Protecting Salmon and Orcas from Puget Sound Wastewater Pollution

Pollution from the Everett Wastewater Treatment Plant — one of the larger water pollution control facilities in Washington State — is harming threatened Puget Sound Chinook salmon and posing health risks to endangered Southern Resident orcas. The Washington Department of Ecology is currently reviewing a renewal of the plant’s wastewater discharge permit, providing an opportunity to implement stronger pollution controls that would minimize harmful pollution discharges into the Snohomish River, Puget Sound, and the Salish Sea. A stronger permit would not only protect aquatic ecosystems and species, but also human health.

Case Overview

Working with four nonprofit environmental organizations — Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, RE Sources, Toxic-Free Future, and Waste Action Project — Earthjustice is advocating for more stringent pollution controls for the wastewater treatment plant to help protect salmon, orcas, and people. We’re asking the Department of Ecology to require the plant and its industrial users to do more to reduce three main pollution streams that are known to be harmful to aquatic wildlife and humans.

  1. Discharges of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethels): These chemical compounds used in flame retardants in consumer and industrial products including textiles, foam, insulation, and plastics are known to persist in the environment and accumulate in the bodies of wildlife and people. While many uses of PBDEs have been largely phased out, these chemicals continue to be found in discharges from the plant and its industrial users. Scientific research has identified a hot spot of these chemicals in the lower Snohomish River that is harming salmon by suppressing their immune systems and increasing their susceptibility to disease. Decreased salmon populations in turn affect orcas, whose main prey is Chinook salmon.
  2. Contamination from PFAS or “forever chemicals”: Wastewater treatment plants across the country have been identified as a primary source of PFAS releases. PFAS is short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, which includes thousands of chemicals found in a wide range of consumer, commercial, and industrial products. Some of these compounds are linked to human and animal harm, including increased cancer risk, higher cholesterol levels, and negative effects on the liver, thyroid, immune system, and fetal development.
  3. Nutrient Pollution: The Everett plant is one of the largest sources of nutrient pollution in Puget Sound. Nutrient pollution can increase algal growth, which reduces levels of dissolved oxygen and can cause toxic algae blooms, both harmful to aquatic life. Parts of Puget Sound, including the lower Snohomish River, have been found to have impaired water quality due to low oxygen levels.

In October 2023, the Department of Ecology released a draft wastewater discharge permit. We’re asking the Department of Ecology to strengthen this permit by requiring new measures to monitor and reduce discharges of these three pollutants and thereby prevent further water quality violations. The Department of Ecology held a virtual public hearing on Jan. 11, 2024.

Orcas, in Puget Sound.
Orcas in Puget Sound. (Tifotter / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Case Updates

January 31, 2024 document

Comments on the City of Everett Water Pollution Control Facility, NPDES Wastewater Discharge Permit

In renewing an NPDES permit, the Department of Ecology must address violations of water quality standards and the harm such violations cause to people, water, and aquatic life.