Mark Isaacson describes Feb. 9 as a “pretty dark day.”
While the director of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division says he took his current position in October looking for a challenge, the events of that day weren’t what he had in mind.
“I got a challenge,” he says. “I certainly did. But I didn’t want this one. Nobody does.”
Just after 2 a.m. that morning, during a period of intense rain, the West Point Treatment Plant lost electrical power, which preceded an equipment failure at the facility.
Water then began to rise, at which point float switches were supposed to automatically shut off the plant’s influent pumps from bringing in raw sewage. Those switches failed, and by the time the pumps were manually shut down, the plant had incurred severe damage.
Ultimately, 180 million gallons of predominantly stormwater and approximately 10 percent wastewater discharged into Puget Sound. Another 50 or so gallons went into the Sound during another emergency bypass on Feb. 15-16. No bypasses have occurred since.
On Saturday morning, Isaacson and other King County officials were at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Magnolia to discuss the aftermath of the plant’s failure, and the progress of restoring the system to full capacity. The meeting was organized by King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who was ultimately unable to attend due to illness.
West Point serves about 700,000 people, mainly in Seattle and the northwestern suburbs, and is designed to handle up to 450 million gallons per day.
Officials are targeting April 30 as the date by which full wastewater treatment operations are restored at the site.
In the immediate aftermath of the failure, Isaacson said, crews and equipment were mobilized, and flows were diverted to other facilities. Employee safety was a paramount concern at the time, he said.
“It was a very dangerous place to be,” he said.
It took approximately a week to dewater the tunnels where electrical and mechanical equipment is located.
While that work was underway, warning signs were posted at local beaches — north and south of the lighthouse at Discovery Park, and at Golden Gardens — while crews regularly sampled water quality.
Current treatment is limited, with trash and debris removed from incoming flows, the limited removal of solids, and disinfection with sodium hypochlorite. The plant dewatering and cleanup is complete, and work is currently underway to repair and replace pumps, motors, and electrical equipment, along with building damage.
“I love the story of the progress that we’re making,” Isaacson said.
Though there hasn’t been an emergency bypass in more than a month, an inch of rain of more over two or three straight days could end that stretch.
Despite the fact that the secondary treatment system was not damaged in the flooding event, it remains offline for the time being. That’s because that treatment system produces solids that are directed to the digesters, which are offline because they’re not getting energy from the boilers. Once flows start getting treated through the secondary system, it will produce solids that need to go to the digesters. Otherwise, the waste has nowhere to go.
“As soon as we do [activate the secondary system], we’ll have to move those solids,” said Robert Waddle, operations and maintenance manager for West Point.
Last week, the King County Council gave unanimous approval to legislation authorizing an independent investigation on the lead-up and aftermath of the system failures at West Point. The investigation will be led solely by the council, constituting an entirely separate branch of government from those in charge of West Point, whose management falls under the executive branch.
“The public deserves to know exactly what happened and why and how it happened, as well as deserves assurance that this will never happen again,” Kohl-Welles said in a statement.
That investigation was mentioned by Isaacson on Saturday.
He called them “incredibly helpful” and “incredibly good for the agency,” even if it’s a difficult process.
“We’ll be working transparently, cooperatively with all of those involved,” Isaacson said.
Right now, he said, the focus is on the fix.
“Our first priority is to fix what went wrong and get back on line, but then take a look and learn from that,” he said.
When that reflection is completed, Waddle said, the lessons learned will be applied moving forward.
“When we’re done with this, we will not have any chance of the same issue happening again,” Waddle said.
For more information, or updates on the progress of restoration work at West Point, visit www.kingcounty.gov/depts/dnrp/wtd/system/west.aspx.
To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.