Washington’s Largest Wastewater Treatment Plant Avoids Limits on its Discharge of Nutrient Pollution into Already-degraded Puget Sound

Puget Soundkeeper appeals West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant’s discharge permit because the permit fails to comply with state and federal law


Emily Gonzalez, Puget Soundkeeper Staff Attorney and Director of Law & Policy, (206) 297-7002×114, emily@pugetsoundkeeper.org

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone, Puget Soundkeeper Communications Manager, (206) 290-3749, nicole@pugetsoundkeeper.org

Janette Brimmer, Earthjustice Senior Attorney (206) 504-3459, jbrimmer@earthjustice.org

Elizabeth Manning, Earthjustice Public Affairs and Communications, (907) 277-2555, emanning@earthjustice.org

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, represented by Earthjustice, today filed an appeal before Washington State’s Pollution Control Hearings Board requesting that West Point, the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant, install controls to limit nitrogen and phosphorus – nutrient pollutants that have long contributed to poor water quality in Puget Sound.

“Puget Sound water quality has become significantly degraded, to the point that aquatic life and the communities that depend on clean water are being harmed,” said Emily Gonzalez, Puget Soundkeeper’s Staff Attorney and Director of Law & Policy. “It’s past time to address the issue of nutrient discharges and modernize outdated sewage treatment. Reducing excess nutrients flowing into the Sound is something we can fix. Legally, it must be done.”

Chronic nutrient pollution contributes to poor water quality in Puget Sound. High levels of pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus can act like fertilizers fueling excess algal and aquatic plant growth. When these algae and plants die and decompose, it uses up oxygen that marine life needs to survive.

Depleted oxygen levels and excess nutrients can further cause marine ecosystem imbalances, public health risks, loss of critical habitat, acceleration of ocean acidification that harms shellfish and other aquatic life, proliferation of some species, like jellyfish, and significant overall declines in fish, aquatic life and biodiversity. These changes can affect the entire food chain, from aquatic life on the seafloor to salmon and the Southern Resident orcas that are starving and on the brink of extinction.

The appeal challenges the plant’s wastewater discharge permit for failing to meet the requirements and intent of the federal Clean Water Act, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, Washington State pollution control law and Washington Department of Ecology regulations. The West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant takes waste from much of Seattle and King County. Increased nutrient pollution flowing into Puget Sound due to strained urban infrastructure, and the lack of modern, adequate controls on sewage flowing into the Sound, have caused and continue to contribute to ecosystem-wide marine water quality issues.

“Nutrient pollution from West Point is contributing to, if not outright causing, low dissolved oxygen levels in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea,” said Janette Brimmer, Earthjustice Senior Attorney. “Yet this permit includes no effluent limits for nutrient pollution, contrary to specific requirements in the law. Washington Department of Ecology must do a better job and take the threats to our iconic Sound much more seriously.”

In order to comply with the law, the federal and state permits must be revised to limit the amount of nutrient pollutants, nitrogen, and phosphorus allowed to be discharged in wastewater released into Puget Sound. These limitations, by law, must employ modern treatment technology and must ensure wastewater discharges authorized by the permit will not cause or contribute to violations of water quality standards.

A 2019 Ecology Department report found that waters in Puget Sound have failed since 2006 to meet oxygen standards–critically important for fish and shellfish–mandated by the federal Clean Water Act and state law.

Despite this, the Washington Department of Ecology requires no limits on nutrient pollutants flowing into Puget Sound, a complete failure of the public trust and legal obligations of the state. Earthjustice and Puget Soundkeeper are also appealing a broader statewide permit, the Puget Sound Nutrient General Permit, for allowing nutrient pollutants to continue to be discharged, unchecked, into Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

Morning fog lingering on a Puget Sound beach.
Morning fog lingering on a Puget Sound beach. (Ingrid Taylar / CC BY-NC 2.0)

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