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Originally published May 19, 2012 at 10:46 PM | Page modified May 20, 2012 at 4:38 PM

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Seattle's clean-water settlement: Worst pollution would get priority

Seattle City Council members will get their first look this week at a federal consent decree governing hundreds of millions of dollars of spending on water-pollution control.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Seattle City Council members will get their first look this week at a federal consent decree that would govern hundreds of millions of dollars of local ratepayer spending on water-pollution control.

Four years in the making, the deal negotiated by Seattle Public Utilities, the state Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would settle a lawsuit brought by the EPA against the city of Seattle for violations of the Clean Water Act.

Pollution penalties under the settlement would eat up $350,000 in ratepayer revenues, and the city would commit to a framework for building a roster of pollution-control projects to meet state and federal clean-water standards. Work to be completed by 2025 is expected to cost about $500 million.

The consent decree would for the first time allow the city to do the most beneficial pollution-control work first as it tackles the problem of combined sewer overflows, or CSOs — small amounts of raw sewage mixed with stormwater that are discharged into local waters, particularly during heavy rain.

Pipes that carry both stormwater and sewage are meant to overflow at designated outfalls during big storms — rather than back up into people's basements. Controlling the frequency of those overflows has been a long-term project, undertaken by both Seattle and King County.

Since the regional wastewater system began operating in the 1960s, the volume of overflows has been reduced from about 30 billion gallons per year to fewer than 2 billion gallons per year.

But the state standard doesn't deal in volume; it requires the number of combined sewer overflows to be fewer on average than one per outfall per year, no matter how much actual pollution escapes. That goal is proving very expensive, and for a diminishing environmental return, as the city and county work to attain the last measure of improvement.

The consent decree coming before the City Council this week is intended to give the city new flexibility in attacking the overall water-pollution problem.

Locally, stormwater, not combined sewer overflows, is by far the larger source of pollution to Puget Sound and other local water bodies.

As it builds its long-term pollution-control plan, the city, led by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), could prioritize stormwater work ahead of CSO work.

The consent decree would allow the city to delay CSO projects even beyond 2025, the capstone year for the long-term control plan, if the earlier projects deliver more environmental benefit.

Local officials would have to receive EPA approval on the sequencing of work and project specifications, and demonstrate the environmental benefits of the projects. Appeal would be to a federal court if the two couldn't agree.

Left in place are the state standards driving the less-cost-effective work on CSOs. Under the consent decree, all that work still would need to be done; it may perhaps just be delayed. If state or local officials eventually want to change that, they also would have to renegotiate the consent decree.

The so-called integrated approach to pollution control outlined in the consent decree allows a range of approaches to reach results, from green stormwater infiltration projects such as rain gardens and street swales to more conventional concrete pipe and storage-tank construction.

Allowing localities to adopt an approach to CSO controls that integrates stormwater work has been in the talking stages nationally at EPA since at least last fall. It is in part the result of a push-back from cities resisting federal mandates of expensive CSO work that provided little environmental benefit.

Proponents of the consent decree at SPU said it is a wise step because it enables the city to deliver environmental benefits sooner by putting the most effective work first.

And if, down the road, federal regulators also impose new requirements on stormwater, Seattle ratepayers, they argue, would be in a better position for having already gotten federally approved stormwater projects under way.

Under the consent decree, the city also would be allowed to do maintenance work on its sewage and drainage system on the basis of need, rather than on a prescriptive, federally directed schedule.

That, SPU analysts say, would save ratepayers as much as $375 million. SPU was able to negotiate the so-called performance-based maintenance portion of the agreement because of its track record in maintenance of drainage and sewer lines.

EPA Region 10 Director Dennis McLerran called the agreement "a new generation of consent decree. This is less onerous and specific; you still have to meet the Clean Water Act, but you have a more flexible path to get there."

The council is expected to make a final decision on the consent decree this summer. Then it goes to the mayor for signature, and then to federal court for review, including a public hearing. The consent decree is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

King County is negotiating its own consent decree with Ecology and EPA. Both King County and SPU are raising Seattle residents' drainage and wastewater rates to pay for CSO work.

SPU estimates that for the typical single family, the monthly drainage and wastewater bill will have increased by $4.90, or just under $59 annually, to pay for its $500 million program by the end of 2025.

King County's $711 million plan pencils out to a wastewater rate increase for a typical customer of $7.61 a month, or $91.32 a year, by 2030. Seattle residents would pay both increases, totaling a little more than $150 a year.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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