Saturday, July 20, 2024

Legislation would impose fines for untreated sewage discharge

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OLYMPIA - A proposal to fine counties and cities when untreated sewage is released into Puget Sound is part of an effort to save dwindling salmon runs. 

The bill, proposed by Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, imposes a 1-cent-per-gallon fee on municipal discharges of untreated sewage into Puget Sound. The bill, HB 2290, is part of a comprehensive five-bill bipartisan initiative to preserve salmon populations and support the fishing community.

The Department of Ecology did not oppose the bill but suggested other approaches might be more effective.

King County, the biggest offender of sewage discharge into the sound, will pay the most even though all of its plants already have comprehensive plans and are receiving state assistance to improve their systems, said Colleen Keltz with the Department of Ecology. 

She also said water and sewer bills are likely to increase to cover the costs of the fines, and that if plans to fine polluters are put in place, the DOE would prefer they be statewide, not just focused on Puget Sound.

Wilcox disagrees.

“The best salmon habitat in Washington will never be recovered because of its estuaries that are underneath places like Seattle and Tacoma,” Wilcox said. “We can’t tear down those cities, we can’t restore that habitat.  

He said the bill is Puget Sound specific because, “That's where we have had this problem.” He lives along the Nisqually River, and said those fish are exposed to more pollution than any other fish.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Mary Dye (R-Pomeroy), agreed something must be done.

“The salmon are now on Prozac and birth control and every other pharmaceutical known to man,” she said.

Sewage dumping into Puget Sound is not new. In the 1950s, untreated wastewater flowed into Lake Washington, Puget Sound, and nearby waterways, fouling beaches and polluting the environment.

In 1958 King County voters created Metro, which created two treatment plants by 1966. Water quality improved and in 1994, King County took over, ensuring treatment for 34 jurisdictions. 

In 2018, a No Discharge Zone status law was enacted, banning sewage dumping in 2,300 square miles of marine waters and surrounding lakes.

Despite efforts to manage sewage in the Sound, Pacific salmon populations continue to struggle.

Salmon are carrying drugs like Benadryl, cocaine, Prozac, Advil, and birth control in their tissues. These substances, known as "contaminants of emerging concern," come from human wastewater and end up in Puget Sound.

Experts say certain pharmaceuticals, like those present in birth control pills, have the potential to impact the growth and reproduction of salmon. This could pose a threat to salmon populations and potentially reduce essential prey for orcas.

Releasing sewage into “state waters” without a permit from The Department of Ecology is prohibited, and violators face civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day, with the penalty amount based on the violator's history and the severity of the violation. Collected fees are directed to the Salmon Recovery Account.

Questions were raised during discussions on the bill regarding the responsibility for covering civil penalties and uncertainties surrounding accidental negligence. However, no one testified against the bill. 

If passed, HB 2290 would require operators of wastewater treatment plants and sewer overflow systems in the Puget Sound watershed to submit annual reports on untreated sewage discharges.

“I am focused on salmon because I represent a bunch of people whose culture depends on salmon, " Wilcox said. “I represent the Nisqually tribe, and a lot of people who have generations of fishing who are not tribal.”

Three other salmon related bills have been proposed to the Legislature. One allows for a sales tax exemption for salmon recovery projects and another addresses avian predation on salmon populations. 

The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.



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