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Council, environmentalists seek answers in West Point sewage plant meltdown

Sewage and wastewater flow from the crippled West Point treatment plant in March 2017. (KIRO 7)

It’s been more than a month since a catastrophic failure crippled the West Point sewage treatment plant in Magnolia.

Hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage and stormwater poured into Puget Sound while the plant was decimated by floodwaters and raw sewage.

Related: Damaged Seattle wastewater plant continues to dump raw sewage

And what’s nothing short of an environmental crisis continues as plant managers work to repair the damaged facility and get it back online.

“It’s a catastrophic failure. It’s been releasing raw wastewater into Puget Sound and that’s something we’ve been working decades to prevent. And so this is something that is clearly unprecedented,” said Mindy Roberts, Puget Sound Director for the Washington Environmental Council.

Roberts says it’ll be some time before we figure out the true environmental toll on the Sound.

“That can’t be determined until we understand how much volume has reached the Sound and until the plant comes back online we won’t know the extent of the damages,” Roberts said.

But she says that’s not the only concern. The bigger one is how to prevent it from happening again.

“Some of my questions today are why did the backup to the backup fail? That sort of catastrophic failure should have had checks in place and the checks did not perform as needed. So what happened there?” Roberts said.

That’s exactly what King County officials are trying to figure out. But the county council wasn’t confident plant managers or the executive would provide the full picture.

Councilmember Rod Dembowski says that’s why the council voted unanimously to commission an independent third- party investigation. It’s a somewhat unprecedented move.

He’s particularly dubious of claims by plant managers that there was no human error and it was simply the result of a mechanical failure during heavy rains.

“I think common sense tells you — and judgment tells you — that it’s far beyond that. That some decisions were made in the operation of the plant, either in preparation for the storm or in response to the inflows that also led to this disaster,” Dembowski said. ”

Dembowski points to early statements by plant managers minimizing the extent of the damage, and an unwillingness to share information with the council following the disaster.

“If the department was not willing to have an honest conversation about all of the causes — not just some switch — then it could happen again and would be likely to happen again. We have to learn from this. They have to learn from this,” Dembowski said.

The sewage spill has also called attention to a much larger issue affecting Puget Sound.

West Point is just one of about 100 wastewater treatment facilities that flow into Puget Sound.

“Those in combination discharge tremendous amounts of treated wastewater every day. That’s where the public comes in,” said Roberts. “It’s our job to watchdog that and make sure those permit requirements are met, that those operators are meeting their requirements and that the regulators are making sure they’re overseeing those properly.”

But that’s all threatened by several factors, Roberts said.

One is aging infrastructure. It takes money to keep up all these facilities. And everything from homelessness to Sound Transit are competing for precious tax money.

A bigger threat looming is dramatic cuts to the state and federal funding cities and counties rely on for help.

Roberts says the Legislature is slashing programs to protect Puget Sound in Olympia, while President Trump has just announced massive cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and many of its programs.

“There are a number of financing programs available to help us fix stormwater programs, to help us finance these types of infrastructure improvements, and those are all on the chopping block,” Roberts said.

As for the investigation into the West Point meltdown, Dembowski says a multi-faceted team of independent experts will be assembled as soon as possible, and the council measure suggests a July deadline for its findings, with periodic updates to the council as information is learned.

“A little switch, or a failed motor, should not destroy an entire sewage treatment plant. That shouldn’t be the case and we’re talking not $25 million here. We could be talking, I don’t know. It could be $100 million. It’s very expensive. And this is a big, big deal,” Dembowski said.

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