TOP O THE MORN: Oak Harbor had a stinking summer in 1979

“They’re working on the stink” proclaimed the headline in the Aug. 2, 1979, Whidbey News-Times.

The sewage-disposal plant, designed to be odorless, sanitary and entirely compatible with a beach area, was not living up to its guarantee.

It was a smelly subject and had to be dealt with in the fresh air. Swimmers and picnickers could always go home, but business people on Pioneer Way couldn’t. Energy-conscious air conditioner owners were depending on open doors and windows for a chance breeze. They got a choking, appalling stench. Folks hoping for a nice day at City Beach left quickly. Visitors at the RV park could not believe the tideflats had anything to do with such a stultifying odor.

Chamber of commerce members were embarrassed.

In the early 1930s, a small group of businessmen saw the possibilities of a public beach and decided to buy it before it was sold in small plots. The town had no money and federal or state funding was a long way off. So contributions came in to meet the then-princely sum of $1,200.

Local service organizations raised funds for the lagoon, the RV park, the wading pool, the gazebo, fields, kitchens, restrooms, field equipment and landscaping. Finally the big windmill topped it all off.

The beach was designed as a recreation area par-excellence. But let us not forget the smelly monster.

City Hall too had experienced the evident malfunction of a very necessary civic facility. The smell was there, they admitted astutely, since there was little anyone could do to deny it. The city supervisor said they were checking on it. The mayor said a sewage disposal plant is not supposed to have any odor. The superintendent of public works gave a logical, but still bewildering explanation. He was “bedroeft,” a fine Dutch word which packs a lot of sadness, anxiety, apologies and downright unhappiness, about the whole mess.

The gist of the matter was that the contractors for the addition to the original sewage disposal plant had been plagued with the seeming inability to regulate the treatment of influx to transform it into a colorless, odorless, innocuous substance that no one would mind at all. There had been mistakes in machinery shipped from the East Coast that meant sending the wrong part back and waiting two weeks for a usable connection to be sent.

Sub-contractors had problems too. It is a lot easier to build one complete sewage plant and have it run right than to add on to an existing plant, as in Oak Harbor. The superintendent of public works said the whole donnybrook wouldn’t be solved overnight, nor even over what was left of a stinky summer. They were working on it.

The superintendent had a right to be “bedroeft.” Through some incalcuable error in the alarm system, at one early morning at 2 a.m., no one was alerted and the whole plant was flooded. We concluded that the bad smell at City Beach was not due so much as to human sewage as it was due to human error.

Some realities in life are like that. Real stinkers.

Dorothy Neil has been recording Whidbey Island history for more than 50 years. Her books chronicle local life and times.

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