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Originally published March 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 31, 2008 at 1:05 PM

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How Brightwater soared to $1.8 billion — and why you're paying more

hen King County officials authorized a third sewage-treatment plant, they knew it wasn't the cheapest way to handle the region's growing...

Seattle Times reporter

When King County officials authorized a third sewage-treatment plant, they knew it wasn't the cheapest way to handle the region's growing volume of sewage.

Little did they know how expensive it would become.

The Brightwater treatment plant is now expected to cost $1.8 billion — roughly double what the Metropolitan King County Council was told when it first approved the project.

Officials don't know of a plant this size anywhere that has cost so much.

The soaring price of the most expensive public-works project in county history means higher sewer bills for everyone. Buyers of new single-family homes in most of King County and parts of Snohomish County are paying the most — on average, more than $1,000 this year.

A falloff in homebuilding and new bond-insurance requirements could push rates higher still. King County Executive Ron Sims will introduce his 2009 rate proposal and forecast of future rates next month.

In all, it will take 35 to 40 years of principal and interest payments to retire the $3 billion debt burden on Brightwater, scheduled to open in 2011 in Snohomish County north of Woodinville.

How did Brightwater get so pricey?

There are many reasons: engineering changes, technology that exceeds state and federal environmental requirements, and construction-industry inflation among them.

But above all was the simple truth that almost nobody wants a sewer plant near his home or business or beach.

That reality pushed the plant so far inland that a 13-mile, $735 million pipeline is being built to take treated waste to Puget Sound. It also meant installing the nation's most advanced odor-control system and paying for parks and other goodies to win at least grudging acceptance from jurisdictions near the plant and pipeline.

A 43-acre habitat-restoration area overlooks the site, where massive concrete structures are rising from the hillside. Sewer bills will also pay $4 million for artwork and $8 million for an education center.

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When it opens, the plant will serve 189,000 residents, 109,000 of them in Snohomish County, which for decades has sent some of its wastewater to King County.

Build or expand?

Growth of existing plants was ruled out

Sims had just taken office in 1997 when utility officials brought him bad news: King County's two treatment plants would be overwhelmed by sewage coming from new homes and businesses by 2010, a decade sooner than previously expected.

To avoid a development moratorium, Sims needed a plan that would win quick regional consensus.

The Wastewater Treatment Division laid out four alternatives. Two would have expanded the existing treatment plants in Renton and Seattle; two called for a third plant to the north.

Enlarging the existing plants would have cost an estimated $789 million, compared with $1.086 billion to build a third plant and later expand the Renton facility.

Environmental groups and residents of Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood quickly attacked the idea of sending more sewage to the West Point plant on the beach in Discovery Park.

They had strong legal and political ammunition: a 1991 agreement that set strict limits on the plant's size, city restrictions on waterfront plants, and the power of Magnolia resident Larry Phillips, a county councilmember and chairman of the Regional Water Quality Committee.

Litigation would have been "endless," Sims said. "If anybody tells me that West Point was an option, I'll tell them they're out of their legal mind."

West Point was out.

Jesse Tanner, the late mayor of Renton, persuaded Sims not to expand the plant there unless he first built a new plant near the other end of Lake Washington. South King County was already putting up with a sometimes-smelly sewage plant, an international airport and a regional landfill, Tanner said, so it was time for someone else to shoulder the sewage problem.

Sims recommended building a third treatment plant even though it would cost $300 million more than expanding at West Point and Renton.

His more costly approach ran into opposition in the County Council, where Maggie Fimia, of Shoreline, proposed sending more sewage to the existing plants and buying land for a third plant in case it was needed in the future. The council briefly adopted Fimia's approach in 1999, but abandoned it after then-President Louise Miller talked to Sims and concluded it "was not realistic at all," largely because of the possibility of lawsuits over West Point.

Miller threw her weight behind Sims' third plant — and brought along the entire County Council except for Fimia.

Not in my backyard

95 possible sites narrowed to just two

Because the plant would serve fast-growing suburbs in southern Snohomish and northern King counties, officials looked at sites in both counties. They found few properties that were big enough and zoned for industrial use.

Not long after the list of potential sites was whittled from 95 to five — after thousands of pages of consultant studies and dozens of public meetings — it became clear the cost would rise by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Point Wells, at King County's northwest edge, was used as the basis for the original cost estimate. It was the only King County location and would have been the least expensive site. But Sims dropped it when experts said cleaning up polluted dirt there would delay construction beyond 2010.

A second site was eliminated because of wetlands, and a third because its higher elevation would have meant higher pumping costs.

That left two sites: the former Unocal tank farm, near the Edmonds ferry terminal, and a site at the Highway 9/Highway 522 junction north of Woodinville.

At $1.3 billion, the Highway 9 site was seen as the more expensive choice. Construction would require boring a tunnel 13 miles long and up to 430 feet deep. Engineers said the deep tunnel carried "significant risks" during construction and would mean using technology not previously used in the United States.

Neighbors of both the Highway 9 and Edmonds sites objected.

When Sims would visit his mother's house in Edmonds, he saw the protest signs in her neighbors' yards. Waiters and waitresses told him they didn't want the water flushed from his county's toilets.

Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson said, "Over my dead body."

City and state officials wanted to put a transit center on the property. Then a developer offered to buy part of the site to build condos.

Recalls Haakenson, "I'm not ashamed to tell you that we sat down with the Unocal folks and the developer and did everything we could to speed up the sale of that parcel."

If King County had to cram the sewage plant underneath the planned transit center, the cost for an Edmonds plant would rise to $1.5 billion.

Sims chose Highway 9.

Sticking to his guns

Opposition continued, costs rose, Sims dug in

Now that he had a site, Sims was determined to stick with it and get the plant built on schedule. Through lawsuits brought by opponents, and even after scientists found an earthquake fault on the property, Sims stood his ground.

Sims took the Snohomish County Council to court when it imposed tougher environmental-review standards. The suit was settled in the way conflicts over large public-works projects often are, with King County agreeing to spend millions of dollars to "mitigate" the project's impact.

Sims agreed to pay Snohomish County $70 million for parks, ballfields, trails and habitat improvements. That brought the total mitigation cost to $148 million, not counting the $65 million that will be spent to keep the smell of sewage from leaving the Brightwater property.

"Santa Claus arrived with a big bag with a lot of toys," said Sam Anderson, executive officer of the Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties, an association of homebuilders that supported Sims' efforts to keep the project on track.

Even before the site was chosen in 2003, some of the cities and utility districts that pay the county to treat their sewage worried that Brightwater would force them to charge their customers more.

Seattle Public Utilities Director Chuck Clarke questioned whether the plant would really be needed by 2010.

Conservation measures such as low-flow toilets had reduced Seattle-area water use during the 1990s despite significant population growth, and Clarke predicted per-capita water use would continue to drop. With less sewage to treat, Clarke suggested in a 2003 letter to county officials that they keep sewer rates down by delaying Brightwater.

Pam Bissonnette, then county natural-resources and parks director, met with Clarke and told him it was urgent to build the new plant because sludge "digesters" at West Point were malfunctioning and the Kenmore pipeline and Renton treatment plant would soon be overwhelmed by continuing growth.

Clarke caved. He wrote a second letter accepting Bissonnette's explanation. Asked recently why he didn't pursue his concerns further, Clarke said, "I'm not the expert in wastewater. There were some things that we thought were fundamental, that needed to be addressed. We raised that."

Seattle officials had another reason not to fight Brightwater. They didn't want to jeopardize a 1998 agreement that new homes and businesses — largely in the suburbs — would pay 95 percent of the cost and all ratepayers would pick up the $428 million tab for curbing overflows of Seattle's combined sewer and stormwater system.

Seattle utilities staffers noted in internal e-mails that fixing sewer system "pinch points" would save ratepayers $40 million every year those fixes delayed the need for Brightwater.

When some suburban sewer officials suggested Sims scrap or delay Brightwater, said Cedar River Water and Sewer District General Manager Ron Sheadel, "Mr. Sims emphatically said he wouldn't go back and rethink a decision he had previously made. ... Their mind was made up and they were proceeding forward no matter what the cost."

When the current, $1.8 billion cost estimate for Brightwater is mentioned, Sheadel deadpans, "You're an optimist. Do you want to bet lunch on $3 billion?"

Why wouldn't Sims reconsider?

After winning regional consensus for Brightwater, he wasn't about to put that at risk. The state Department of Ecology was threatening a moratorium on new sewer hookups if the county didn't execute a plan to increase sewer capacity by 2010.

Sims said a moratorium would have "shut down the growth of this county and half of Snohomish County. ... I'm not going to stop the economic growth of this region. I'm not going to be accused of not acting.

"The sum of all things said: Build it in 2010, get it done, just get it done. Growth will pay for growth. Pay for it now, get it done."

Since construction began in earnest last year, minor glitches have pushed the opening back to mid-2011. Highways and a railroad line border the treatment plant, which will replace an auto-wrecking yard, soup plant and other industrial uses.

A tough job got done

Even a project critic credits Sims' tenacity

Urban sewer projects aren't cheap. Atlanta, Kansas City and Miami are spending $3 billion to $4 billion each to modernize aging sewer systems. But no part of the country is spending nearly as much as King County for a plant that will treat only 36 million gallons a day, said Ron Speer, a Brightwater critic and general manager of Soos Creek Water and Sewer District.

Christie True, who managed the project until Sims promoted her to wastewater-treatment director last year, said comparisons are misleading because Brightwater's extraordinarily long tunnel puts it in a class of its own.

And, she notes, the precise cost of the rejected two-plant alternative will never be known because it didn't undergo detailed design and engineering.

Diana Gale, former Seattle utilities director, would have preferred a system of smaller sewer plants, but she credits Sims with getting a politically tough job done: "He had an idea, he stuck with it, he pushed it, and he's made it happen."

For Sims, it's all about the art of the possible, in a world of not-in-my-backyard politics and legal restrictions.

"There is a difference between which site is cheapest," he said, "and which we can actually build on."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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