In Our View: Response to Spill Stinks

Vancouver should have alerted public quickly to sewage release into Columbia

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What if your toilet was clogged and overflowing? What if it sprang a leak and raw sewage seeped onto the floor? We’re guessing that one of your first actions — after saying “ewwwww” — would be to alert your roommates. After all, the people who live in the house probably should be aware that sewage has spilled.

The city of Vancouver, however, reacted to the release of sewage into the Columbia River this week by waiting four days to inform the public. Ewwwww.

Saturday morning, a series of power surges and failures at the city’s Westside Wastewater Treatment led to the release of about 110,000 gallons of partially treated effluent followed by 400,000 gallons of untreated sewage. The waste flowed into the river.

Officials said the surges rendered two generators inoperable, and a backup generator was overwhelmed by the power requirements of the facility. Because power was out, it took awhile to assess the situation and determine what had spilled into the Columbia. “We surmised there was a release, but we can’t prove it one way or another,” said Dan Swensen, Vancouver’s engineering and construction services manager. “We’re erring on the side of caution.”

Caution, however, would dictate that officials warn the public of a possible spill while they figure out what happened. Although 400,000 gallons of untreated sewage in the Columbia does not amount to an environmental catastrophe — we’ll avoid the “drop in a bucket” analogy here — it is cause for concern. People who might have come in contact with river water downstream of the spill — the plant is at 2323 W. Mill Plain Blvd., a little upstream from Frenchman’s Bar Park — are encouraged to disinfect clothing, equipment and pets that might be contaminated. Any fish caught west of the facility should be thoroughly cleaned and cooked.

To lend some context, Seattle’s West Point sewage-treatment plant dumped 235 million gallons of untreated wastewater into Puget Sound after being damaged by a flood in February. To lend more context, Victoria, B.C., is finally building a waste-treatment plant after dumping its raw sewage into Puget Sound since, well, since forever. The plant is scheduled to come online in 2020.

Protection of rivers has been one of the major successes of the environmental movement in the United States over the past five decades or so and has contributed to a revitalization of American cities. For generations, rivers were subjected to the dumping of untreated industrial pollution that rendered them unusable for the public. The history of the Willamette River through Portland provides a case study in how waterways were mistreated and how they have been revived by environmental regulations.

The relatively small spill from Vancouver’s Westside Wastewater Treatment plant does not threaten the health of the Columbia, but the incident should result in improved preparation. Swensen said officials failed to alert the city’s public information officer, adding, “To be honest, this happens so infrequently that we had to dust off our protocol.”

That excuse doesn’t hold water, so to speak. City employees should be familiar with contingency plans, recognizing that they would not be contingency plans if they had to be used frequently. Also, the city must find a backup generator adequate for the wastewater plant.

Most important, officials should have coordinated response procedures that include alerting the public when there is the possibility of a spill. Having a collective “ewwwww” from the populace is better than endangering its health.