The catastrophic failure of the West Point treatment plant in Discovery Park last month is providing a dramatic, and disgusting, display of what happens when our environmental impact goes unmitigated. Because of some failed pumps, only about 40 percent of the hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage that runs through the plant is being treated. The rest is going into the Puget Sound raw.
“It’s an environmental catastrophe every day it’s not up and running,” King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said last week, rightly. When it will be up and running is still anyone’s guess, but the county is prepared to spend $25 million to expedite a fix.
This urgency is well-placed. Yet the plant’s dramatic failure, and the efforts to fix it quickly, obscure the fact that for Seattle, dumping sewage into the water that surrounds us is routine. As in hundreds-of-millions-of-gallons-a-year routine. The reason is due to something called combined sewer overflow, or CSO. If you are unfamiliar with Seattle civil engineering, the basic idea is this: When Seattle’s sewer lines were built, they were assigned double duty as stormwater drains; in other words, the pipes responsible for whisking away our rainwater are also responsible for whisking away our shit. When it’s not raining hard, this isn’t a problem, but during heavy downpours, the rain risks overloading the system and backing sewage into toilets. To save residents from sloshing around in their own waste, engineers designed the system to dump into the Duwamish, Lake Washington, and Puget Sound instead. As a result, between 2007 and 2010, the City of Seattle dumped 200 million gallons of sewage annually into the waters around us. The King County system, over the same period, dumped 900 million gallons per annum. That’s 1.1 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the waters of King County every year. Talk about an environmental catastrophe.
To be fair, local leaders have been working on the issue for decades, and achieving reductions. But now there is a plan to bring an end to the practice once and for all—thanks not to dramatic pronouncements by elected leaders, but to the Environmental Protection Agency. Through an enforcement action under the Clean Water Act, the EPA in 2013 entered into a legally binding agreement with the county and city to greatly reduce the amount of raw sewage going into the waters that in many ways define us as a city. According to the agreement, the city and county will have plans in place by June 2018 to reduce, by 95 to 99 percent, the amount of raw sewage dumping into the Sound. (The city’s work should be complete by 2025.)
This is the EPA’s job. It’s no coincidence that the agency was created as the seminal Clear Air and Clear Water Acts were put into law. Environmental law takes a special set of skills, a mix of science and forensics that’s unique in law enforcement. As shown by the agreement on sewage-dumping, it’s also enforcement that can deliver results.
With the coming release of President Donald Trump’s budget, we as a city and a nation will be forced to have a conversation about how much we value such enforcement. If the draft budget leaked last week passes, his spending plan would slash the EPA budget by 25 percent; specific programs, like one funding grants to protect and restore Puget Sound, would nearly get zeroed out. The action would eliminate 3,000 jobs nationwide. The aim of such draconian action is to deliver a symbolic blow against an agency that Republicans argue has long been overstepping its bounds. There’s not room here to litigate that charge. But suffice to say that the real effect of this symbolic attack is that environmental laws will not get enforced. George Wyeth, a longtime EPA attorney who retired from the agency this year, tells news site Quartz that the agency had already been cutting back on enforcement due to a flatlined budget; were the budget cut 25 percent, “Some things would just fall off entirely.”
In other words, an administration that draws a hard line against “selective enforcement” of immigration and drug law is creating a situation in which entire sections of environmental law go ignored. While the failure of the West Point sewage treatment plant has little to do with regulatory oversight and a lot to do with equipment failure, it provides a useful example of what happens when environmental protections don’t work. The EPA lawsuit demanding that Seattle and King County stop dumping sewage into the water shows what happens when they do. It’s up to us, now, to decide which we like more.