May 29 2006

Another check at Brightwater?

Published by at 7:00 pm under Washington

Building projects that have to go through an environmental impact statement process, and more besides, presumably have a solid track record for safety in place before construction. That still doesn’t mean something ugly can’t slip through.

Put another way, if Washington state Representative Toby Nixon’s concerns about the underway Brightwater sewage treatment plant are even close to on target, some important officials in King and Snohomish counties might one day wish they weren’t in such a hurry to build.

Brightwater schematic

Brightwater is a planned sewage plant planned for the Woodinville area, near the King-Snohomish county line – north of the line, in Snohomish – on the east side. This is fast-growing country, and you can get the concern about planning ahead for it. The plant is basically King’s project, though a few weeks ago the Snohomish County governing board, after some controversy, agreed to a bilateral deal that eases the red tape in pressing forward. Ground was broken in April.

Getting to this point hasn’t been an overnight thing. King county people started work on planning in 2000, and its proposal for siting happened in December 2003. Then there was the EIS and related research work, which as anyone familiar with the process knows is extensive. (The project people even have posted a library on line – that’s their term, and when you see the roster of documents you’ll think the description reasonable.) And there are, by the way, seismic and geologic studies in the pack.

That said, you can always still miss something.

Toby NixonThere is a lawsuit against the project, which the developers seem to dismiss as minor. Maybe less minor are the concerns of a state legislator, Nixon, R-Kirkland, who is no crank and brings some specifics to the table. In a guest opinion in the Woodinville Weekly, he has some potent warnings:

Brightwater is wedged between major branches of the South Whidbey Island Fault, on a site prone to liquefaction. Other potential plant sites were rejected because of proximity to faults that were much farther away.

King County did seismic trenching to confirm the fault location at the north end of Brightwater, and moved structures south as a result. However, it has refused to trench the potential fault to the south. Why is that?

Because the county knows that if that fault were confirmed, it would become illegal to build Brightwater on that site.

International Building Codes, now state law, don’t permit any structure, including sewage tunnels, to be built across known surface faults.

The 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, showed why that’s good policy. In that disaster, sewage lines like Brightwater’s ruptured where they crossed a surface fault. The entire contents of Kobe’s sewage system – over 100 million gallons – emptied into Osaka Bay.

If that happened here, where would all the sewage and toxic chemicals go? Directly into the aquifer, polluting it for decades. Erupting to the surface, millions of gallons of raw sewage would devastate Little Bear Creek, flow through downtown Woodinville, down the Sammamish River, and into Lake Washington.

King County claims it can shut off the pumps and stop that from happening. But in a major earthquake, would human operators remember to, or be able to, turn off the pumps and valves?

They also say such an earthquake is unlikely during the plant’s 50-year design lifetime. Are you willing to take that bet?

King County is now determined to make it impossible to find the fault at the south end of the site. Claiming it’s doing “grading,” it’s about to dig a hole 90 feet long, 24 feet wide and 54 feet deep for a conveyance tunnel portal. Such deep soil disturbance would prevent seismic trenching from verifying faults on the site.

Why the rush to dig this hole? When the evidence is unfavorable, bury it.

On one hand, this project doesn’t seem to have been rushed with wild haste. But on the other, Nixon has raised issues that may resonate.

You can easily imagine some of the people in the area posing these questions as the work progresses over the next few years. This questions especially: Is the cost of slowing down a bit and getting these questions answered worth the risk that the concerns are real? Put another way: Can you really be that sure none of us have anything to worry about? And put still another: If the project is sound, why not prove it with solid answers?

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