King County Council Approves Independent Investigation Into Wastewater Failure

Mar 14, 2017

What caused the catastrophic failure of Seattle’s main wastewater treatment plant and how can the public be sure it won’t happen again?

King County Council members took emergency action Monday to ensure there’s a fully independent investigation.  

More Than Stormy Weather

Last month, in the early morning hours of February 9 during an unusually wet rainstorm, the West Point Treatment Plant broke down. It sits on the northern edge of Elliott Bay next to Discovery Park and had been inundated.  Inside it, floodwater reached 12 feet high in places. The equipment was overwhelmed.    

“Hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated storm water and raw sewage were dumped into Puget Sound. It was a real shock to everybody and we’ve all been wanting to find out what went wrong,” said King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Wells.

She’s the co-sponsor with two other councilmembers of the emergency measure authorizing an independent investigation to find out. The report will look at causes, consequences and appropriate responses to the breakdown of the West Point plant.

Kohl-Wells represents the Magnolia neighborhood where the plant is located and is worried about the effects of the increased and ongoing pollution on the already struggling ecology of Puget Sound, which is also facing threats of federal funding loss. Their motion passed unanimously.

“And we want to make sure that everyone understands, including the public, that this must be done in a totally transparent way – totally independent,” Kohl-Wells said of their plan to commission an outside consultant.  

Wastewater Treatment Chief Agrees

“You know a third-party review is good, no matter where it comes from,” said Mark Isaacson, the director of the county’s Wastewater Treatment Division. He says his team was in the process of commissioning an outside investigation anyway, but they’re working with the council now.

“I think having the council oversight role is welcomed and appropriate,” Isaacson said.  “Of course we would do it ourselves, but I like the idea of having an oversight committee and panel to report to.” 

The council’s goal is to find a consultant who can deliver a final report to them and the King County executive by July 1.

Last week, the executive branch announced it had selected its own third party investigator, but has now withdrawn from that process.

Isaacson has been in his position just four months and says he’s as eager as anyone to get answers back from a thorough investigation. And he says it’s realistic that the plant will be fully operational again by the end of April.

Right now, it is operating at about half-capacity; repairs have been held up because of complexities including special equipment needed and the delicate biology of the digesters in the treatment tanks at West Point.  

Kohl Wells and others acknowledge that crews and staff at the plant have been working diligently around the clock and should be commended for their efforts.  She is convening a community meeting this weekend to take questions from the public. It starts at 10 a.m. Saturday (March 18) and will be held at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, at 2330 Viewmont Way West in Magnolia Village.

Wastewater Director Isaacson is planning to attend.