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Environmental concerns sparked by Oak Harbor sewer plant siting

Oak Harbor resident Jeanan Richter asks about the wastewater treatment facility at Windjammer Park.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor resident Jeanan Richter asks about the wastewater treatment facility at Windjammer Park.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

It doesn’t have to smell like roses, but Oak Harbor’s new wastewater treatment plant better not stink. It should also be environmentally sensitive and built to last.

Those were the kinds of comments aired at a meeting at Skagit Valley College Tuesday evening. Designed to garner input from the public about where the new facility should be located, it was the second of three such meetings the city has planned.

“It was a great response, a great turnout,” City Engineer Eric Johnston said. “It was encouraging to have the pubic so engaged in the process.”

Oak Harbor’s existing facilities on the Seaplane Base and at Windjammer Park are outdated and city officials hope to have a replacement treatment plant built and in operation by 2017. The price tag for the new facility is estimated at $70 million.

The five sites under consideration include Beachview Farm just outside the city’s western boundaries, Windjammer Park, the Oak Harbor Marina, the old city shops on SE Eighth Avenue, and vacant land on the Seaplane Base on Crescent Harbor.

The city council is expected to make a final selection by fall or early winter.

More than 50 people attended Tuesday’s meeting, not including city staff and elected officials present. The crowd was briefed on each of the five possible sites — how they were selected, the types of technology that may be used, even what they may look like.

No one from the public said they specifically favored or disliked any particular location, rather most questions focused on broader issues, such as where the plant’s treated effluent might be released. Several had concerns that Swan Lake or Puget Sound off West Beach Road are under consideration.

Jerry Pitsch, a West Beach Road resident, said the area is critical for salmon habitat restoration and he is worried about potential impacts from even treated effluent.

According to Brian Matson of Carollo, the national engineering firm the city hired to help select possible facility sites, neither location is being seriously considered for discharge. The area off West Beach contains shellfish tracts that could be adversely effected.

Others voiced similar concerns about potential discharge sites in Crescent Harbor and Oak Harbor. Johnston said that Oak Harbor is the strongest possibility of all the candidates for a variety of reasons. It’s the most affordable option due to existing infrastructure, but it also make the most sense environmentally.

Although he stressed that discharge from modern treatment plants is extraordinarily clean, Oak Harbor bay’s proximity to the city will likely keep it closed to shellfish harvesting while other areas remain open. That could change, however, with the installation of a discharge pipe.

The smell of treatment plants was also addressed. Oak Harbor resident Gregor Strohm asked if either of the two treatment technologies being considered is better than the other because odor from the facility at Windjammer Park is noticeable. Johnston said improvements in technology and treatment make it a non-issue.

“Without saying the plant won’t smell, it won’t smell,” Johnston said.

Several others asked questions or spoke at the meeting, including members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network. In a later interview, group member Marianne Edain said she was relieved to learn that the West Beach outfall idea had been abandoned but was critical about the types of technologies being considered.

Both types, membrane bioreactor and activated sludge, are older technologies that are “on their way out,” she said. City officials should be looking into sustainable facilities that are capable of creating electricity or capturing methane gas, she said.

“They seem to have rejected that out of hand,” Edain said.

Johnston disagrees. Activated sludge is older technology, but is entirely capable to meeting water quality standards over the next 20 years. As for membrane bioreactor, he said it was “cutting edge” and widely considered the most advanced available today.

Also, both technologies are methods of treating waste and don’t preclude the ability for sustainable practices. In fact, Johnston said the city is considering adaptive reuse of wastewater for agricultural use and methane capture, Johnson said.

“Our goal has been to have the most environmentally responsible project we can,” he said.

The only reason such options haven’t been discussed yet is because it’s still early in the process and city officials have been focused primarily on selecting a location and nailing down the kind of technology to be used.

Once that’s done, you can be sure such options will be discussed in detail, he said.

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