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January 17, 2014

New water quality standards would be expensive - and impossible to meet

By: Jason Hagey   Comments: 10
Ken Johnson, corporate environmental manager with Weyerhaeuser, right, and Dave Clark, senior vice president, HDR Engineer, speak Jan. 16, 2014 during a work session on water quality in the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee. Photo: Dan Brunell/AWB
An exchange between a lawmaker and a consultant during a Senate committee work session last Thursday on the topic of water quality standards summed up the problem facing Washington employers and municipalities.

The lawmaker, Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, just finished hearing a presentation from Ken Johnson, the corporate environmental manager at Weyerhaeuser, and Dave Clark, senior vice president at HDR Engineering, about how expensive it would be for businesses and municipalities to try to meet potential new water quality standards -- and how the standards would still not be met --  when McCoy suggested that the consultants take a look at the treatment facility the Tulalip Tribes built at Quil Ceda Village.

The state-of-the-art facility makes water so sterile, McCoy said, that officials were worried about what it would do to fish.

Clark answered by saying that, yes, the membrane technology that McCoy described does a great job of treating water -- but not great enough.

"That technology would not meet the end point that would be required," Clark said, referring to standards being considered by officials at the Department of Ecology. "So we'd be talking about treating at a greater level to try to come close, and we still don't think we'd make it."

The work session in the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee came amid growing concern from the state's employers and municipal governments over the looming change in water quality standards.

If Washington adopts standards similar to those recently adopted in Oregon, it could cost billions to upgrade water treatment facilities, according to a study conducted by HDR Engineering on behalf of the Association of Washington Business, the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Association of Counties.

There are 231 municipal governments with waste water discharge permits and some 187 private employers.

In the city of Bellingham alone, it would cost between $400-600 million to build a membrane reactor plant, plus another $400-800 million to add a reverse osmosis plant to further treat effluent, said Carl Schroeder with the Association of Washington Cities. 

An additional $200-400 million in annual operational costs brings the total cost over 30 years to as much as $1.8 billion, Schroeder said.

That would mean raising the monthly sewer rate for Bellingham residents from about $35 a month to as much as $250 a month, he said.

In addition to the cost, the HDR study found that building and operating advanced treatment plants could inflict collateral environmental damage because of the energy needed to operate them, the land needed to build them and the waste generated by running them, Clark said, 

Rather than focus solely on the output from waste water -- which would potentially remove less than 6 percent of the total PCB load into Puget Sound -- Schroeder suggested officials take a holistic approach that looks at all of the ways that pollutants end up in our water.

Gerry O'Keefe, assistant director for environmental affairs with the Washington Public Ports Association, echoed that sentiment.

Just 10 percent of toxic pollutants come from regulated point sources, O'Keefe said.

"We've got to find another way to get to the bulk of the problem," he said.

TVW video of the full work session is below.


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