Puget Sound is a mess of sewage and toxic chemical discharges. Should Victoria taxpayers have to pay for Seattle’s sins?
WASHINGTON STATE’S OPPORTUNISTIC WAR OF WORDS against Victoria’s science-endorsed form of sewage treatment reopened on a new front in February. With the cost of placating Washington’s claims of environmental damage to international waters now hovering near $1 billion, Victoria could have lobbed some scientific evidence across the border. As usual, however, Victoria taxpayers were deserted by their own elected representatives, who backed down without uttering a contrary word.
Yet the timing and substance of Representative Jeff Morris’ stun-grenade attack were so suspect that anyone with a pen could have poked them full of holes.
On February 23, the Seattle Times reported that researchers had found 92 chemicals of concern, some associated with drugs—from caffeine to cocaine—in the tissue of juvenile Chinook salmon netted in Puget Sound estuaries into which sewage treatment plants discharge effluent. The researchers also found the chemicals in the effluent from these plants. The Times story noted that scientist James Meador’s earlier research had shown that juvenile Chinook salmon swimming through contaminated estuaries in Puget Sound die at nearly twice the rate of fish elsewhere. Other scientific research has linked nutritional stresses experienced by endangered southern resident orca to the decline in abundance of chinook salmon
Then, just two days after the embarrassing drugged-Chinook story appeared, Morris announced a legislative proposal that would ban Washington State employees from claiming travel expenses for trips made to Victoria until Victoria builds a sewage treatment plant. Meador’s research was pushed off Seattle front pages and replaced with one that linked the Sound’s sewage problems to Victoria.
A week after that, Morris sent a letter to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps claiming that “chemical loading” from Victoria’s marine-based sewage treatment system poses a “long-term risk” to “our shared waters.” Morris’ letter was signed by 36 other Washington legislators whose districts also border on Puget Sound.
Was the legislators’ initiative greeted with guffaws in Victoria? Not at all. A press release from BC Environment Minister Mary Polak stated, “Washington state residents can rest assured that Greater Victoria will have sewage treatment in the near future.” Meanwhile, Helps wrote a letter to a Victoria newspaper stating: “I want the public and our colleagues in Washington to know we take their actions seriously.”
Morris’ letter to Helps outlined the 23-year history of BC politicians being “forced”—that’s the word Morris used—to accept Washington’s position that Victoria’s treatment system is somehow affecting Puget Sound’s environmental health. Morris’ letter provided point-by-point proof that BC’s acceptance of Washington’s claim had been obtained either by threat of economic boycott or the offer of a deal too good to refuse. That deal-making included, according to Morris, BC Premier Gordon Campbell agreeing in 2006 to command Victoria to build land-based treatment in exchange for Washington Governor Christine Gregoire’s support for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic bid.
Morris neglected to include in his timeline the 1994 findings of a joint panel of eminent BC and Washington marine scientists. Their report, The Shared Marine Waters of British Columbia and Washington, noted that “waters off Victoria theoretically could contain about 20 times as much dissolved sewage effluent from Vancouver and Seattle as from Victoria itself.” The scientists also noted that, in Puget Sound, Victoria’s contribution to the concentration of sewage effluent would be slightly more than one percent of Seattle’s.
Morris’ demand that Victoria get on with construction of a sewage treatment plant was apparently precipitated by a fuzzy February 15 Times Colonist story headlined: “Heavy rain prompts health advisories at capital’s outfalls.” The story seemed to report that Victoria’s outfalls were unscreened and, following a period of heavy rain, were discharging “floatables, including plastics” that were washing up on local beaches.
Based on his understanding of that story, Morris predicted widespread damage to the economy and environment: “We recognize the shared risk in short-term loss of tourism activity on both sides of the border from publicity surrounding this issue. However, we believe the long-term damage to marine mammals, in particular, but all marine wildlife does more long-term damage to ecotourism.”
Morris finished his letter by asserting: “We can no longer tolerate the long-term risk that the chemical loading caused by Victoria CRD’s inaction has brought to our shared waters.”
I wrote to Morris inviting him to answer questions about his letter and the issue, especially his claim about “chemical loading” of “shared waters.” He wrote back but refused to respond to questions about chemical loading because I had used the words “marine-based treatment.” That’s the expression 10 prominent BC marine scientists have used to describe Victoria’s current treatment system. Morris wrote: “Using the term ‘marine based treatment’ to describe dumping raw sewage into our shared waters is demonstrative of a story bent that I do not want to participate in.”
Even as Morris refused to participate, though, he dug himself a deeper hole: “The straight-face test was the [Times Colonist] article pointing out that several outfalls were not even screened. My impression is that you don’t have a separate surface water collection system from your dumping of raw sewage in the Straight [sic] of Juan de Fuca. In the USA it is a requirement that surface water be a separate collection system from the primary and secondary sewage treatment systems.”
Morris’ impression is wrong and so is his understanding of US requirements. Victoria’s separation of storm drains and sewers is just like Seattle’s and 10 other Puget Sound communities, including Anacortes, Bellingham and Mt Vernon, all of which are wholly or partly in Morris’ 40th Legislative District. Each of these cities have storm drains and sewers that have some interconnections, usually by design but sometimes through deterioration. During periods of heavy rain, sewage can flow from sewers into storm drains and this results in what sanitary engineers call “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs). CSOs act as a relief valve to prevent sewage from backing up into homes or overflowing land during peak rain events. This condition exists throughout North America, but construction of a treatment plant in Victoria would have no direct impact on CSOs here. That’s because the flow of sewage into storm drains occurs upstream of sewage treatment plants.
Not only is Morris’ impression about Victoria wrong, he doesn’t seem to be aware of the current policy about CSOs in Washington State or the extent to which they are an issue there. In 2010, after years of trying to get King County to address discharges of raw sewage from over a hundred CSOs in central Seattle, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Washington referred the case to the federal Department of Justice. In 2013 the US District Court for the Western District of Washington entered a consent decree to address King County’s failure to implement a long term control plan to reduce CSOs to meet the state standard of no more than one overflow per outfall per year.
At the time, Seattle and King County agreed to spend $860 million for upgrades that will address most of their CSO problem—about 5.6 billion litres of raw sewage dumped into Seattle-area waterways each year. In 2015, a final agreement was reached that will see CSOs in King County largely eliminated by 2030—14 years from now.
According to Washington State’s Department of Ecology—the equivalent of BC’s Ministry of Environment—there are a total of 126 stormwater outfalls in King County and the City of Seattle that discharge raw sewage each year. Most of those discharge into Lake Washington, the Lower Duwamish Waterway, and Puget Sound’s Elliot Bay, all in the most highly urbanized areas of Seattle.
The Department of Ecology’s records show there are 168 known CSOs discharging into the Puget Sound area, including 7 in communities in Morris’ own 40th District.
For Morris to honestly claim that “In the USA it is a requirement that surface water be a separate collection system from the primary and secondary sewage treatment systems,” he would have to be ignorant of his state’s official policy on CSOs, know nothing about the seven CSOs in his own district and have missed the spectacular EPA lawsuit over the perennial mess in Seattle. Morris’ claim doesn’t pass his own “straight-face test.”
Victoria’s decades-old treatment issue has long been an irresistible punching-bag for Washington politicians. When bad news about orca or harbour seals or salmon comes over their horizon, Victoria is within easy smacking distance.
In 2014, current Washington Governor Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine wrote BC Premier Christy Clark after Clark’s cabinet refused to override Esquimalt’s decision to limit the size of a treatment plant that could be built at McLoughlin Point. Inslee and Constantine told Clark, “We are very concerned by the lack of progress in treating wastewater and protecting the health and habitat of Puget Sound.” After listing the steps Washington was taking to “improve the health of our waters and restore habitat,” the two contrasted their efforts with Victoria’s: “However, the continued lack of wastewater treatment in Victoria—at the entrance of Puget Sound—means Greater Victoria is not doing its fair share. This is of significant health concern for the health of the rest of the region’s waterways.”
Like Morris’ claims, the position of Inslee and Constantine is sorely challenged by the evidence.
First, Puget Sound’s many sewage treatment plants may be providing secondary treatment, but they’re still dumping large volumes of partially-treated sewage—and the chemicals used to kill pathogens—into constricted Puget Sound. Those plants consistently fail to comply with the requirements of the US Clean Water Act and are of a type that is inadequate to address the Sound’s growing risk of eutrophication and hypoxia.
Secondly, the American claim that Victoria’s discharge is adversely influencing the health of Puget Sound—and so American interference in internal Canadian politics is justified—is at odds with the state’s own science on where the vast majority of toxic anthropogenic chemicals going into Puget Sound comes from: stormwater runoff.
Washington’s most recently published (2014) “Marine Waters Condition Index” showed a downturn in the environmental health of many Puget Sound basins. The most dramatic decline was in Bellingham Bay, part of which is in Morris’ 40th District. Morris, Inslee and past Washington politicians have pointed their fingers at Victoria’s toilets as the Sound’s health has declined, but the record shows they have been largely ineffective at addressing the fundamental issues driving the deterioration: too many people living on the shores of Puget Sound and inadequate regulations and infrastructure to support that population.
Washington’s dismal sewage treatment
According to the Department of Ecology there are “about 100” publicly-owned secondary treatment plants discharging sewage effluent into Puget Sound. The two largest plants, which serve approximately 1.5 million Seattleites, discharge nearly half of the 1.2 billion litres of sewage effluent that flows into Puget Sound every day. For perspecetive, that 1.2 billion litres is 13 times more than Victoria’s 91 million litres per day.
According to the EPA’s enforcement and compliance history database, the West Point and South plants didn’t have a single 3-month period during the last 3 years in which they fully complied with the requirements of the Clean Water Act. The largest, at West Point, was in “significant violation” of the Clean Water Act 75 percent of the time during the last three years. Even Brightwater, the new tertiary-level treatment plant serving northeast Seattle, has a solid record of either non-compliance or significant violation of the Clean Water Act over the past three years. The Anacortes plant, in Morris’ 40th District, hasn’t had a single quarter over the past three years in which it fully complied with the Clean Water Act. Likewise with Bellingham’s Post Point plant, also in Morris’ district.
Even having a relatively good record with the EPA does not guarantee that a Puget Sound treatment plant will not have a serious negative impact on wildlife habitat. The Central Tacoma plant, the third largest on the Sound, achieved “no-violation” 60 percent of the time during the past three years—the best record of the Sound’s largest plants. Yet it was one of the plants where scientist James Meador found higher than expected levels of chemicals of concern in both the plant’s effluent and in the tissue of juvenile Chinook found immediately downstream from the plant. In previous research Meador had found that juvenile Chinook passing through such contaminated estuaries had an overall survival rate 45 percent lower than that for Chinook moving through uncontaminated estuaries.
For this story Focus reviewed the operating permits of 77 Puget Sound treatment plants to determine their cumulative permitted discharge of suspended solids, a number that the Department of Ecology admitted it had not determined. An Ecology spokesperson said “it would take many hours by several staff to pull all of the data for each wastewater treatment plant.” Our examination revealed that the 77 plants are permitted to discharge over 32.4 million kilograms of suspended solids each year—more than five times Victoria’s current (2015) annual discharge of 6.35 million kilograms. Most of that 32.4 million kilograms is for Seattle plants and those at the south end of the Sound. If that large mass of suspended solids isn’t expected to create a problem for the constricted waters of Puget Sound, why would one-fifth of that be a problem in the rapidly changing, highly-oxygenated waters off Victoria?
Indeed, Canadian scientists have determined that the biological oxygen demand of all sewage solids being discharged into the Salish Sea is inconsequential compared with natural sources of oxygen demand. But those treatment-related solids do create a pathway for PBDEs to get into marine waters. PBDEs—polybrominated diphenyl ethers—are a family of chemicals commonly used as flame retardants in many objects in our homes and workplaces. PBDE molecules attach themselves to particles and any suspended solids passing through a sewage treatment plant allow PBDEs to enter an aquatic environment. Canadian scientist Peter Ross’ 2005 study “Fireproof killer whales” revealed the impacts of PBDEs and PCBs on the health and reproductive capacity of orca and other marine mammals in the Salish Sea. Washington’s Department of Ecology notes that PBDEs “can affect the development, reproduction, and survival of many species. They build up in the food chain and are found in people as well as other organisms including fish and orcas in Puget Sound.”
Since Puget Sound secondary treatment plants are permitted to discharge five times as much suspended solids—and consequently five times as much PBDEs—they represent five times the risk of Victoria’s outfalls. But solids aren’t the only part of human sewage that’s impacting the health of the Sound. One of the most troubling sewage-related problems there is the trend towards diminished dissolved oxygen. If levels fall past a certain point, fish can’t breathe.
Several of south Puget Sound’s basins already experience at least seasonal oxygen impairment as a result of the high level of dissolved inorganic nitrogen introduced by sewage treatment plants. That nitrogen provides a ready source of nutrients for phytoplankton and could lead to eutrophication, harmful algal blooms and hypoxia.
According to data from the Department of Ecology, secondary treatment does little to lower the amount of dissolved inorganic nitrogen discharged from Puget Sound plants. The West Point and South plants that serve central Seattle have concentrations of nitrogen in their discharges just as high as the Clover Point and Macaulay Point outfalls in Victoria. But there are two big differences in the situations of the two cities that put the waters south of Seattle at greater risk. First, Puget Sound treatment plants are discharging over twelve times as much nitrogen as Victoria does. Secondly, Victoria’s outfalls discharge to rapidly replenished, highly-oxygenated waters in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, while Seattle’s plants discharge to highly-constricted waters that take two to three months to replenish and benefit little from the energetic tidal mixing that occurs in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Unless Puget Sound communities spend heavily to add a higher level of treatment—such as biological nutrient removal—to existing plants, the already problematic level of anthropogenic nitrogen in the Sound will increase as fast as the population increases. That increase could be dramatic.
In the last 10 years alone the population of Puget Sound communities grew by 420,000 to nearly 4 million. That increase is considerably more than the Capital Regional District’s entire population of 370,000. At 2015’s rate of growth, a new population as large as the CRD’s would be added to the shores of Puget Sound in just 6 years. Some Washington State projections put the population of the Puget Sound region at 8 to 9 million by 2070. By comparison, the CRD’s residential population in the area currently served by the Macaulay Point and Clover Point plants is expected to grow to a total of 457,000 by 2070, according to CRD estimates.
While the rapid growth around Puget Sound is enriching that region’s economy, the growing impact of those people is threatening the long-term prospects of the southern resident orca. That population was protected by the US Endangered Species Act in 2005, which designated all of the waters of Puget Sound as critical habitat. With the orca’s nutritional health dependent on the abundance of Chinook salmon, and the abundance of Chinook salmon being challenged by the sewage treatment practices of Puget Sound communities, it’s hard to keep a straight face when Governor Inslee and Representative Morris wag their fingers at Victoria’s sewage treatment. Even more of a challenge to keeping normal Canadian politeness in play is Morris’ assertion that “chemical loading” caused by Victoria’s sewage treatment practices presents a serious “long-term risk” to the health of Puget Sound.
The history and sources of chemical contamination in Puget Sound were laid bare in PBS’s 2009 Frontline documentary Poisoned Waters. That film took a hard look at Washington’s failure to clean up Puget Sound 44 years after enactment of the Clean Water Act and 36 years after creation of Superfund designations for the cleanup of sites where major chemical contamination has taken place. Poisoned Waters included only one Superfund site on the Lower Duwamish Waterway, but there are 22 Superfund sites around Puget Sound and some of the largest remain unremediated. The documentary also provided chilling insights about the source of the greatest ongoing chemical contamination of the Sound. Chilling because what Frontline found in Seattle also applies to Victoria. Journalist Hedrick Smith summed it up: “What’s making this water so sick is what scientists have now labelled the number one menace to our waterways—stormwater runoff.”
At one point in the film Smith interviewed a diver incensed about a stormwater outfall across Elliot Bay from downtown Seattle. The diver told Smith: “The end of the pipe creates a brown noxious soup of nastiness that is unbelievable…”
Smith responded, “Unbelievable because the water looks so good from up here. So we’re looking at something we think is clean and underneath, you can see, diving there…” The diver interrupted Smith and said, “It’s not clean. When we see that [outfall] running in full flow, we turn around and we swim the other way. Quickly. There is just this unbelievable gunk coming out the end of this pipe. This is our front yard. Would you allow your front yard to be sick?”
Christine Gregoire, who was then Washington’s governor, quantified the “unbelievable gunk” for Smith: “We put in about 150,000 pounds a day of untreated toxics into Puget Sound. We thought all the way along that it was like a toilet, to be honest with you. What you put in you flush out, and it goes out to the ocean and gets diluted. We know that’s not true; it’s like a bathtub. So what you put in stays there.”
Much of the “unbelievable gunk”—about 98 percent by weight—is oil, grease and petroleum, most of which is connected to the use of cars and trucks. In the film, Jay Manning, director of the Department of Ecology, tells Smith that as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez goes into Puget Sound via stormwater every two years. Gregoire’s estimate for the total weight of “untreated toxics” being flushed each year into Puget Sound from runoff works out to 23,277 metric tonnes. That’s a lot. Was she right?
“Poisoned Waters” aired roughly in the middle of the five-year-long Puget Sound Toxics Loading Analysis (PSTLA) led by Washington’s Department of Ecology and the EPA. By the final report in 2011, the total estimated weight of “toxic chemical loading” of Puget Sound each year—from runoff, atmospheric deposition, sewage effluent and groundwater—was estimated to be in the range of 9,024 to 11,823 metric tonnes. That’s a lot less than Gregoire had told Hedrick Smith. What happened to the other half?
For one thing, an accounting of industrial discharges—included in the first two phases of the process that began in 2007—had magically disappeared from the final analysis in 2011. With five petrochemical refineries, three pulp and paper mills, a metal smelter and hundreds of other industrial operations discharging either directly or indirectly to Puget Sound, this was an obvious shifting of responsibility away from industrial polluters. That raises questions about the integrity of the process. Were the Americans serious about understanding what’s happening to Puget Sound? Or was political influence exerted on the final numbers to protect the economic position of such operations as refineries?
How extensively the figures were manipulated is unknown, but there are indicators that massaging went beyond removing numbers that could be used to focus blame on specific industrial sectors. The acknowledged loading for PBDEs and PCBs seems low considering the assessment’s findings for the total annual release of these two chemicals into the Puget Sound Basin (the “Basin” includes all watersheds draining into Puget Sound). The Department of Ecology estimates 2200 kilograms of PCBs are released into the Basin each year but decided that only 3 to 20 kilograms actually find their way into the Sound. That accounts for only a tiny percentage—0.1 to 1 percent—of the acknowledged release. What is the fate of the remaining 99 to 99.9 percent?
Likewise, Ecology estimates 700 kilograms of PBDEs are released into the Basin each year but only 28 to 54 kilograms go into Puget Sound. Comparison with the release of PBDEs from Vancouver’s Annacis Island secondary treatment plant suggests Ecology’s estimate is less than half what it should be.
In spite of those concerns, the PSTLA numbers do allow us to compare toxic chemical loading from Puget Sound communities with toxic chemical loading from Victoria’s outfalls. The relative amounts for every chemical of concern undermines the claim by Morris and other Washington politicians that Victoria’s treatment system is posing a significant risk to shared marine waters. Even if Victoria’s outfalls emptied their contents directly into the centre of Puget Sound, their contribution to chemical loading in the Sound would be relatively small (see table below).
The PSTLA study also considered “ocean exchange” of toxic chemicals and estimated the net outflow or inflow into Puget Sound of those chemicals. For copper, zinc and PBDEs, Puget Sound was a net exporter. On the other hand, the amounts of arsenic and lead coming into Puget Sound from ocean waters overwhelms the amounts deposited through all other pathways. According to the analyses, there is a small—approximately 1 kilogram per year—net inflow of PCBs into Puget Sound from ocean exchange, 0.3 kilograms of which is brought to Puget Sound by returning salmon. Coincidentally, Victoria’s outfalls produced a total of about 0.3 kilograms of PCBs in 2014.
(By the way, the level of PBDEs and PCBs reported by the CRD in its Marine Environment Program 2014 Annual Report were both down from levels reported in previous years.)
With Washington planning for a large increase in Puget Sound’s human population over the next several decades, the main threat to the Sound’s environmental health—the amount of toxic chemicals entering it through stormwater runoff—seems likely to accelerate. If the state’s own numbers show Victoria plays no significant role in the Sound’s decline, why do Washington politicians continue to use the Sound’s deteriorating health as an excuse to involve themselves in Canadian politics? Is it to deflect attention away from their own apparently intractable problems?
The Governor’s concern
I asked Department of Ecology spokeswoman Sandy Howard what Governor Inslee’s exact concern was about Victoria’s impact on “the health and habitat of Puget Sound.”
In marked contrast to Morris’ concern about “chemical loading,” Howard responded, “The letter from Governor Inslee cites a general concern for the health and habitat of our shared waters. Our studies indicate that water masses are highly connected and cross our shared border. Our position is that we all need to do our part, and we should not be sending the wrong message regarding environmental stewardship, especially in light of population growth.”
The first part of that concern is that stuff from Victoria is crossing into Puget Sound waters. But the Department of Ecology’s own study of toxics shows the Sound is a net exporter of some chemicals of concern and a net importer of others, and those balances have little to do with Victoria’s outfalls. They are overwhelmingly determined by chemicals of concern—arsenic, lead and cadmium for example—already in the ocean or originating in Washington. As well, that 1994 report by a joint panel of three BC and three Washington marine scientists, mentioned earlier, had agreed that the discharge from Victoria’s outfalls would have far less impact on waters off Seattle than Seattle’s outfalls would have on waters off Victoria. I asked Howard if Washington now disagreed with that finding or had done any new analysis of the issue.
“We have not revisited the relative impacts from Victoria, as was reported in this 1994 effort,” Howard replied. “We are in the process of refining a more detailed computer model to address questions that focus on US impacts on our shared waters.” Then Howard repeated her previous point about environmental stewardship and population growth. “Our position is that we all need to do our part, and we should not be sending the wrong message regarding environmental stewardship, especially in light of population growth.”
Absolute population growth around Puget Sound, as mentioned earlier, has been, and is expected to continue to be, far greater than Victoria’s. Washington may be projecting its fear about what is happening there on Victoria, but the statistics don’t support that. Howard’s emphasis on “environmental stewardship,” though, will resonate with some Victorians who think that it’s a “no-brainer” that Victoria’s current system would be causing environmental harm compared with secondary sewage treatment. But that’s not the view of marine scientists in Victoria, who have endorsed the existing system—with the caveat that further studies on chemicals of emerging concern should be conducted.
I told Howard about the Victoria scientists’ endorsement and asked her if the Department of Ecology agreed with the principle of making decisions about environmental stewardship using science-based information and knowledge. She responded, “Our treatment standards are based on science and require that all dischargers apply a basic level of treatment. That basic level of treatment has been defined as secondary treatment.”
A comparison of how science is used in the operation of Victoria’s treatment system with how it is used in Washington is revealing. Victoria’s system appears to have two advanced features of environmental stewardship that are missing in Washington.
Environmental stewardship—as practiced by governments—requires frequent measurement of chemicals of concern being discharged into the environment and transparent public reporting of the results of that monitoring. With sewage treatment, Victoria is doing this and Washington isn’t.
One of the chemical groups of greatest concern in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca are PBDEs. I had noticed that the Department of Ecology had only published estimates for the total amount of PBDEs released to the Sound through wastewater treatment plants. Yet the CRD does very precise measuring, monitoring and publication of the amount of PBDEs—and all other chemicals of concern, found in its discharges. For example, the CRD reports right down to a hundredth of a gram the total weight of each of the 40 different PBDEs it discharges from each of its two outfalls, every year. Accurately making those measurements, monitoring the results, and releasing that information to the public represents a high level of environmental stewardship. I asked Howard about Washington’s estimates for the release of PBDEs. Her answer confirmed the difference: “Washington treatment plants are not required to monitor and report PBDEs on an annual basis,” she said.
An examination of the operating permits for the Sound’s wastewater treatment plants shows a low level of monitoring, in both frequency and the number of chemicals measured, compared with that done for Victoria’s two outfalls. The monitoring requirements for Seattle’s West Point plant—the largest secondary treatment plant on the Sound—don’t include PCBs, for example.
There’s another vital difference between Victoria’s treatment system and those of Puget Sound: source control. Source control refers to the practice of keeping chemicals of concern out of the sewers in the first place, through a program of regulation, registration, installation of collection equipment to isolate and store chemicals of concern, proper disposal, inspection and monitoring.
In Puget Sound, institutions, businesses and industries that discharge toxic chemicals are required to self-report those releases to the EPA’s Toxic Releases Inventory only under certain conditions. For example, a business must have 10 or more full-time employees to be required to report. Many operations in Puget Sound come in under that threshold, are not required to register, and discharge toxic chemicals directly into sanitary sewers. Since treatment plants aren’t required to measure or report their release of many toxic chemicals, such as PBDEs, Washington has no hard evidence of the plants’ cumulative contribution to the chemical loading of Puget Sound.
In Victoria, the CRD instituted a region-wide source control program in 1994 and since then has become a nationally-recognized leader in that practice. The CRD reports that 97 percent of region businesses whose activities fall within the program’s regulations have proper waste treatment systems installed that keep chemicals of concern out of Victoria’s sanitary sewers. Seattle does have a source-control program for the Lower Duwamish Waterway—a highly contaminated federal Superfund site—but otherwise has no city-wide source control program.
While building a hundred sewage treatment plants on Puget Sound has allowed a reduction of suspended solids and reduced biological oxygen demand, the plants’ effectiveness at removing chemicals of concern is largely unmeasured and unknown.
Given Washington’s failure to monitor chemicals of concern and employ source control, the argument that Governor Inslee is entitled to pull Victoria’s chain to avoid sending “the wrong message regarding environmental stewardship” doesn’t seem credible. But even a cursory examination of Washington’s internal politics shows there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that Washington legislators simply use Victoria to cover their own asses during times of stress.
The phony toilet war: politically-motivated scapegoating
Following the airing of Poisoned Waters in 2009, Washington state legislators moved to increase the state’s hazardous substances tax to fund measures that would reduce toxic chemical loading from stormwater runoff. But the bill, the Washington Clean Water Act of 2010, was withdrawn in April 2010. Ironically, Jeff Morris was seen by some in Washington as influential in the bill’s demise. John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a non-profit public policy research organization in Washington, linked the measure’s withdrawal to personal lobbying—wining and dining—of Morris on six different occasions by BP lobbyist William Kidd. According to Burbank the proposed legislation would have added at least $200,000 a day to BP’s cost of doing business in Washington.
Not only were Morris and his fellow Puget Sound legislators unwilling or unable to deal with the stormwater issue, it’s easy to find specific cases where they continue to tolerate direct contamination of Puget Sound by their constituents. Consider Morris’ record, for example.
A 2014 report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center described Puget Sound as having the third highest level of “toxicity-weighted” materials released into large watersheds in the USA on an ongoing basis. The study used data from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. That report highlights a case of ongoing release of known carcinogenic substances, which just happens to be in Morris’ 40th District. A wood preservative company in Bellingham, registered with the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, reported in its last three filings an annual discharge of .5 kilograms of pentachlorophenol (PCP) and dioxins directly into Whatcom Creek, which flows into Bellingham Bay. By comparison, Victoria’s source-controlled outfalls discharged zero PCP in 2014, according to the CRD’s detailed report on chemicals released.
Other corporate constituents of Morris’ district have records that raise questions about the legislator’s actual level of concern over chemical contamination. Tesoro, one of several fossil-fuel-related donors to Morris’ last election campaign, operates a refinery in Anacortes that, according to the EPA’s enforcement and compliance history database, has been in “significant violation” of the Clean Air Act every quarter for the last three years. It fully complied with the Clean Water Act only 17 percent of that time. Tesoro representatives openly testified against the Washington Clean Water Act of 2010 before it was withdrawn. Now Tesoro is planning a significant increase in the output of its Anacortes operation. Yet there’s been complete silence from Morris and other legislators about “chemical loading” from the refinery. Recall that about 98 percent of the toxic chemical loading of Puget Sound comes from petroleum, oil and grease, according to the Department of Ecology.
Given the failure by Morris and his fellow legislators to protect the Sound from such impacts, their claim that “We can no longer tolerate the long-term risk that the chemical loading caused by Victoria CRD’s inaction has brought to our shared waters,” seems more like a line from Wonderland than Washington.
Their threatened boycott of Victoria included other claims worthy of the rabbit hole. In his letter to Mayor Helps, Morris said “…we believe the long-term damage to marine mammals, in particular, but all marine wildlife does more long-term damage to ecotourism.” With about one whale-watching business based in Puget Sound for every three surviving orca—most operating out of Morris’ 40th District—the pressure these operations put on their prey was found by DFO scientist Christine Erbe in 2001 to be damaging the orcas’ prospect for survival.
Yet for all its absurdity, Morris’ campaign has been effective. Just after BC Environment Minister Barry Penner’s approval in August 2010 of the CRD’s plan for a secondary treatment plant at McLoughlin Point, Penner told the Journal of San Juan Islands: “I know there’s been a concern in Washington state about the lack of sewage treatment in the Victoria area. I certainly hear about it from time to time, particularly from Representative Jeff Morris, who has not been shy about letting us know that his constituents are concerned about that.”
Morris hasn’t been the only Washingtonian deflecting attention away from the state’s dismal performance on reducing chemical contamination of Puget Sound and international waters.
In a 2014 column, Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer wrote: “While delivering a speech in Bellingham last fall, I fielded a question that comes up pretty much every time I address an audience south of the border. ‘When are you folks in Victoria going to start treating your sewage?’ The shame of my hometown—dumping millions of litres of untreated sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca every day. Or, as columnist Joel Connelly wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer 25 years ago, ‘the BC capital believes in using an international waterway as its toilet.’”
Palmer’s “shame” button has been pushed repeatedly by Connelly over all those years. In a March 30, 2016 column on Seattle PI, Connelly repeated, for the umpteenth time: “Victoria is still using an international waterway as its toilet.” Over the years Connelly had plenty of opportunities to write about the international toilet in his own front yard, but he never did.
When contacted by Focus, Connelly said, “I keep returning to Victoria sewage because promises were made, promises have not been kept, and our political leadership is perplexed. Site your treatment plants and I will very gladly go on to something else.”
That BC political figures like Mike Harcourt and Gordon Campbell made “promises,” however, seems a flimsy rationale for spending $1 billion on treatment if BC scientists are saying it will have a “negligible effect” on environmental conditions in the Salish Sea. Worse, Connelly’s focus on Victoria has stunted the growth of knowledge in both Victoria and in Puget Sound. By holding up Victoria’s system as shameful, Victorians have been discouraged from learning about how it works, why it works, and how it could be made to work better. Instead, Victoria’s political discourse has been held hostage for 10 long years by what scientists say is a “non-problem.” Meanwhile, Connelly has provided cover for a poorly-functioning system of treatment plants in Puget Sound that are producing cocaine-spiked salmon smolts and fireproof orca.
The lesson for Victoria?
The opinions of Washington legislators about the Capital Region’s sewage treatment system are highly suspect. When challenged for details, they can’t provide them. The legislators’ uninformed portrayal of Victoria’s treatment system as “backward” is little more than an attempt to deflect attention away from their own inaction as Puget Sound deteriorates.
Victoria’s political leaders shouldn’t take Washington politicians seriously on this issue. Instead, those tasked with deciding how to spend that “billion dollars” need to take their responsibility more seriously. They need to get outside the Where-to-put-it? box they’ve been stuck in since 2009 and allow themselves to be guided by local marine and human health scientists who have precise knowledge of the environmental and health impacts of the current system.
In Washington, scientists say stormwater runoff is the most pressing threat to marine waters. Unless that’s solved, conditions in the Salish Sea will continue to deteriorate. In Victoria, scientists are saying additional sewage treatment here—and in Vancouver—will provide little or no environmental benefit. One initiative that would provide a benefit has been identified. Victoria’s stormwater runoff is likely as toxic as Seattle’s, albeit on a smaller scale. The deterioration of near-shore Victoria-area waters that local citizens have blamed on the deep-water outfalls is more likely due to deposition of the “incredible gunk” from storm drains that disgusted the diver interviewed in Poisonous Waters. That’s a problem that everyone agrees needs to be fixed.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.