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City's wastewater violations prompt federal complaint

NORTH BEND - A Seattle environmental group has filed a complaint against the city of North Bend under the federal Clean Water Act for discharging higher-than-allowed amounts of copper, silver, zinc, mercury and ammonia into the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River from the city's wastewater treatment plant.

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit organization aiming to limit the amount of pollutants entering Puget Sound, filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court's Western Washington District in Seattle on May 7.

The complaint states North Bend had more than 90 violations of the federal Clean Water Act and its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which is granted by the state Department of Ecology (DOE). The violations date from February 1997 to October 2001.

"We monitor pollution permit compliance and we were reviewing records at the Department of Ecology and noticed that the city of North Bend had numerous violations over the past four or five years," said Sue Joerger, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.

"There were enough of them that we wanted to take action," she said.

Under the NPDES permit, which was granted to North Bend for its wastewater treatment plant in 1994 and again in 1999, the city must report findings taken from water samples to the DOE.

Those reports served as the basis for Puget Soundkeeper Alliance's complaint against North Bend. But the city isn't alone in being targeted by the group. Todd Pacific Shipyards Corp. in Seattle, J.A. Jack and Sons Inc. in Seattle, the city of Snohomish wastewater treatment plant, Spadoni Brothers in Gig Harbor and Rosario Resort and Spa in San Juan County were also notified by Puget Soundkeeper Alliance earlier this year that they would be sued for violating the Clean Water Act.

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance sent out letters to the cities and businesses in February and gave them 60 days to reach a settlement. If that wasn't successful, complaints would be filed in District Court.

Both Joerger and Paul Kampmeier, an attorney with Smith and Lowney PLLC in Seattle representing Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, said the group's objective is not to go to court, but to correct the problems at the North Bend facility.

"So far, the city has been amenable to working with us," Kampmeier said.

"Usually there is some kind of solution to the problem. Sometimes it's a quick fix. Sometimes it's a longer fix," Joerger said.

In its complaint, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance states North Bend exceeded levels allowed in the Clean Water Act and the NPDES permit for metals such copper, silver, zinc and mercury, as well as the chemical ammonia.

Joerger said higher-than-allowed levels of mercury were troublesome since exposure to that metal builds up over time and has been linked to several diseases.

"That was a particular red flag for us," Joerger said. "They [the city of North Bend] were concerned about it, too."

City Attorney Mike Kenyon said North Bend has been aware of the violations, as it is required to make regular reports of test samples. Determining what's causing the violation has proved more difficult.

"It takes a long time to identify the source of the problem, the source of the leak, the source of the infiltration," he said.

The metals listed in the violations are commonly used in dentistry and in dark rooms, said City Administrator Phil Messina. Elevated levels of copper are caused by new copper plumbing, which he said leaches copper into wastewater.

The city has made a concerted effort to educate local business on how to better filter metals before they infiltrate water headed for the wastewater treatment plant.

"Since we've done that, we've had one month without silver or mercury violations," Messina said.

The city is also hampered by the wastewater treatment plant itself, which was designed about 20 years ago primarily to remove biological waste from water.

"The plant is not designed to pull metals out of the water flow," Messina said.

North Bend's wastewater treatment plant discharges treated effluent into the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River by way of a 21-inch pipe and bankside diffuser. Water samples taken by the city are used to determine how much pollution entered the river and in what concentration.

Effluent limits are set according to the average monthly loading of the metal or chemical (pounds per day), as well as the average monthly concentration (micrograms per liter) and maximum daily concentration (micrograms per liter). The limits were established in the 1994 NPDES permit and the subsequent 1999 permit, with different limits created for high- and low-flow seasons.

For mercury, the average monthly loading limit, according to the 1999 NPDES permit, is 0.0007 pounds per day. The complaint and the letter sent to North Bend in February announcing Puget Soundkeeper Alliance's intention to sue state the city exceeded the limit in August 2001 when it reported an average monthly loading of 0.003 pounds per day - more than four times the limit.

The limit for the average monthly concentration of mercury is 0.1 micrograms per liter under the 1999 permit. The city doubled that amount - 0.2 micrograms per liter - in October 2001.

In addition, North Bend twice exceeded the maximum daily concentration limit for mercury, which is 0.2 micrograms per liter. That occurred Aug. 28, 2001, (0.4 micrograms per liter) and Oct. 9, 2001, (1 microgram per liter).

In all, the complaint and the letter sent to North Bend document a total of more than 90 instances where North Bend exceeded mercury limits as well as average monthly loading for total recoverable copper; average monthly concentration for total recoverable copper; maximum daily concentration for total recoverable copper; average monthly loading for total recoverable silver; average monthly concentration for total recoverable silver; maximum daily concentration for total recoverable silver; average monthly loading for total recoverable zinc; average monthly concentration for total recoverable zinc; maximum daily concentration of total recoverable zinc; and average monthly concentration of total ammonia.

In some of the most extreme examples:

* The city reported a maximum daily concentration for total recoverable silver of 400 micrograms per liter on Sept. 3, 1997. The limit under the 1994 NPDES permit was 1.35 micrograms per liter.

* In May 1997, North Bend reported an average monthly loading for total recoverable zinc of 0.852 pounds per day. The limit under the 1994 permit was 0.286 pounds per day.

* In September 1998, the maximum daily concentration of total recoverable zinc was 930 micrograms per liter, while 1994 permit limit was 149 micrograms per liter.

* Under the 1999 permit, the limit for total ammonia was 7.1 milligrams per liter during the high-flow season. North Bend reported 11.6 milligrams per liter for March 2000.

In its complaint, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance asks that if the city is found to have violated the Clean Water Act and its NPDES permit, the wastewater treatment plant should cease operating "in a manner that results in further violations ..."

North Bend could also be ordered to pay a penalty of $27,500 per day for each violation.

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