Secondary treatment of sewage begins at Seattle's West Point after years of controversy on December 31, 1995.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 2735
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On December 31, 1995, secondary treatment of sewage from Seattle and King County is underway at West Point after years of controversy and $573 million in construction costs. West Point extends into Puget Sound from Magnolia Bluff and Fort Lawton. The treated effluent meets conditions set by the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and further improves the water quality of Puget Sound. Begun by Metro -- the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle -- the facility is completed by the King County Department of Metropolitan Services following Metro's January 1, 1994, merger with the County.

Primary v. Secondary Treatment

First completed in 1966, West Point provided primary treatment of up to 125 million gallons a day of sewage from Seattle and King County. This process removed about half the solids and chlorinated the effluent. This did not address heavy metals and other toxins. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which required municipalities to subject sewage to secondary treatment. Secondary treatment removed 95 percent of the solids and carried out further processing until the effluent was almost clear. Upgrading the West Point plant was estimated to cost $240 million and add several dollars to the sewer rate for every household.

Metro sought waivers of secondary treatment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology concurred. Metro demonstrated that the existing discharge was not harmful to Puget Sound. But studies during the 1970s revealed rising levels of copper, zinc, and lead in Puget Sound.

Copper, Zinc, Lead, and Fish

The EPA and the State DOE withdrew their support of Metro's waiver in 1984. EPA Regional Administrator Ernesta Barnes stated, "Too many bottom fish are showing signs of disease. Too many oyster and clam beds are closed to harvesting. Too many people are wondering if it is safe to sail or swim in Puget Sound" (Lane).

There followed a fierce debate over where to site the secondary-treatment facility. West Point was the obvious location. There was already a plant there and the region was already plumbed to send sewage there (the result of planning and construction by Seattle Engineer Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949). By 1984 though, Fort Lawton had become Discovery Park and environmentalists objected. Other options included Alki Point and Richmond Beach, but these were much more expensive. Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) stated that the expanded plant at West Point would be as damaging to the city as the construction of Interstate-5.

Controversy and Construction Challenges

In 1986, the Metro Council decided on the West Point site. Members opposing the West Point option included Mayor Royer and six Seattle City Council members. The City of Seattle managed to block the plant by denying Metro a shoreline permit.

In early 1988, a new Seattle City Council voted to grant the shoreline permit. Work began in May 1991.

Construction challenges included limiting traffic by vehicles through Discovery Park and the Magnolia Bluff neighborhood by constructing a temporary dock, the discovery of a 3,600-year-old Native American shell midden (food-refuse area), and more than 200 special permit conditions imposed by state, local, and federal agencies. To keep the facility within the 32 acre "footprint" required, 20 percent was designed to be underground. Stringent noise and odor controls had to be factored in as well.

The plant was completed to meet the federal deadline, but by that time, Metro had been dissolved pursuant to a court order, and merged into King County government.


Bob Lane, Better Than Promised: An Informal History of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro, 1995).
Note: This essay was corrected on June 17, 2006.

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