By Department of Natural Resources and Parks Director Christie True
Over its five decades of operation, the West Point Treatment Plant has been led with one mission: safeguarding our region’s water quality, natural resources, and public health. Over the course of its long span of service, this mission has largely been met.
During a relentless February rainstorm, when electrical and equipment failures led to flooding that damaged critical systems and temporarily reduced treatment capabilities, dedicated employees worked around the clock to restore normal operations. West Point is again meeting strict water quality standards, and insurance will cover nearly all repair-related costs—protecting the public from the cost of system upgrades and cleanup.
While this is welcome news for the environment and our ratepayers, the gravity of the incident and the warning flags it raised cannot be downplayed.
Following up on a root-cause analysis ordered by the King County Executive, the King County Council directed an independent review of West Point’s operations so we could gather all the facts in order to prevent a future occurrence. Led by the globally-recognized engineering firm AECOM, the review and resulting report made a number of recommendations that will ultimately strengthen the utility and better protect workers and the environment. Many improvements are already underway or even completed.
The key takeaway from the report is that West Point’s size and capacity constraints are long-term operational challenges. The report also warns that population growth, new development and stronger storms due to climate change will continue to put pressure on a plant with no options to expand beyond its current footprint.
Over the long term, the County Council will exercise oversight to make sure the utility maintains reliable operation by increasing capacity and making upgrades, whether at West Point or elsewhere in the regional system. Fiscal prudence will guide upgrades—building them into planned projects to best integrate improvements and seek savings. And alignment among engineering, planning and operations teams will streamline adoption of new technologies and changing regulatory requirements.
In the meantime, the plant has made immediate progress on carrying out report recommendations.
Outmoded equipment has been replaced, such as new float switches that monitor water levels and alert operators if they’re not working properly. A newly installed electrical feed adds redundancy, powering equipment that controls the flow of wastewater coming into the plant, and a licensed electrician will be onsite to monitor operations during severe storms.
The control system will be programmed to prioritize alarms so operators aren’t distracted by noncritical information during emergencies.
Regarding plant employees, the report was clear that the crew was experienced, well-trained and used their best professional judgment during the Feb. 9 emergency. New and advanced training methods are also being implemented. The utility is structuring its training to be consistent with Department of Homeland Security guidelines, adding more scenario-specific drills, and incorporating best practices from other industrial sectors.
There will also be greater clarity around protocols for emergency bypass, when operators may have just minutes to decide whether to direct untreated sewage and storm water directly into Puget Sound when the plant is at capacity. As a utility agency tasked with protecting public health and water quality, the decision to bypass cannot be taken lightly. But there are situations where a bypass could save lives or avoid serious infrastructure damage. Removing ambiguity in the guidelines and additional training will prepare operators to take decisive and appropriate action under stressful circumstances.
The insights gained from the independent review are invaluable in preparing West Point for its next decades of operations. The resulting improvements will increase system reliability, protect employees, and increase the level of service to a growing number of ratepayers in our growing region, reflecting the values of clean water and reliable, efficient service that have made West Point an important part of our regional infrastructure.