PORT TOWNSEND — A national permit requires the city of Port Townsend to replace a section of outfall pipe that carries wastewater into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but council members aren’t sure the selected method is best for the environment.
The public questioned it, too.
The Port Townsend City Council voted 6-1 Monday night to move forward with a “cut-and-cover” replacement model with the caveat that they conduct a workshop on possible alternatives within the next six months.
That was after a motion failed to postpone a decision for two weeks.
“Right now, we have a pipe that needs fixing, and we need about a year in the process before we can do anything,” City Council member Michelle Sandoval said.
“During that process, it would give us an opportunity to actually study this. We’re not going to have enough information in the next two weeks.”
Without a decision, the city would be out of compliance with the state Department of Ecology by the end of the year, Deputy Public Works Director David Peterson said.
The worst-case scenario would be a moratorium on all building within the city, he said.
“This goes through a long permitting process with the [Army] Corps of Engineers,” Peterson said. “There’s still plenty of time to comment.”
The city has a deadline to renew its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. To do so, it has to have plans and specifications approved by Dec. 31.
The city already asked for a 12-month extension last year, Peterson said.
Peterson’s presentation Monday kicked off 90 minutes of discussion on the sensitive nature of kelp, eel grass and other marine elements in addition to whether the city should pursue an outfall at all.
The proposed $4 million replacement would lie parallel to the current outfall pipe and extend 900 feet from North Beach into the Strait.
It is currently scheduled for construction in late 2021 and include the closure of North Beach County Park, where near-shore equipment would be stored, Peterson said.
The public would have access to the beach during construction, he said.
The “cut-and-cover” model, recommended by consultant Jacobs Engineering, would include a 40-foot trench with specific mitigation plans to reduce impact on sea life.
Marine biologists would remove eel grass, store it and replant it once the pipe is installed and backfilled with native material, Peterson said.
“It’s a well-proven, well-used plan for outfall construction,” he said.
The city’s existing outfall is built in two sections. One was constructed in the 1940s and the other in the 1960s, Peterson said.
“At certain times, it’s exposed,” said Peterson, a city engineer. “There have been leaks in the joints of the old outfall.
“Because of the leaks that have been going on over time, the city decided to take a look at the outfall and hired a consultant in 2008 to look at its condition.”
The study pointed to eventual replacement, he said.
Peterson added the city met with permitting agencies in 2010 and received comments from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and others.
Then the project was put on hold while the city pursued other priorities, Peterson said.
The outfall replacement already has gone through the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review, and other methods of drilling, which Peterson discussed, were deemed too expensive.
During public comments, Nam Siu, a marine biologist from Port Townsend, questioned whether or not alternatives were truly considered.
“I do not fully believe the SEPA review thoroughly considered less impact or alternatives,” he said.
Siu asked the city to take more time and review options such as a membrane-based system or forgoing an outfall altogether and storing the effluent for re-use.
“To go with the antiquated, old system is short-sighted because Ecology is drafting new rules now,” he said.
Paul McCollum, the natural resources director for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, pushed for a membrane-treatment system and pointed to shellfish bed closures near outfall pipes.
“You could get more grants and loans and probably even a better thing to get funding for it,” he said. “Saying that it’s more expensive, I don’t think that’s accurate.”
Peterson said he appreciated the public comments and noted they were good goals to have, but the city is planning for the most efficient, least-costly options to wisely spend taxpayer dollars.
The city’s wastewater has tested very well at just below Class A quality, Peterson said, and to get it there with additional treatments would cost about $10 million.
Sandoval went a step further.
“It’s the costs of our utility bills,” she said. “It isn’t just because we want to charge more money.
“We had a $23 million wastewater treatment plant put in that we didn’t want but was required by the federal government to fix a problem we didn’t have.
“If people want to pay an additional $20 a month [in utility surcharges], bravo for us wanting to jump into the future. But we aren’t going to get all the answers we need in two weeks.”
Jefferson County Managing Editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 6, or at [email protected].