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Published: Thursday, January 5, 2012, 9:20 p.m.

Everett allowed raw sewage into river, bay to prevent bigger mess

EVERETT -- Around the time most people were thinking cranberries and stuffing, city workers in Everett were worried about sewage.
A heavy rainstorm in the days leading up to Thanksgiving threatened to overwhelm a storage lagoon at the city's water pollution control facility.
That left the city with a no-win situation: let the lagoon overflow or release the pressure by letting untreated waste flow into waterways. They chose the latter.
On Nov. 23, the city released an estimated 25 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater straight into the Snohomish River and Port Gardner.
If it hadn't, the city risked an uncontrolled spill that could have sent even more waste into a nearby wetland and damaged the sewage plant.
"We could have had something catastrophic," public works Director Dave Davis said.
Everett is one of 11 cities in the state that have older sewer systems in which stormwater and sewage share the same pipes. Snohomish is another.
When heavy rain hits, stormwater can overwhelm the system, flushing rain water and untreated sewage directly into nearby waterways.
In Everett, the untreated waste flows into the river and the bay from 13 separate outfalls.
That can send pathogens, pollutants and what the Department of Ecology euphemistically calls "floatables" into the Snohomish River and Port Gardner -- all of which can impair aquatic habitat.
Although 25 million gallons is a large amount, about 80 percent of that dump before Thanksgiving was stormwater, Davis said. The mixture was diluted even further when it entered the water.
City workers tested the water the Monday after Thanksgiving and found normal bacteria levels, he said.
In Everett, only the older, northern portion of the city uses a combined system. In recent years, it's caused other expensive headaches.
The city is still paying homeowners who had sewage back up into their basements after a deluge in the spring of 2010.
The public works department is in the midst of trying a number of solutions, including replacing aging sewer lines with newer, larger ones and separating the sewer system from the stormwater pipes on problem blocks.
It's expensive, time-consuming work. In the past two decades, the city has spent more than $100 million improving the system. That's led to 90 percent less wastewater and sewage ending up untreated in area waterways.
The problem still exists and the city still has a way to go, Davis said.
"We strive to minimize future events and eventually totally negate it," he said.
The state allows an average of one untreated flow per year per outfall, but it gives Everett more leniency since the city is working to fix the problem, said Larry Altose, a spokesman for the Department of Ecology.
For that reason, the release of untreated waste just before Thanksgiving was not viewed as a violation of the city's permit.
In fact, the city went above and beyond its reporting requirements by telling the Department of Ecology promptly, he said. The state requires only that the city inform the state in an annual report.
Everett posts real time information about discharges on its website. It also posts warning signs near where the untreated waste flows outward.
What the city does not do is take any other efforts to alert the public when a serious discharge occurs. That's because the state doesn't require it to.
Debra Smith: 425-339-3197; dsmith@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » EverettPollutionWaste

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