After a malfunctioning pump at the City of Everett’s wastewater treatment facility allowed 9.9 million gallons of incompletely treated wastewater to flow into the Snohomish River in June, the Washington Department of Ecology has fined the city $13,000.
During the incident, a pump malfunctioned that was supposed to inject sodium hypochlorite to disinfect wastewater after other treatment steps. The malfunctioning pump meant that partially treated wastewater was discharged from the facility without disinfection for 19 hours over June 4-5. The issue was similar to an earlier malfunction, and the city was in the process of installing a new sensor to detect such problems. However, when the pump failed in June, backup systems including the new sensor did not work.
The city’s wastewater permit requires disinfection as a step in the treatment process. The lack of disinfection allowed harmful bacteria and viruses to enter the river and flow into Puget Sound. Bacteria and viruses can cause illness to humans and wildlife, as well as interfere with recreational and cultural activities and shellfish harvesting.
Because of these potential public and environmental health impacts, the City of Everett’s wastewater permit requires the facility to send immediate notification of disinfection failures to Ecology, the Washington State Department of Health’s Shellfish Program, and the local health district. When the pump failed, though, the city did not report this event until the morning of June 7, days after the disinfection system failure was discovered. The city also failed to collect a required sample in order to determine fecal coliform bacteria levels in the partially treated, non-disinfected wastewater.
In its penalty, Ecology cited the city for the unauthorized discharge, a delay in making required notifications to Ecology and public health authorities, and failure to sample the unusual discharge.
“The City of Everett could have prevented this serious incident by ensuring their systems were functioning properly,” said Rachel McCrea, Water Quality section manager for Ecology’s Northwest Region. “In addition, we need timely reporting and sampling when something does go wrong, so we have an accurate picture of water quality, and health agencies know to warn the public to avoid contact with the water. These are longstanding requirements that help to protect human and environmental health.”
The city has installed a new backup sensor system, has standardized additional inspection and testing of the hypochlorite feed system pump, and has also trained their staff on the correct notification procedure and timeline. “We believe these are important steps to reduce the likelihood of similar incidents,” McCrea said.
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.