New Ecology permit to improve Puget Sound water quality may result in utility rate increase

The draft permit is a multi-phase, decade-spanning push to reduce the nitrogen in the Puget Sound.

The Washington State Department of Ecology has issued a new draft general permit for wastewater treatment plants that could end up raising utility rates across Whidbey Island.

The new permit is a multi-phase, decade-spanning push to reduce the amount of total inorganic nitrogen in the Puget Sound.

All treatment plants that discharge into the Sound — with the exception of some tribal and military plants, which fall under federal jurisdiction — will need to comply with the new requirements, which begin with a lengthy series of studies and reports.

Some of the treatment plants affected by the permit, especially small plants like those on Whidbey Island, are worried they don’t have the time, money or manpower to meet the Department of Ecology’s potential new requirements.

In phase one, the 58 water treatment plants identified by Ecology will have to evaluate and select a strategy to optimize and measure their current nitrogen output if the permit goes through.

Small plants such as Whidbey’s must evaluate and make their selection by Dec. 31, 2022.

Though this first step may not sound too demanding, Coupeville Utility Superintendent Joe Grogan said the labor and money it would take to complete even this initial selection would be extremely burdensome for the town of Coupeville.

“The town cannot afford to implement this plan without government assistance,” he said in a Coupeville town council meeting last month.

Representatives from other Whidbey plants also said the permit would strain their resources, and without a clear purpose; the 31 facilities identified by Ecology as having small nitrogen loads, including all those on Whidbey Island, are responsible for less than 1% of the nitrogen discharged into the Sound by wastewater treatment plants, according to a fact sheet on the permit.

“Our treatment facility is already doing an excellent job of removing nitrates,” said Randi Perry, the interim public works director for the city of Langley.

“So to have to invest a relatively large amount of money to increase the monitoring, reporting and planning — it’s disheartening because the impact that it’s going to have to the Sound hasn’t been clearly justified,” Perry said.

The Department of Ecology has stated that grant funding will be available during phase one to help with optimization and planning.

Department of Ecology communications manager Colleen Keltz said cleaning up wastewater discharge matters because nitrogen and other nutrients pumped into the Sound act as a fertilizer, allowing excess algae to grow. When the algae dies, it uses up the oxygen in the water and produces carbon dioxide, creating uninhabitable conditions for fish and other aquatic wildlife who need oxygen to survive.

“As we all flush the toilet, we’re putting more nutrients in the Sound, and so we’re moving toward those dead zones,” Keltz said.

After the 2022 initial selection deadline, wastewater treatment facilities will be responsible for implementing their chosen strategy and evaluating its efficacy.

If a facility’s nitrogen output increases after implementation, it must adjust its approach and evaluate a new optimization strategy.

While monitoring the optimization strategy, plants must complete an analysis of all known and reasonable treatment strategies, including an economic evaluation and environmental justice review, to identify an affordable treatment technology capable of removing nitrogen from wastewater discharge.

Grogan, Perry and Penn Cove Water and Sewer District manager Paul Visant all said their respective Whidbey Island facilities would have to raise utility rates to cover the cost of these requirements.

The Oak Harbor Clean Water Facility is also included in the permit but did not respond to The Record’s request for comment.

Visant said there is a significant disparity between the permit’s requirements and what’s realistic for small companies.

“If it goes through the way they want it to, it’s going to be very expensive right off the bat just from the lab work alone,” he said.

He estimated he would have to raise utility rates by 5%, or $2.50 a month, just to cover lab work, to say nothing of the equipment, facility upgrades or new hires he would eventually have to fund under the new permit.

King, Pierce and Snohomish counties are suing the Department of Ecology over the requirements, and other counties and municipalities submitted letters and public comments expressing their displeasure with the draft permit.

Complaints include both the permit’s deadlines, which many plants consider unreasonable, and concerns over whether the department has done adequate research to justify the permit’s necessity.

“There’s disagreement, but we’re very confident in both the science and the permit process that we’re going under, and we’re putting our focus on working with communities so they have time to plan for these investments that will get all Puget Sound to cleaner water,” Keltz said of the lawsuits.

The department has performed modeling to determine the impact of lower nitrogen levels on the Sound.

Keltz said the Department of Ecology plans to finalize the permit later this year with the goal of having it go into effect in January of 2022.