Up to 300,000 gallons of raw sewage spills into Padden Creek

As much as 300,000 gallons of sewage spilled into Padden Creek over 48 hours, prompting officials to warn people to stay out of a stretch of the creek as well as south Boulevard Park beaches.

The spill started Tuesday afternoon, during work to replace sewer pipes in the Happy Valley Neighborhood. The discharge was stopped Thursday afternoon.

The creek has been closed from 17th Street down to Padden Lagoon, which also should be avoided by people and their pets because of unsafe levels of fecal coliform bacteria, the city of Bellingham said Friday, Feb. 26.

Warning signs have been posted at the boat launch in Fairhaven, at the mouth of Padden Creek on Harris Avenue, and at both ends of the boardwalk at Boulevard Park.

The creek, lagoon and beaches will remain closed until the water has returned to safe levels.

“We will continue to test and monitor the creek and will notify the public when it is safe to be in contact with the water,” said Ted Carlson, public works director for Bellingham.

Contact with water contaminated by fecal coliform could cause diarrhea, vomiting, skin rashes, upper-respiratory infections and other illnesses. Children and the elderly may be more vulnerable to becoming ill.

How long people will have to stay away wasn’t known Friday.

Strider Construction has the nearly $1.3 million contract to do the sewer work.

The spill occurred because Strider, which was using a sewer bypass pumping system, put the discharge into a manhole that had been labeled “sewer” but actually emptied into the creek. The city might have mislabeled the manhole, but exactly how it happened is being investigated.

The sewer bypass started around 2 p.m. Tuesday at 20th Street and Old Fairhaven Parkway. It was stopped 1:45 p.m. Thursday.

Carlson said city crews putting in plants along the creek’s bank downstream noticed the water wasn’t as clear where they were and notified Strider.

The city and Strider said they then worked swiftly to stop the discharge.

“Once this was discovered, both the city and our crews took immediate action. We made sure the public was safe,” said Kyle Gebhardt, vice president of Strider Construction.

Carlson estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 gallons of sewage went into the creek.

City officials have notified the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Whatcom County Health Department about the spill.

It’s too early to say whether there will be a fine, said Krista Kenner, spokeswoman for Ecology’s Bellingham office.

“We’re still looking into why the mislabeling happened,” she said of the manhole cover.

The spill started in an area where the city spent $2.8 million to “daylight” Padden Creek.

For more than 120 years, a nearly half-mile section of Padden Creek between 22nd and 17th streets had been forced through a tunnel. To return it to a more natural state, the city of Bellingham took 2,300 feet of the creek from the 8-foot-tall and 4-foot-wide brick tunnel and rerouted it into a new channel running roughly parallel to the tunnel and underneath the bridge near 20th Street that was built by the state Department of Transportation.

City officials said the spill was “disheartening” after all the work done to daylight the creek and to restore the wildlife corridor and fish habitat.

They said in a news release that they would “do everything possible to restore the ecology of Padden Creek to its healthiest level.”

“The city is continuing to monitor the water quality of Padden Creek,” Carlson explained. “The results of this monitoring will determine cleanup measures.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea