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State fines King County $118,000 over wastewater, sewage into local waters

A sign on the banks of Seattle's Lake Union warning that sewage spills into the lake during heavy rainfall. (Dyer Oxley, MyNorthwest)

King County taxpayers are on the hook for $118,000 in fines for wastewater overflows imposed by the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Amy Jankowiak, regional compliance coordinator for municipal wastewater treatment plants for the Washington State Department of Ecology, explained to KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson that many of the nation’s older municipal sewer systems send rainwater along with raw sewage into area bodies of water. This is true for Seattle and much of King County around Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound. The local system uses “combined sewage overflows,” which send the mixture out of the pipes and into lakes and Puget Sound. This only happens during heavy rain events when pipes become overwhelmed with stormwater.

“It’s an ongoing process to eliminate these, and King County and Seattle are both on a pathway to do that,” she said.

RELATED: Seattle, King County to pay for sewage flow into local waters

Unfortunately, in the meantime, a fine for King County is a fine for the taxpayers.

“We hold accountable all dischargers to water — we do understand and we take into account that this is rate-payer money … and we try to be reasonable with the fines, all with the same goal in mind of reaching compliance,” Jankowiak said.

She pointed out that she, too, lives in King County and pays her share of this fine. Fines are one of the department’s main “tools in the toolbox to gain compliance,” along with direct orders and deadlines for renovations.

“We do have to treat any water quality discharge in the same way, whether it’s a large facility or small, private, or public, the water doesn’t know the difference, the environment doesn’t know the difference,” Jankowiak said.

In 2016, the Washington State Department of Ecology fined King County $63,500 for 23 violations that occurred in 2015. The City of Seattle was also fined $33,500 for 10 violations from 2015.

“I understand that it can be frustrating to see one government agency fining another, but our role as an agency is to protect water quality, protect our environment, and that’s the role that we play,” Jankowiak said.

After 250 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into Puget Sound in early 2017, the department hit the county with a $361,000 fine.

The money from that fine went to an eelgrass restoration project in the county in order to “keep it local to where the violations occurred,” according to Jankowiak.

Luckily, she said, the money was the only price that the county had to pay; there will not be any significant lasting damage to Puget Sound.

“There is a certain amount of healing water can do … There has been a lot of monitoring associated with that, and nothing is pointing to long-term, chronic effects from those discharges,” she said.


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