Suquamish, King Co. reach $5 million settlement over sewage spills

The King County Council Sept. 27 voted in favor of a $5 million settlement with the Suquamish Tribe to redress the repeated release of sewage into Puget Sound from that county’s wastewater collection and treatment system.

“The Suquamish Tribe is pleased that King County recognizes the seriousness of this issue and worked with us to protect Puget Sound,” Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman said.

The settlement is designed to curtail further wastewater pollution, including the West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, a news release says. The settlement funds ecological restoration projects in Puget Sound that will support the recovery of salmon, orca and other marine life, and it compensates the tribe for past releases that continue to impact tribal fisheries.

Settlement talks began following a July 2020 notice from the tribe that it intended to file a lawsuit for violations of federal clean water law and for infringement on the tribe’s treaty rights.

“In 2019, tribal canoe families from all over the Salish Sea landing in Suquamish during the annual Tribal Canoe Journey had to paddle through one of the county’s largest untreated sewage spills. This pollution created an immediate health hazard for the tribal community and disrupted an important cultural event,” Forsman noted.

“The tribe took legal action when it became clear that the county was failing to protect the water quality in Puget Sound as required by the Clean Water Act, and the pollution was interfering with our treaty fishing rights. We could no longer stand on the sidelines hoping conditions would improve.”

The 2019 event was just the latest in a series of pollution events. In July 2020, the tribe notified King County that it was responsible for at least 11 significant illegal discharges of untreated sewage from the WPTP into the tribe’s treaty-protected fishing areas, with individual discharge events ranging from 50,000 gallons to 2.1 million gallons.

Unlawful discharges of sewage foul the water and habitat for aquatic species, result in closure of beaches where Suquamish tribal members harvest shellfish, prompt recalls of commercially sold shellfish, and interfere with tribal member harvest and sale of salmon, the news release states.

Fecal coliform bacteria is a persistent threat to human health and the safe harvest and consumption of fish. The discharges also foul beaches and waterways enjoyed by non-Native residents.

Sewage pollution from King County’s outdated wastewater treatment processes is not new. In 2013, that county entered a consent decree with the state and the Environmental Protection Agency to address serious ongoing sewage discharges. In spite of the consent decree and a series of enforcement actions against King County, Clean Water Act violations continued.

The county acknowledges in the settlement that sewage spills have impacted the tribe’s right to take fish and tribal cultural events, and that this pollution has the potential to impact the tribe’s treaty rights in the future, per the release. However, the county does not admit to liability for any violations.

The settlement requires the county to upgrade infrastructure to eliminate or reduce further untreated discharges. The agreement also requires compensation to the Suquamish Tribe to cover legal and technical costs. And, the settlement requires the county to invest in environmental projects that will make up for the damage caused by the spills.

The county agrees to pay the Suquamish Tribe $2.5 million to compensate for impacts associated with the last five years of discharges and future tribal impacts from any additional spills that might occur through the end of 2024. After Jan. 1, 2025, if any sewage is discharged from WPTP’s emergency bypass, the county will pay a penalty to the tribal mitigation fund for each spill.

To reduce or eliminate future untreated sewage spills, King County agrees to substantial infrastructure upgrades at WPTP. The upgrades include replacing faulty uninterruptible power supply, addressing voltage sag, and creating redundant capacity to deal with peak flows.

A strict and enforceable penalty framework is tied to the infrastructure upgrade deadlines, and, if missed, the county is required to pay $40,000 for a missed deadline and $10,000 for each additional month of delay.

The county will complete supplemental environmental projects tied to nearshore habitat restoration or other mutually agreed environmental protection projects in the amount of $2.4 million within five years.

“The entire Puget Sound community deserves clean water. The shellfish, orca, salmon, crab, geoduck and shrimp all rely on a healthy marine environment, and all of our children – and children’s children – deserve clean water,” Forsman concluded.