Friday’s sewage spill from ‘pretty old’ Port Angeles system was drop in bucket

PORT ANGELES — A 100,000-gallon sewage spill that closed Hollywood Beach and the Valley Creek Estuary to water recreation from Friday until Tuesday afternoon was merely a drop in the bucket in terms of the amount of untreated effluent that makes its way into Port Angeles Harbor each year.

Because of the city’s out-of-date sewer system, an average of 32 million gallons of untreated sewage and storm water is dumped into the harbor each year, said Port Angeles Engineering Manager Kathryn Neal.

This occurs because the city’s sewers, which were built before the 1960s, not only carry what is flushed down more than 19,000 toilets, but also storm water.

Whenever Port Angeles gets a rain shower that is sustained for as little as 30 minutes to an hour, the storm water overflows those sewers and dumps what it can’t handle into the harbor, said Terri Partch, city civil engineer.

Overflows ‘quickly’

“It does overflow pretty quickly,” she said.

“Our city is pretty old,” she added.

“Sewer lines were placed here in 1914, and so they never anticipated how much our city would grow and how many people would actually live here.”

The state Office of Financial Management estimated Port Angeles’ population at 19,260 in April.

Usually, overflows are caused by rainfall.

On Friday, the overflow was caused by a wreck — an alleged drunken driver crashed into a wastewater pumping station. In 2006, a broken pipe caused one, Neal said.

After driving into the station on Front Street on Friday, Michael Fernandes, 22, of Port Angeles pleaded not guilty to a charge of driving under the influence in Clallam County District Court on Tuesday.

Each year the city averages 67 overflows, Neal said.

As mandated by the state Department of Ecology, the city is working to reduce overflow events to no more than four a year by Dec. 31, 2015.

Daily fines possible

It could be fined $10,000 per day if it misses that deadline.

Clallam County Environmental Health Director Andy Brastad said it is unknown how untreated sewage affects the health of Port Angeles Harbor because a study has not been done by the state nor the county.

“We really couldn’t say what the total effect is on the harbor,” he said.

“Our kind of general advice is that when there is heavy rain, especially in the inner harbor, people shouldn’t be swimming and wading.”

But bacteria and other pathogens don’t pose a long-term risk to human health after a spill because they don’t last long in cold water, Brastad said.

The recent closure to water recreational activities, such as swimming and kayaking, was also meant as an advisory, he said, and was not enforced.

Through signs posted along the waterfront, the city warns people of getting into the water after it rains.

The reason the closure was announced, Brastad said, was to warn people that a spill had occurred that was not caused by rainfall.

Water test results from waters of the estuary and near the beach on Tuesday showed that it was far from harmful.

“When we checked for those levels,” Brastad said referring to bacteria, “they were not even half of what they say would be the closure point.”

The biggest concern for the Clallam County Health and Human Services Department with sewer overflows, he said, are the heavy metals that get carried by storm water.

Those get caught in the food chain and can be harmful to people if they consume enough of them.

That’s why the county placed an advisory against eating crab caught in the harbor “several years ago,” Brastad said.

Heavy metals and other contaminates are stored in crabs’ organs, he said.

“At this point in time, we advise people not to eat crab out of the harbor,” Brastad said.

“If they do it, don’t eat the organs.”

City plans

To come into compliance with Ecology, the city intends to use a 5-million-gallon tank on Rayonier Inc.’s property to store untreated sewer and storm water that would otherwise overflow into the harbor.

Current plans call for sewage to be carried to the site by two to three pipes, which would be inserted into the industrial water line in order to avoid further excavation, Neal said.

The water line would get extend to the Rayonier property. If the city acquires the tank, they would travel in a shallow ditch to the structure and the city’s nearby wastewater treatment plant.

The total project is expected to cost $42 million.

The city is paying for it through loans from Ecology.

Customers paying

Utility customers are covering the cost through a combined sewer overflow, or CSO fee.

Increases in the monthly fee began in 2005.

In 2010, the fee will be $13.35 per month, up from $10.25 in 2009.

It will increase incrementally each year by about the same amount for another 25 to 30 years in order to cover the cost of the project, city Public Works and Utilities Director Glenn Cutler has said.

Rayonier has said it won’t sell the tank to the city unless the Port Angeles Harbor-Works Development Authority acquires the entire 75-acre site it sits on.

Acquiring the tank was one of the reasons the city created Harbor-Works in May 2008.

The public development authority is also chartered with redeveloping the property and assisting in its environmental cleanup.

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Reporter Tom Callis can be reached at 360-417-3532 or at [email protected]

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