The Washington Department of Ecology has fined the city of Vancouver $60,000 for spilling nearly 600,000 gallons of raw or partially treated sewage into the Columbia River in 2017.
“Unacceptable training, maintenance and operations led to preventable discharges of raw sewage,” said Heather Bartlett, who manages Ecology’s Water Quality Program. “That put bacteria and other pathogens that can cause diseases into the river, along with solids and trash that treatment normally removes. The river’s powerful flow may dilute the discharge, but it also spreads the pollution further.”
Vancouver’s West Side Wastewater Treatment Plant had two raw sewage spills. The city notified local health departments after each spill. The health departments posted temporary warnings for people to avoid contact with the river. In the second incident, Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife department officials considered closing the second day of a two-day sturgeon season, but opted instead to advise anglers to thoroughly wash fish taken from the river.
Plant lacked back-up power
A momentary power outage on Sept. 30, 2017, led to a release of 395,000 gallons of raw sewage and 109,000 gallons of sewage that had been treated, but not disinfected. For two-and-a-half hours operators did not realize that utility power was available. During that time only one of three back-up generators came on line, which was not enough to fully power the treatment system.
In addition to the discharge, the city’s violations included not having an operator with senior-level certification on duty and failure to properly maintain the plant’s backup system to ensure readiness of equipment and crews.
Incoming wastewater diverted
The plant released another 80,000 gallons of raw sewage on Oct. 17, 2017. Controls set improperly during a routine equipment calibration disabled large pumps that bring wastewater into the treatment plant. An overflow system diverted this flow into the Columbia River for 15 minutes until operators corrected the problem.
The city’s violations included the discharge of untreated sewage and failure to properly follow required procedures for the calibration.
The city is taking corrective actions, including improved staff training, to prevent recurrences of these problems.
“We take our obligation to protect the environment very seriously,” said Brian Carlson, director of Vancouver Public Works. “The discharges were unacceptable. In addition to working with Ecology on this investigation, we have conducted our own extensive evaluation that has resulted in operational improvements and increased layers of environmental safeguards, including a $2.2 million additional emergency pumping system at our Westside Wastewater Treatment Plant.”
Ecology water quality penalty payments go to the state’s Coastal Protection Fund. The Fund issues grants to public agencies and tribes for water quality restoration projects. The penalty may be appealed within 30 days to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board.