finger described a series of unanticipated events and a lack of experience with some systems. Twenty million gallons is the equivalent of about 20 Olympic-size swimming pools, Theiler said.

The state Department of Ecology will conduct an investigation that should take several months, said spokesman Ron Langley.

"It's likely that there will be some type of enforcement action taken. At this point we don't know exactly what that will be," Langley said.

He said the county could also be fined a maximum of $10,000 for each day the environment was affected by the spill.

Levels of fecal coliform, a bacteria found in human and animal waste that contaminates food, shellfish and water, had returned to normal by this afternoon, Theiler said. The fecal coliform level was 100 times normal Tuesday morning. Signs posted near the beach warning of pollution were taken down Thursday afternoon.

Theiler said that there were no known harmful effect to sea or shore life from the spill.

He said the problem began when a fast rainfall produced large volumes of storm water late Monday and early Tuesday, when one of the plant's four main pumps was down for routine maintenance.

One of the three available pumps began vibrating while handling the 380 million gallons of wastewater coming through the system, triggering an automatic shutdown.

The remaining two pumps were not enough to handle the flows, which caused flooding in the plant. When those inflows backed up enough, they automatically bypassed the system and discharged into the Sound, Theiler said.

The untreated sewage was let loose over 90 minutes about 500 feet from the shore at Discovery Park, rather than three miles out at the outfall for treated wastewater.

"This was a surprise to us," said plant manager Finger. "We didn't have the knowledge that we couldn't manually override this automatic shutdown."

Finger added: "It's a new plant and a complex plant and quite frankly, we're still learning how to operate it."

A wastewater plant has been at the site since 1966, with secondary treatment capabilities added in January 1996.

Ursula Judkins, a longtime Magnolia resident and treatment plant watchdog, said at least the spill came during winter, when fewer people are swimming in or near the water.

She said it's troubling that the pump malfunctioned and that she wasn't notified of the spill.

"It's a concern that we were not informed. There are people who live right on that beach and I don't know if they were informed," she said. "I still have some questions about the details."

While Finger described 20 million gallons as a lot; he said it's smaller than the 41 million gallons of raw sewage unleashed in the Sound during a power outage in 1998. The Department of Ecology fined the county $18,000 for that incident.

Phillips also wanted to know why the spill, at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, which he characterized as an emergency, wasn't reported to the plant manager until he arrived at 7 a.m.

Finger replied that the first priority was to fix the problem.

"There's a great deal of concern in the general public about this and whether we're taking the steps to ensure that it doesn't happen again," said Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, R-Federal Way.

He scheduled a follow-up briefing in 30 days for the division to give a report on the accident and how to prevent it in the future.

P-I reporter Kristin Dizon can be reached at 425-497-1660 or

-- John Biltmore (, January 07, 2000

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