ON A SLEETY MORNING last week, Gary Lockwood pries open a manhole cover outside the Yale Street Landing, a restaurant complex on south Lake Union. He sees a whitish-gray substance building up like sclerosis on the walls of the sewer pipe 10 or 12 feet down. "Now that's unacceptable," says Lockwood. The walls were scraped clean just a few months ago; nevertheless, in another few months, "this could be a big problem again," he says. Both BluWater Bistro and I Love Sushi send their wastewater through this particular pipe, though Lockwood suspects the Bistro as the greater culprit, since the sushi place doesn't do much cooking and its pipes, like Japanese arteries, tend to reflect a healthier diet.
A few steps away, in the parking lot of TGI Friday's, Lockwood lifts off another row of manhole covers to reveal three gurgling chambers of varying degrees of ickiness. This is TGI Friday's grease interceptor, a 2,500-gallon vat into which the restaurant's kitchen sinks and floor drains flow. "Yeah, the smell can knock you out," says Lockwood, as he uncorks the first nauseating vault of wet gunk. The second is a little better, and the third better still. As fluid passes through the interceptor chambers, grease is partially kept back, reducing the amount that's passed to the city's sewer line. Examining the cloudy water in the third chamber, Lockwood concludes, "This doesn't look too bad."
It's a mixed bag of results for Lockwood. As administrator for Seattle Public Utilities' Fats, Oils, and Grease program (or FOG), Lockwood is charged with scrutinizing how restaurants handle and dispose of their food sludge. And one of his biggest headaches has been the handful of hugely popular restaurants crowded into the southern end of Lake Union, including Cucina! Cucina!, Chandler's Crabhouse, Hooters, and Duke's. "This is my most significant area by far," says Lockwood. "It may be the worst on the West Coast."
Twice in the last two years, giant wads of restaurant grease have caused Seattle's pump station in south Lake Union to shut down, sending thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the lake. That's a big no-no under the Clean Water Act. Says Curt Hart, spokesman for the state Department of Ecology, "The onus is on the city to work with the grease producers to make sure this doesn't happen again."
"Grease is the problem for sewers," says Steve Foss, who deals with this issue for the city of Redmond. "People think it's human waste, but that's nothing. Grease is extremely hard when it backs up in a sewer. I've seen people hit it with sledgehammers, and it doesn't break."
Seattle law requires restaurants to discharge grease at no greater than 100 parts per million; however, city records show that at times the Lake Union establishments have pumped out grease concentrations that were four to six times that limit. "You and your representatives have been repeatedly informed of Code violations and resulting illegal discharges, which in some cases appear to have continued for years," Lockwood wrote to the restaurateurs and property managers back in August. "This lack of compliance cannot continue in the future. . . . The city considers the current situation a significant environmental risk." The risk increases in the winter, Lockwood says, since cold weather makes the grease quicker to coagulate.
"The city has made us extremely aware of what is coming out of our facilities," says Brad Olson of Kennedy-Wilson Properties Northwest, which manages Chandler's Cove. "We've been working on it diligently with our four restaurants."
THE TROUBLE ON Lake Union has been festering for at least a decade. Lockwood says the problem is not just the specific behavior of the specific eateries but that so many are jammed into such a small strip, right by the pump station, undiluted by offices or apartments—and each of them doing a very heavy, greasy business. "Every time there's a sporting event, the place is a zoo," observes Lockwood. The area is known for its energetic after-work singles action, which, during the swingin' '90s, led Seattle Weekly restaurant critic Kathryn Robinson to dub it the Herpes Triangle.
While Lockwood's ability to measure the performance of individual restaurants is limited, he has no trouble monitoring the problem as a whole. Chandler's Cove and Yale Street both feed into one city main, and Lockwood will occasionally send a video camera down for inspection. "Grease is very picturesque," he says. When it's bad, "it looks like the Columbia glacier."
In some cases, according to Lockwood, the grease-skimming equipment at these restaurants has been inadequate for the volume of business or hasn't been getting cleaned regularly. That's far from unusual, says Michael Olson, Northwest sales manager for Darling Restaurant Services, one of several companies that hauls grease away for local eateries. "We normally find poor housekeeping. It's a terrible job, cleaning grease traps and grease interceptors," says Olson. "You can imagine . . . the odor. . . . It's worse than septic." The job must be done after closing because of the smell.
As with any unpleasant task, it naturally falls to someone with minimal training in a low-paying, high-turnover position. "It's generally assigned to the lead dishwasher or the evening person who mops the floors," says Lockwood. Yet the equipment can require sophisticated handling to work properly. "You have to become an expert in your device," says Lockwood. "It's kind of like owning a Volkswagen."
Lockwood concedes he's been "very lenient" with the restaurants, despite the threatening letters. In 1995, under Lockwood's predecessor, the city tried to bill the restaurants for the "extraordinary maintenance" required of its Lake Union sewer station, but Lockwood says the effort to collect from the companies was more trouble than it was worth. "I've told everyone I want to be an educator, not an enforcer," Lockwood says. He has been making presentations to the restaurant managers and staff, encouraging them to install grease traps in their kitchens and to pour a bacterial grease-eater down their pipes.
Results are spotty so far, though Lockwood believes he's seeing some progress. The food waste systems at Chandler's Cove are now being inspected weekly by Roto-Rooter, and a new biological treatment appears to be helping. Darling Services has started emptying out the big TGI Friday's vats every month, rather than quarterly. Duke's has updated its grease skimmer. (All of this has been paid for by the businesses themselves.) "My hope is, and all indications are, that things are getting better," said Lockwood a few weeks ago.
More recently, however, Lockwood sent a camera back down into the pipes, where, he says, he still found "significant quantities of grease." The video shows a spot just where the city's main line hooks up to the side sewer serving Yale Street Landing. "As you go by the T," says Lockwood, "that's where you can see the glacier."