Sewage treatment failure – is local government getting the basics right?

Given the Pacific Northwest’s reputation, if you told people around the country that our region’s largest sewage treatment plant is easily paralyzed by large rainfalls – well, they’d probably find that funny.

A “catastrophic event” at King County’s West Point sewage treatment plant within Discovery Park last February resulted in “235 million gallons of untreated wastewater, including 30 million gallons of raw sewage” being dumped into Puget Sound, according to the Seattle Times. The sewage flows violated local and federal water laws, and the plant didn’t get back to full functioning until mid-May.

Inevitably that led to an investigation and a $400K consultant’s report, which contains important suggestions. But the main takeaway was that a similar event could easily happen again – is likely to happen to again.

That has been obvious for a long time. The West Point plant, after all, has been overwhelmed by heavy rainfalls before. A consultant testified that West Point is “smaller than the site of Brightwater plant [near Woodinville], yet it’s asked to treat ten times the flow” and that the plant is “right on the ragged edge all the time.”

That’s not “news,” really. But it also hasn’t been a priority for the county. Sewage treatment is a critical and basic need that local government is supposed to supply. Our treatment capacity needs to keep up with the region’s growth and handle our climate, i.e. a lot of rain, but it hasn’t.

Sewage treatment – dull, but important
Is that what the county has been focused on? Given that County Executive Dow Constantine is currently pushing a sales tax measure for arts organizations and museums, it doesn’t seem like it.

Is the City of Seattle, where West Point is located, ratcheting up the pressure to fix the ongoing sewage treatment problems? Councilmembers are more worried about government-run heroin injection sites, soda pop taxes, and how best to discredit studies about the city’s minimum wage experiment.

All of this is giving the (correct) impression that local government isn’t getting the basics right.

Elected officials are pursuing the cause du jour and seeking to raise their “progressive” profiles while Seattle’s streets are deteriorating (in more ways than one), the county’s roads are crumbling with no revenue source in sight, and an emergency was needed to focus any attention on sewage treatment.

In the past, movements such as the New Order of Cincinnatus and Forward Thrust brought activism and a renewed focus on competence to local politics around here. They sought out and encouraged candidates and leaders from outside the local government bubble.

Could a similar movement rise up here again? It could, with leadership and a public that’s ready to demand a focus on the basics, not today’s trendy issue politics.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.