The city of Bellingham and Strider Construction have each been fined $9,000 after as much as 300,000 gallons of sewage was piped into Padden Creek over three days during a sewer replacement project in February.
The state Department of Ecology found both parties were responsible for the mistake, which happened when a crew working for Strider put a temporary bypass sewer pump into a manhole that was labeled “sewer” but was actually connected to a storm drain that discharges into the creek.
The city took water quality samples that showed the area should be avoided by people and pets because of unsafe levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which can cause illness.
The creek was closed from 17th Street down to Padden Estuary because of the spill, and was reopened a week later once bacteria levels returned to normal.
Before the project started, Strider gave Bellingham its bypass plan, which the city reviewed and approved. The plan did not clearly identify where the sewer manhole was that would be used, which contributed to the incorrect placement of the bypass hose into the storm drain, according to the state.
The spill started in an area where the city had just spent $2.8 million to “daylight” Padden Creek and make other improvements to restore its habitat.
“The Padden Creek spill was an unfortunate error and serves as a reminder of the importance of detailed plans that are diligently followed during sewer construction projects,” Doug Allen, manager of Ecology’s Bellingham office, said in a news release. “The incident, while serious, doesn’t take away from the success of the restoration project, which will benefit water quality and salmon habitat for decades to come.”
Both the city and Strider could appeal their fines within 30 days.
Each was fined $3,000 per day for each of the three days sewage spilled into the creek, for a total fine of $9,000 each.
It was an unfortunate incident, but there was no intentional wrongdoing or negligence on Strider’s part.
Kyle Gebhardt, vice president, Strider Construction
Strider Construction intends to appeal the fine, said company Vice President Kyle Gebhardt.
“It was an unfortunate incident, but there was no intentional wrongdoing or negligence on Strider’s part,” he said. “We’ve remained fully cooperative with all the agencies throughout this matter. We’re very disappointed Ecology has decided to blindside us with this penalty so long after the fact.”
Gebhardt said he thought Ecology’s findings were incomplete, and the company planned to submit more information in the appeal process.
The city said it does not plan to appeal and will pay the fine.
“We recognize and regret our role in the spill and will pay the fine promptly,” Bellingham Public Works spokeswoman Amy Cloud wrote in an email. “Our first concern is safety of those we serve, as well as habitat for fish and wildlife that share our natural resources. Fortunately, due to immediate and comprehensive response, there are no indications of long-term impacts due to the spill.”
Ecology did not find any fish kills or wildlife impacts from the spill, according to Ecology spokeswoman Krista Kenner.
Ecology received a call from a concerned citizen who found four dead seagulls in the Padden Creek Estuary the day the sewage bypass was turned on, but the city attributed those deaths to natural causes, and Ecology found no reason to believe otherwise, Kenner said.
It seems unlikely anything would have traveled that far, in that amount of time, in amounts strong enough to kill the birds.
Krista Kenner, Department of Ecology spokeswoman
That call came in about an hour and 10 minutes after the sewage bypass was first turned on around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23, Kenner said. After inspection that day, staff did not find any irregular turbidity, sheen, smell or other indication that the creek or construction work at the time had caused the seagulls’ deaths.
“It seems unlikely anything would have traveled that far, in that amount of time, in amounts strong enough to kill the birds,” Kenner said.
The spill, which started that Tuesday afternoon, was not discovered, stopped and reported to Ecology until Thursday afternoon, Feb. 25.
Washington Conservation Corps crew members who were planting vegetation along the creek discovered the spill when they noticed the water wasn’t as clear where they were working and notified Strider, according to the city.
“We are grateful to the Washington Conservation Corps crew members who noticed the spill and acted quickly so that response could begin immediately,” Cloud said in an email.