The $1.8 billion Brightwater plant is scheduled to start operating next month, treating millions of gallons of water that runs through toilets, bathtubs and and sinks from tens of thousands of homes and businesses in south Snohomish and north King counties.
A major part of the project is a 13-mile tunnel that runs from the Maltby facility along Highway 9 to Point Wells at the Snohomish-King county line. From there, it heads a mile out and 600 feet down into Puget Sound. The drilling of the tunnel is expected to be complete this week, but treated wastewater won't be flushed through it until next year.
Many homeowners in Snohomish and King counties are already paying as much as $600 a year or more for the new plant and tunnel.
What they're getting in return is a system that will provide environmentally sound, sanitary wastewater treatment, officials say. More importantly, it will allow for development to continue in south Snohomish and north King counties for decades to come.
"It's really being built for the long haul, for the next several decades," said Annie Kolb-Nelson, the project's spokeswoman who works for King County's wastewater treatment division.
Some remain skeptical about the need for the plant. Jim Willett, who lives near the new Brightwater plant, was one of a handful of protesters at the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant in 2006.
"What happened to all the growth they promised?" he asked.
Willett, retired from a business in recycling sewage sludge, doesn't like the plant any more now that it's built than he did five years ago.
"I feel that way more than ever," he said. "That $2 billion price tag is going to sit squarely with the existing ratepayers."
The Brightwater plant is the biggest addition to King County's sewer system in 50 years. The idea of it -- and how it came to be built in Snohomish County -- started in 1997.
King County's other two major sewer plants located in Seattle and Renton were projected at the time to be near capacity by 2010 -- the main reason given for building Brightwater.
If a sewer plant is over capacity, under the worst-case scenario, raw sewage could end up dumped directly into waterways.
To head off this possibility, the state Department of Ecology threatened in 1999 to slap a temporary ban on sewage hookups in the King County service area -- including parts of south Snohomish County -- if no plan was put in place for a new plant to be built before the old ones reached capacity.
Seattle's West Point plant, in Discovery Park, is nearing capacity and can't be significantly expanded, officials have said. Because of the economic recession and fewer new homes being built, the Renton plant has yet to reach that point, Kolb-Nelson said.
Still, population projections are coming true, she said.
In 1995, the Puget Sound Regional Council, a planning agency, forecast that the population of King County's sewer service area would grow from about 2.4 million in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2010. Those numbers were adjusted slightly upward in 2003.
"From what we know now, these projections are still largely on target," Kolb-Nelson said.
About $3 billion in bonds are being sold to finance the plant. Those bonds will be paid off over 35 to 40 years with sewer hookup fees and rate increases.
Brightwater was built to handle 36 million gallons of wastewater per day, expandable to 54 million by 2040, said Gunars Sreibers, Brightwater project manager. To start, it will process only about 10 million gallons per day, he said.
"We still need to plan for growth," Kolb-Nelson said. "You don't wait until you're almost at capacity before you get one on-line."
The plant is being built in Snohomish County for a couple of reasons. When the projections were made in the late '90s, King County officials said if a third plant was needed, it should be built in the north essentially for geographic balance -- the two other plants being roughly at the south end and the center of King County's service area.
Some of the southern parts of Snohomish County send their sewage to King County essentially because of the gravity factor, Brightwater officials said. They're in the Lake Washington watershed. When the end of a pipeline is lower in elevation than the beginning, it acts as a siphon to draw wastewater through, Sreibers said. This means it doesn't have to be pumped, saving money.
The Silver Lake Water and Sewer District in south Everett and Mill Creek, the Alderwood Water and Wastewater District in south Snohomish County and the Cross Valley Water District, which extends from Bothell to Snohomish, each contract with King County Metro to send some of their wastewater, Kolb-Nelson said.
Until the tunnel is complete next year, wastewater from those plants will be treated at the Brightwater plant and sent to the Seattle and Renton sewer plants.
Property owners in parts of these districts will pay for Brightwater, along with those in the plant's service areas in King County. About $3 billion in bonds are being sold to finance the plant. Those bonds will be paid off over 35 to 40 years with sewer hookup fees and rate increases.
Buyers of newly built homes or condominiums in the service areas will pay a $51.95 hook-up fee each month for 15 years. For apartments, the fee will be charged to the building owner who will likely pass all or part of it on to tenants.
A $4.20 per month increase for residential customers in the same areas began in 2010. Other local increases may be assessed as well.
The hook-up fees and rate increases combined could cost the owner of a newly built home about $600 per year, not counting rates that were already being paid or local increases for Brightwater.
Originally, 100 potential sites for Brightwater were identified and studied in north King and south Snohomish counties. In 2001, these were narrowed down to six, then to two: Maltby, where the plant eventually would be built, and part of the mothballed Unocal oil tank farm in Edmonds.
Before there was a broader, national "tea party" movement centered around taxes and government spending, there was the Washington Tea Party in Edmonds. King County should not be making decisions for people who live in Snohomish County, it said.
Residents and officials in Edmonds fought the plan fiercely. The issue became all-encompassing in the city. For example, a slate of candidates opposed to Brightwater was elected to the Port of Edmonds Commission in 2001 even though the port had no authority over the issue.
Gary Haakenson, now Snohomish County deputy executive, was mayor of Edmonds at the time.
The hillside part of the Unocal property at the south end of town underwent an environmental cleanup and had its giant, above-ground tanks removed in the summer of 2001.
Just as the Brightwater debate was heating up, a Seattle developer, Triad, expressed interesting in building condominiums on the hillside property.
Haakenson made his move.
"We did have some conversations with the developer at the time asking him if he'd be willing to purchase the property," Haakenson said. "We felt that was a better use for that property than a sewer plant.
"We said we'd be happy to expedite the process for them and do whatever we could from a permit standpoint to get it moving quickly."
Triad bought the property and eventually built its condos. In 2002, then-King County Executive Ron Sims, Brightwater's primary advocate, ruled out the Edmonds site.
While it was much closer to the Sound and would require no tunneling, it also was much smaller than the Maltby site -- 25 acres compared to 114, leaving no room for expansion. Building on the hillside would have been tricky, officials said.
The battle shifted to Maltby. Opposition there was less concentrated than in Edmonds, but was present nonetheless.
A local group, the Sno-King Environmental Alliance, filed several appeals against Brightwater, which ultimately were rejected, first in court and then by the Puget Sound Pollution Control Hearings Board in 2005.
During construction, more than 3,800 people were employed building the plant and tunnel with an average annual payroll of $88 million.
As compensation for building the plant in Snohomish County, after much negotiation, King County agreed to pay $140 million for community projects the bulk of which are in Snohomish County. An $8 million community building was built on the site, including space for meetings, events and education. Two science labs are available for classes. More than $4 million has been allocated to public art.
Three parks in the Maltby area are under construction or planned, said Steve Dickson, special projects manager for Snohomish County public works. Eight projects involving road widening, sidewalks or shoulders also have been built, are planned or under construction, he said. Land is being bought to preserve habitat around several small creeks in the area.
To build the plant, 14 businesses were evicted in the eminent domain process, including an auto-restoration operation, a landscaping business and the StockPot soup company, which relocated to Everett.
The treatment system used at the plant is more or less state of the art. It exceeds the standards of what formerly was known as secondary treatment, but stops short of the expensive process of tertiary treatment, which treats sewage nearly to drinking water standards, Sreibers said.
The wastewater is screened and settled out. It's then sent to a tank where air is pumped in, encouraging the growth of microorganisms that eat the pollutants, Sreibers said. This is where conventional secondary treatment leaves off.
At Brightwater, as at many other newer plants, the wastewater will then run through a series of membrane tanks -- upright, boxlike structures fitted with thin, hollow polymer tubes. The tubes filter the solids out of the wastewater, even bacteria, and the tubes are then scoured with water to wash the pollutants away.
"There's literally millions and millions of strands of this material in there," Sreibers said.
After chlorine disinfection, some of the treated water will be sold for irrigation, the rest sent through the tunnel and to Puget Sound.
The solids from the process will be run through a thickener, stored and cured in an anaerobic digester for about a month, dewatered and then sold for use on farms in Eastern Washington, Sreibers said.
About $65 million was spent on an odor control system. The air from the plant will be routed through a series of "scrubbers" where it will be chemically treated three different times before being released.
About 40 acres of woods at the north end of the property is being left in its natural state, supplemented by a creek restoration project, a footbridge, paths and overlooks. The area will be open to the public dawn to dusk.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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