Environmental accidents never whack us over the head. The big-visual exceptions, however, are part of our collective memory: Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, the “river that caught fire” in 1969; the Santa Barbara oil spill that same year; the Exxon Valdez that devastated Alaska’s Prince William Sound; and the largest marine oil spill in history, the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon.
Each disaster blew a hole in nature’s web, and each galvanized changes in policy and law, from the Clean Water Act to Sen. Warren Magnuson’s “little amendment” to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 that banned supertankers in Puget Sound.
The challenge with Puget Sound is that appearances deceive. Water like tinted glass, jarringly pristine. There are no burning oil slicks on the Sound, no orcas beached on Port Gardner. Instead there’s an unprecedented spike in ocean acidification eradicating Washington’s shellfish. The orcas aren’t beaching, but they rank as one of the most contaminated marine mammals on earth, vessels of PCBs. The problems are complex, the solutions sweeping (and it’s still more fun to point to a single bad guy and scream, “Shame!”)
Northwesterners occasionally witness cases of old-school “point-source” pollution and get riled. A point source is a one-source cause like a pipe, factory or wastewater plant. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, these are nearly always the exception. But they make for compelling video and often quick, painless fixes.
On July 20, a power outage at an Everett sewer-lift station caused 40,000 gallons of raw sewage to discharge into Port Gardner. The city of Everett responded quickly, determining that the primary and secondary backup power feeds had failed. Power was restored and the problem corrected in less than an hour, but the damage was done (not a major accident, but significant.) The public has been warned to stay out of the water at Pigeon Creek and Howarth Park, as authorities analyze water-quality samples.
Everett will work with the PUD to troubleshoot why both power sources went kaput. Should there be a tertiary backup? Maybe. Transparency, accountability and a willingness to correct mistakes are a must.
Now, we’re just talking about Everett. This scene is regularly replayed in the Salish Sea. Kitsap County’s wastewater systems periodically add to the stream of pollution, particularly during storms when wastewater systems are overwhelmed by stormwater.
For Puget Sound, the less-tractable menace is the non-point pollution that traces to yard fertilizer, cars and stormwater runoff. Here we have seen the enemy, and she is us. Remedies include low-impact development — from permeable pavement to rain gardens — and tamping down combined-sewer overflows. Cities can take specific action against overflows by separating combined stormwater and sewer lines and storing stormwater after a big downpour.
Keeping Puget Sound healthy will cost a lot of dough — refitting Poulsbo’s Anderson Parkway alone with rain gardens and permeable asphalt cost $330,000. The answers: Roll up your sleeves and plan long term. There are no quick fixes. But it’s worth it.