West Point treatment plant feted: Tours, ceremony mark 40 years of service to Magnolia area

It was a different world 40 years ago when the West Point wastewater-treatment plant went online for the first time, remembered county officials and citizen activists at an anniversary ceremony held in conjunction with Earth Day last Saturday, April 22.

Larry Phillips, a longtime Magnolia resident and King County Council chairman, remembers growing up on the shores of Lake Washington at a time when multiple cities used the waters as a convenient dumping ground for sewage that had little if any treatment.

The pollution got so bad during the summers that the health department forbade anyone from swimming in the lake, Phillips said. "We were irate, and of course our parents were furious."

The waters of Puget Sound off the west point of Discovery Park weren't much better, thanks to a sewage outfall pipe that had been in operation for decades, remembered Jim Ellis. There were also "seas of toilet paper" floating in the waters off the downtown waterfront, he grimaced.

Ellis is known to most as the father of Metro, the multi-jurisdictional agency that successfully tackled the wastewater problem. He downplays the label. "There was a lot wider paternity than just me," Ellis smiled.

In truth, hundreds of people were involved in the campaign to clean up the region's waters in the early 1950s, he added, but they faced an uphill battle.

"For public officials, dumping wastewater into the nearest water course was the cheapest and easiest thing to do," Ellis said. "It had been going on for as long as anyone could remember at that time."

Ellis also noted that those were the days before the Environmental Protection Agency existed, and close to two decades before the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970.

Some public officials acknowledged that piecemeal efforts during the 1950s weren't effective in treating wastewater, but cooperation was in short supply because there was a substantial amount of distrust among the various cities, he said.

"At this point, enter a group of ordinary citizens... to push government into a common effort," Ellis said. "It was just regular Joes, a handful of citizens looking for something better for their city."

It took a couple of campaigns before King County voters called for the creation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro) in 1958, he said. The West Point plant was finished by 1966, and it was on time and under budget, Ellis added.

That was a year after Bob Kildall moved to Magnolia, and he said he remembered that it was a political battle to get the plant built. But Kildall also was heavily involved in the fight to stop West Point from being expanded to handle secondary treatment in the early 1990s.

The struggle involved a major lawsuit and a settlement over the eventual expansion, which was completed in 1996. "They kept their word," Kildall said of officials in King County government, which took over from Metro in 1993.

Kildall was honored at the anniversary ceremony as an Earth Day hero for 2006 for his efforts (See story this page), and he also received a poster featuring his photograph and acknowledging his role in making sure the expanded plant wasn't seen, heard or smelled, said King County Executive Ron Sims.

"Bob was not always the easiest person to get along with about the expansion," Sims added. But Kildall held the county's feet to the fire to make sure the promises were kept, the county executive said.

"It would be so much nicer if it was gone," Kildall said of the expanded plant, "but we wouldn't have the (beach) trail, and we maybe wouldn't have a plant going in at Brightwater."

The inclusion of a beach trail the city couldn't afford was one of the promises during the expansion, said Phillips. "There were legal requirements," he explained, "but the locals wanted promises."

Brightwater, the new treatment plant in Snohomish County, broke ground recently. It will be a state-of-the art facility, Phillips said. "It will surpass the sort of treatment we have here (at West Point) and in Renton."

But thanks to those two existing plants, the wastewater treatment systems in the Puget Sound area are models both regionally and nationally, Sims said. "Lake Washington is one of the cleanest urban lakes in the world," he added.

However, Sims said he also wanted to look to the future, announcing what he described as "significant updates" in wastewater treatment. Plans are in the works to use treated wastewater for both irrigation and industrial uses, he said.

Furthermore, methane gas generated by the plants is being used in Renton and at West Point to run generators producing electricity that is sold to Puget Sound Energy and Seattle City Light, respectively, Sims said.

And completing an ecological circle, so-called biosolids produced by treatment are in high demand as fertilizer for Eastern Washington farms, where biofuel can be produced for mass transit, he said.

Sims also expressed high praise for such citizen activists as Kildall and Ellis, among many others. "In a democratic society, their role is essential," he said.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]