A rainstorm—a real gully washer—hits the Northwest. In numerous cities with antiquated public plumbing, the rain seeps into cracked sewage lines and flows into stormwater drains that link to the sewer system. From Port Angeles to Seattle to Spokane, treatment plants are overwhelmed by the deluge, causing raw sewage to spill into Port Angeles Harbor, Puget Sound, and the Spokane River. The sewage carries bacteria, viruses, and other pollutants that pose a risk to beach goers hunting clams or swimmers taking a dip.
Spewing sewage into waterways is potentially dangerous to people, and just plain gross. So Seattle and King County alone are preparing to spend $1.3 billion on projects to fix the problem. The navy town of Bremerton on Puget Sound’s west shore recently finished a project costing more than $50 million to staunch the annual flow of hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage-tainted waste. Outside of the state, Vancouver, BC, is working to separate its sewage system and Portland this year is scheduled to complete its $1.4 billion Big Pipe projects to control sewage spills.
But there’s increasing concern that the regulations driving these costly fixes are based on an arbitrary benchmark. A recent article that I wrote for Crosscut and last Sunday’s piece by Lynda Mapes at the Seattle Times both called into question the sewage rule and the priority being placed on shrinking the number of combined-sewer overflows (CSOs) at a time when the region faces arguably more urgent water-quality challenges.
Washington’s leaders need to reconsider a rule that limits the number of sewage overflows to an average of one per outfall. Instead, they need to craft rules grounded in the actual harm being caused by the spill by considering how much and what kind of pollution is being dumped. By focusing the regulation on the environmental and human health effects, cities, counties, and utility rate payers will be able to direct their time and money to projects that will have the greatest benefits to the region. Reshaping the CSO rules could save money by shifting restoration dollars to projects that pay the largest dividends.
As Mapes explained in her story (emphasis mine):
… (S)urface runoff, not CSO discharge, is the single largest source of pollution to Puget Sound, according to the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency charged with cleaning up and restoring Puget Sound, and the state Department of Ecology. Carrying contaminants such as copper, zinc, oil, lawn fertilizers and animal waste, surface runoff barrels untreated from storm drains all over (Seattle) into Puget Sound, not just in heavy storms but nearly every time it rains.
…Today, in the partnership’s Action Agenda for Puget Sound, CSOs don’t rank in the top 10 or even the top 20 things to do to reduce water pollution in Puget Sound.
One spill limit
Seattle and King County already have made costly investments that dramatically reduced the amount of sewage being spilled via CSOs, but to reach state standards, much more work is needed.
Washington rules require no more than one overflow on average from each outfall. Ecology, which regulates these outfalls, can choose to average the number of spills over 10 or even 20 years, making it easier to clear the legal bar. The rules, which date to 1987, precede US regulations for CSOs, which came out in 1994.
As Larry Altose, Ecology spokesman, defended the policy to me:
“(Washington’s) system is actually quite flexible, and protective of human health and the environment.”
Dennis McLerran, the head of the EPA for region 10, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska, came to the defense of local CSO efforts in response to the Seattle Times story. In a written statement he explained:
Combined systems — and climates like Seattle’s — often conspire to produce huge sewage and storm water overflows during the wet winter months. It’s our view that there are few better investments than protecting our citizens and waterways, especially Puget Sound, from millions of gallons of raw sewage.
I’ll agree that fixing combined systems is a great way to get sewage out of waterways, but is sewage worthy of the attention that it’s getting relative to other pollutants, particularly the toxic mix that’s carried with stormwater runoff?
Some folks, including Chris Wilke, executive director of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, says yes. Wilke’s organization sued Bremerton in the early 1990s for egregious releases of sewage waste. Now he points to the reopening of shellfish beds near Bremerton to commercial and recreational harvest by the Suquamish Tribe as evidence that CSO improvements are a smart investment. He cites a study by the National Resources Defense Council that ranked Washington 14th in beach water quality as proof that more work is needed. The number one cause of beach closures: sewage spills and overflows.
Getting raw sewage out of the water and making clams safe to eat are terrific environmental accomplishments, no doubt about it. But as Bremerton found, the local shellfish beds were deemed safe years before the city reached the one spill goal. As the chart below shows, in 2003 — the year the beds reopened — the city had spent just over $30 million and made huge reductions in the number of CSO events. But to reach the state benchmark, Bremerton’s ratepayers spent nearly $20 million more.
The disconnect between cost and benefit experienced by Bremerton in the later years of its CSO project likely will help inspire the chorus of voices questioning the region’s focus on CSOs. The Times’ story quoted a slew of water-quality heavy hitters: Pam Bissonnette, former director of Natural Resources and Parks for King County; Kevin Clark, former manager of what today is Seattle Public Utilities; Bill Ruckelshaus, former EPA administrator and former chairman of the leadership council of the Puget Sound Partnership; David Dicks, member of the leadership council and former executive director of the Partnership; and Don Theiler, head of King County’s waste water division. All cast doubt on the wisdom of investing so heavily in CSO work at the expense of other pollution projects.
Smarter standards and spending
So what’s the answer? Two things need to happen. First, Puget Sound leaders need to sit down and have a frank discussion to evaluate the real threat posed by CSOs. As Mapes states in her story, the Puget Sound Partnership suggested nearly two years ago that regulators and others meet and come up with a more cost-effective way to improve water quality in urban areas like Seattle and King County than through sewage projects, but the meeting hasn’t happened. And “talk of re-examining priorities got started in 2008 under former King County Executive Ron Sims. Then he and others involved in the discussion went on to other jobs,” Mapes reported.
The second fix is for the rule of one overflow per outfall. This is an oddly arbitrary requirement. It’s not linked to how much damage the spill is causing or how concentrated or vast the volume of pollution is. And why one spill? Why not zero, or 10? Ecology manages a zillion National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) water quality permits that are based on the amount of pollution being dumped. Why can’t CSO permits work similarly?
Admittedly these changes would require opening big old Sani-Can of worms. It’s an open question whether Ecology even has the legal authority to make this change, and we’re certainly not advocating a weakening of rules that would further harm the Sound. There’s also the fact that just because dollars could be saved from CSO projects that provide diminishing returns, it’s uncertain that these desperately needed resources would be redirected to cleaning up polluted stormwater runoff or other menaces to our swimming and clamming waters.
But in an ideal world — one where we made the most cost-effective environmental investments first — we’d change the existing rule to allow our limited funds to be spent where the experts say they’re most needed, which for Puget Sound would likely mean an investment in controlling stormwater runoff. And because too much stormwater is the underlying problem with CSOs, projects to reduce toxic runoff, particularly green stormwater solutions, would often help control sewage spills as well.
Sightline’s Making Sustainability Legal project identifies specific regulatory barriers to affordable, green solutions. If you’ve come across such an obstacle, please let us know by writing Eric (at) Sightline (dot) org.
Lisa, with respect, you failed to capture several important points:
CSOs are more than just human waste, with stormwater mixed in, as bad and dangerous as that is. They also contain industrial wastewater, which is supposedly on its way a sewage treatment plants (unless it overflows first). We can note that 2 early-action sites on the Duwamish River that have been dredged of toxic material are already re-contaminated by CSOs. If we do not get control of these discharges we will risk failure of the Lower Duwamish Superfund cleanup. You may also note that City of Spokane just settled a case addressing their need to prevent CSOs from discharging PCBs to the Spokane River. Once released, PCBs close fisheries to harvest, trigger expensive cleanups, and take decades or longer to work through the environment, eventually concentrating in predators like orcas, eagles, salmon and people where they cause cancer, reproductive problems and other diseases. You have reported on this before I know.
You are also highly selective in the points you choose to emphasize in your blog and recent article. You do not mention the concentrated local effects or impacts to the citizens of our region. We still have quite a few CSOs in Seattle that discharge 10-60 times a year, sometimes in the millions of gallons. How would you feel if you lived near a beach that you knew was unsafe after almost every rain? What about liveaboards or houseboats on Lake Union next to some of the very worst outfalls? Leschi park? Seward Park?
True, if you average the total loading of pollutants into the Sound, stormwater is still king…its everywhere, and we need to deal with it. But so far it is very difficult to regulate and the solutions are coming ever so slowly. Most stormwater permits still focus on half-measures and “best management practices”, rather than comprehensive solutions that measure water quality as a point of compliance. Fortunately wastewater is better regulated, and this is why you are seeing the comprehensive efforts to control CSOs. We actually have a strong regulatory mechanism in place with State and EPA oversight. This is a very good thing. Usually the cost per family or small business (the ratepayers and creators of the waste) is just a few dollars per month. How much are you willing to pay so that every time you flush your toilet during a rainstorm it doesn’t go into the Sound? What about that load of laundry? A few bucks a month is fine by me.
The Clean Water Act mandates that our waters be kept swimmable fishable and drinkable. Of course, nobody wants to drink the water in the Ship Canal or the Duwamish River, and nobody is advocating for that- fortunately most of our drinking water sources are pretty secure. I hope you will realize though that these articles come at a very precarious time for our country’s water quality regulations and I hope that you will consider your responsibility as a journalist in this regard. The Clean Water Act is under a very serious attack in the US congress, by special interests posing as populists and fiscal conservatives. This is the most significant attack in its 40 year history. There are currently at least 4 bills pending, several having already passed the Republican dominated House, one –an appropriations bill, HR 2584, has 39 anti environmental riders- everyone a giveaway to a specific industry. The problem is the effects of deregulation will not be felt by only those in the vicinity of the polluters with the biggest lobbyists, they would reach across the country into everyone of our communities if one of our most important environmental laws is allowed to be changed.
I am all for more precision in our regulatory system. But we have to realize that expensive and difficult changes, however necessary, are not likely to occur without a strong enforcement incentive. Some of them, like CSOs, we can actually fix under our current system, for the price of a few lattés a month as long as everyone is chipping in.
CSO vs. Stormwater is hurtful argument
It is a mistake to believe that CSO discharges contain only sewage. In the Duwamish Superfund site (which was not even mentioned in this article) Industrial waste is also part of the CSO discharge and that includes Cancer causing carcinogens, heavy metals that kill fish and have a devastating effect on the families & children in the communities of South Park & George Town as well the people that work and play there. We cannot be blind to the legacy of pollution in our local waters. Future generations rely on the decisions that are made now. This will be an investment for future generations that cannot be an “either or” argument. Now that King County and the City of Seattle are finally addressing control of the CSO’s in the Duwamish River are we telling these communities they don’t matter? To also just address water quality without looking at the ongoing pollution control for the sediments around the CSO’s as well as our Superfund sites is exceedingly shortsighted. Our CSO discharges are still incredibly damaging locally. They have re-contaminated our first early action area in the Duwamish River within one year of the cleanup. If the CSO’s are not controlled we will put the whole Duwamish River Superfund cleanup at eminent threat for failing. Storm water is also a concern as well in the Duwamish River. We at Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition believe a comprehensive and inclusive approach to source control of CSO’s as well as stormwater that involves the Ecology, SPU, KC, as well as the communities and businesses will be successful. Throwing out false choices undermines this discussion
The City of Seattle, King County and we the citizens, need to show leadership as far as Puget Sound is concerned but also must be accountable for local pollution control. We must do both before it’s too late. We cannot sacrifice our local communities.
While it makes sense to shift the $$ to the most effective and efficient use, this virtually never happens. there is such inertia built into the system that moving these sorts of large sums is virtually impossible, even when warranted. Witness, for example, the failure of efforts to get the legislature to impose taxes or fees for cleaning up storm water. Shoot, the legislature wouldn’t even pass a bill for meds take back because it was opposed by big Pharma, even though everyone else supported it, from cops to doctors to enviros, etc.
The reality is that until there is serious electoral reform rational movement of funding is simply not going to occur. That’s why the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority – Puget Sound Action Team – Puget Sound Partnership – soon to be Puget Sound Group Hug is a ridiculous very sad joke. As Billy Frank just pointed out, habitat is being lost faster than it is being restored. The existing system is just too dysfunctional to solve the deep problems our civilization has created which are now closing in on us. We truly do need a revolution. And no, I have no idea what that might look like. But discussions about shifting money on a rational basis when that will never happen are just a waste of time.
Commenters Wilkes & Rasmussen imply that Stiffler doesn’t address the possibility that some discharges include waste more hazardous than just sewage.
However, Stiffler did state that “they need to craft rules grounded in the actual harm being caused by the spill by considering how much and what kind of pollution is being dumped.”
Looks to me that she has that point covered, but advocates who would pay for schemes with other peoples money are never troubled by any disconnects between costs and benefits of their pet projects.
John- What do you propose then for CSO control standards? That CSO control be based on violations of federal and state water quality standards (clearly defined already as scientifically proven to impact human health and/or adversely affect or kill aquatic life)?
If we were to use your logic and this measure, the standard would clearly be at zero allowable overflows.
One overflow per year per outfall is essentially a compromise, because it allows engineers to design systems for an “engineered storm” and remain in compliance, even when a big gully washer storm produces an emergency overflow (Example: A 30-year storm in Bremerton last December created an overflow, but other substantial storms did not).
Portland is just finishing the Big Pipe project at a cost of $1.4 billion. Before the project started, many of us on the citizen steering committee tried hard to shift the emphasis from the expensive hard engineering solution to a ‘green’ solution emphasizing capture of the stormwater runoff before it gets into the storm sewer system. At that time in the early 1990s we didn’t have sufficient data to show that bioswales, downspout disconnection and other sustainable measures to control stormwater would result in adequate inflow reduction. I suspect that the data now exists to show that this approach can work. Controlling CSO’s is important, but much more thought needs to be given to distributed green solutions as the first step, rather than committing to huge expensive engineered systems.
Thanks to everyone for weighing in on the articles and blog post. I take the issue and the ramifications of my and other publications on the matter very seriously. What strikes me as so troubling about the debate is that I think all of the folks weighing in here want the same thing: cleaner, safer public waterways. I wonder if there’s some sort of compromise in policy positions that gets us there, but perhaps that’s not the case.
With public coffers shrinking by the minute, I can’t give up on pressing for the smartest, most effective use of limited tax dollars.