The state Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are issuing separate fines to Seattle and King County for violating conditions of their respective federal consent decrees and state water quality permits that regulate combined sewer overflows (CSO) from parts of the sanitary sewer system that serves Seattle residents and businesses.
Seattle is ordered to pay $32,500 for nine unpermitted discharges. King County’s fine is $14,000 for exceeding pollutant limits three times at one of its four wet weather treatment stations that treat CSO discharges. The two fines are for violations that occurred in 2019 and the first half of 2020.
Untreated or insufficiently treated discharges of sewage contain bacteria and other pollutants that can make waters unsafe for people and pets.
Combined sewers carry both stormwater and sewage. The city and county own and operate different parts of the combined sewer infrastructure in Seattle. Combined sewers were originally built with overflow points intended to discharge during large storms. State and federal law requires communities to eliminate these overflows except in extreme weather circumstances.
Ecology and EPA are fining Seattle $15,000 for two unpermitted discharges in 2019 from CSO outfalls during dry weather caused by grease and debris, one into Union Bay on Lake Washington and one into Lake Union. The city’s discharge permit authorizes limited discharges from CSO outfalls only during wet weather periods.
Ecology and EPA also are fining the city $17,500 for seven other unauthorized overflows. These releases, caused mainly by debris and roots, put thousands of gallons of untreated sewage into local streams, such as Thornton and Pipers creeks, as well as into Lake Union and Puget Sound. One resulted in a June 2019 temporary beach closure at Golden Gardens Park. Two others backed sewage into homes and other buildings.
King County violations
King County’s $14,000 fine stems from the performance of its Elliott West CSO Treatment Facility. Two discharges to Elliott Bay – one in December 2019 and one in January 2020 – exceeded discharge limits for chlorine, a chemical that is toxic to aquatic life. The facility also did not meet performance standards for removing solids that carry pollutants into the water.
These violations do not involve the county’s main wastewater treatment plants – Brightwater, South Plant and West Point.
CSO consent decrees
These payments are required under separate legal agreements called consent decrees that Ecology and EPA made with the city and county in 2013. The consent decrees reinforce requirements for the city and the county to comply with the state’s CSO regulations.
Each consent decree identifies specific fines for certain types of unpermitted discharges. The city and county may invoke dispute resolution procedures if either party believes Ecology and EPA have assessed the consent decree penalties incorrectly.
Ecology and EPA each will receive half of the penalties. Water quality penalty payments to Ecology are placed into the state’s Coastal Protection Fund, which provides grants to public agencies and tribes for water quality restoration projects.
Under the consent decrees, the city and the county have committed to control CSOs according to state regulations. While each has completed projects to reduce CSO discharges over the last several years, additional work is needed to fully meet state requirements.