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Misplaced Sewer Line Raises a Stink at Washington State Ecology Department

By April 13, 2009

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“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, penned that now-famous line for a pro-environment poster to commemorate the first Earth Day in 1970, but the idea has special meaning this week for officials at the Washington State Department of Ecology and the City of Vancouver, Washington.

Back in 1996, the Department of Ecology determined that Burnt Bridge Creek, which runs for several miles through the most populated areas of Clark County and eventually flows into Vancouver Lake, was polluted with unusally high levels of fecal coliform bacteria—but they could never figure out why.

That mystery was solved last week, when city workers discovered that a sewer line from the building that houses the regional offices of the state Department of Ecology and the Department of Fish and Game was connected to a storm drain system instead of the city sanitary sewer main. As a result, raw sewage has been flowing directly into the creek, possibly since the building was first constructed in the early 1970s.

State Ecology Director Jay J. Manning called the situation "embarrassing and upsetting." And Laura Sauermilch, a spill response specialist for the Department of Ecology who works out of the leased offices where the problem was discovered, told The Columbian, "As a person who loves her area and the environment, it was like, 'Holy crap, let's get this taken care of.'"

That pretty much sums up the official response.

Restrooms in the building were shut down immediately, portable toilets and hand-washing stations were brought in, and city officials promised to fix the problem without delay. And although the building has changed hands a few times in the past 30 years, the current owner, Watumull Properties of Honolulu, quickly agreed to pay for the repairs.

It’s likely to take much longer for local and state agencies, including the Department of Ecology, to sort out legal liability and possible penalties for more than 30 years of pollution, wildlife damage and public-health risks.

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