Penn Cove listed as ‘polluted’

Lone Lake cited for dioxin

Over the last decade or so, an alphabet soup of local, state and federal agencies has tested the waters, and the creatures that live in the water, all over the state of Washington.

In accordance with the Clean Water Act, the state Department of Ecology compiled all this data, made certain the studies were scientifically valid, and created a list of the most polluted waters in the state. This water quality assessment was published this month and can be viewed at

Two Whidbey Island bodies of water made the list under category 5, the most polluted bodies of water. The DOE labels the bodies in this category as simply “polluted water.”

Penn Cove, the cove that Coupeville sits on, made the list twice because of two pollution problems. The cove has low levels of dissolved oxygen and unhealthy pH levels. Lone Lake on South Whidbey made the list because of dioxin levels in trout.

“The water quality assessment is basically the finger that points to where the problems are,” said Kenneth Koch, a watershed assessment coordinator for the Department of Ecology.

Koch said the DOE took 28 samples from Penn Cove in the years 1993 to 2000. Scientists found that 24 of the samples had less than the minimum healthy level of dissolved oxygen.

In the same years, DOE tested Penn Cove for pH, which is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. Tests showed that three out of 18 levels had unhealthy pH levels.

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested the tissue of rainbow trout from Lone Lake and found that the amount of dioxin exceeded national safety levels.

Ralph Svrjcek, water quality specialist for DOE, said scientists in the department don’t completely understand what is causing the problem in Penn Cove. He said low oxygen levels can be harmful to marine life, noting that there have been large fish kills in the cove over the past decade.

“I can say that we’re almost certain that it’s a combination of factors,” he said.

Penn Cove is likely naturally susceptible to rapid temperature changes because the water is relatively shallow and the circulation is limited. The warmer the water gets, the less oxygen it carries.

But humans are also part of the problem. The DOE Marine Unit reviewed the Penn Cove data and concluded that “human causes appear to contribute the the problem.”

Svrjcek said likely sources of the pollution are poor farm practices, storm water runoff and septic tanks. The nutrients from these sources, like phosphorus or nitrogen, can upset the natural balance. An overabundance of algae, for example, can grow and use up oxygen in the water at night.

The pH problems, he said, may be related to the low oxygen levels.

Svrjcek said the high dioxin levels found in the fish in Lone Lake is baffling. A high level of dioxin is usually association with paper pulp mills or trash incinerators. Dioxin is a human carcinogen and reproductive toxicant, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

At this point, DOE staff simply doesn’t know where the dioxins came from.

The next step for DOE, Koch said, is to work with local government and the community to create a clean-up plan. The plan is called a “total maximum daily load” or TMDL, which sets the amount of pollution that can be discharged into the body of water.

For Coupeville, the TMDL could affect the town of Coupeville’s sewage discharge, farming practices in the area or residential development that involves septic tanks.

But it will likely be awhile before anything happens. Svrjcek said the EOC staff is working on another study to help them decide how best to tackle the pollution problem in Saratoga Passage, the water between Whidbey and Camano Island. The study would include Penn Cove and Holmes Harbor.

“This could result is setting limits on human activities,” he said, “so we want to make sure we have a good scientific footing.”

Once it’s complete, Svrjcek said DOE officials can approach the state Legislature with the study and request funding. The DOE has limited funding, so the top priority projects — like the major pollution problem in Hood Canal — will be tackled first.

In all, DOE identified 2,478 polluted segments of water in the state.

But just because a body of water is not on the list doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clean. The assessment only represents 3 percent of the lakes and marine waters and 5 percent of the streams in the state. In other words, the vast majority of the state’s water bodies have not been tested.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or 675-6611.