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City's big sewer leak pollutes area waters

About 100,000 gallons of the stuff that gets flushed down toilets leaked into Oak Harbor’s bay Sunday evening, prompting the closure of beaches from Oak Harbor to Coupeville.

City staff responded to a water leak at the sewage lagoon at City Beach Park (now called Windjammer Park) Sunday night. City Public Works Operations Manager Bob Jarski said they found that raw sewage was leaking underground from a half-dollar-sized hole in a “force main” pipe outside the plant.

The pipe was expected to be repaired yesterday afternoon, but not before 100,000 gallons of raw sewage and millions of gallons of partially treated wastewater were discharged into the bay.

As a precautionary measure, the Department of Health ordered Coupeville’s Penn Cove Shellfish to stop harvesting and recall mussels, clams and oysters that were delivered or on the way to be delivered Tuesday morning.

Ian Jefferds, owner and general manager, estimates his loss at $150,000 to $200,000.

“It’s expensive for us,” he said, “and we’re hoping the city of Oak Harbor steps up and helps us out here.”

Frank Meriweather, an environmental engineer with the state Department of Health, said the beaches from Oak Harbor past Coupeville — from Forbes Point to Long Point — are posted and closed to swimming and shellfish gathering.

The size of the spill and tidal action in the area makes the precautionary closure necessary. The beaches will be closed until test results come back clean, which he estimates to take about a week.

Meriweather said Department of Health workers will be analyzing the spill. That includes searching for “sewage solids” in the water and sampling for enterococcus and fecal coliform.

Meriweather said the city should have contacted the Department of Health immediately on Sunday or Monday, but he wasn’t notified about the spill until Tuesday. He hopes nobody ate any icky shellfish as a result of the delay.

Department of Ecology spokesperson Larry Altose said the department is satisfied with the city’s response to the emergency. He said the spill will inevitably have a negative impact on the environment, but probably not a permanent one.

“Usually when a sewage leak occurs,” he said, “the effects are not long term.”

Nonetheless, Altose said the city could face a fine from the state if it turns out that spill could or should have been avoided.

City engineer Larry Benfield said it looked like the hole in the 20-year-old piping may have been caused by erosion over time through a process called electrolysis.

“Or it could have been just a bad piece of pipe,” he said.

The sewage leaked from the force main, into the city’s storm water drain system and out into the bay.

Benfield said such a failure in a ductile iron pipe is rare. “It’s real tough material,” he said.Jarski explained that raw sewage in the force main is pushed under pressure to the Seaplane Base lagoons for treatment. A portion of the city’s sewage is treated at the City Beach facility, while the rest is sent to the Seaplane Base lagoons for treatment.

In response to the leak, the city shut down several roads downtown and the Navy temporary closed the Maui Gate at the Seaplane Base. The city put in 1.5 miles of temporary piping to take sewage from the City Beach facility to the Seaplane Base lagoons. The piping was strung out along city streets Tuesday morning.

Also, the city asked residents to conserve water in order to limit the volume that was flushed into the sewage system.

Still, Jarski said the shutdown of the force main meant that a high volume of sewage had to be treated at the City Beach sewage treatment plant. The plant couldn’t handle the capacity, so millions of gallons of partially-treated water had to be discharged into the harbor.

Tuesday afternoon, Jarski said crews were excavating the busted pipe and hoped to have it back online today.

At least one city councilman hopes that the leak will accelerate the possible closure of the waterfront sewage plant.

“Before we spend more money in repairing it,” Councilman Paul Brewer said, “why don’t we look at expanding the seaplane base operation.”

The location of the sewage treatment plant has been a stinky thorn in the city’s side for years. The city’s tourism consultant, Roger Brooks, said that it’s vitally important that the malodorous building be moved from the center of the park, which is the centerpiece of his revitalization plans.

The city recently contracted with a consultant to do a sewage study, to include possible closure of the waterfront sewage plant.

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