Fixing septic systems is key to protecting Puget Sound shellfish

“I’ve found my calling,” says Freeland, a half-retired septic systems consultant who prefers to go to Uncle Buddy or The Shit Whisperer on the phone.

For most of us, however, septic tanks and drains do not instill a sense of the divine. But ignoring the poop passages beneath our feet is something the people of Puget Sound cannot afford.

“Both human and animal wastewater are the largest vectors of pollution affecting shellfish in the Puget Sound area and some areas of Puget Sound,” said Mindy Roberts, Puget Sound program director, Washington Environmental Council. These creatures are already facing ocean acidification and water warming, forcing huge deaths, as happened during the June 2021 heat wave.

For this reason, the Puget Sound Partnership tracks the inventory, inspection and repair of wastewater treatment plants in designated high risk areas in its annual State of the Sound report. The report looks at progress on dozen of key indicators known as “signs of life” – estuary health.

Although sewage plant maintenance has not yet fully reached the 2020 partnership target, it is among 11 out of 52 “signs of life” indicators listed as positive trending – a silver lining in a report full of slow progress that slowed down in a pandemic year.

Well-maintained septic systems can be a gentle means of dealing with the inevitability of life, says Jeremy Simmons, director of the wastewater division in the Washington Department of Health’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

When septic systems fail, untreated human waste and all of its nutrients, bacteria (especially fecal coliforms), viruses, and medicines spill not only into the homes of unsuspecting people, but also into the fragile Puget Sound ecosystem. The dangerous cocktail threatens recovery and bioaccumulates in shellfish, which serves a $ 107 million industry and sustains indigenous communities who are already bearing the brunt of the effects of the climate crisis. Many of these systems are adjacent to coastlines, where failures can result in direct, unfiltered influx of sound and threaten human health.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Salish Sea is a leading North American producer of shellfish, which is harvested both commercially and privately for plates around the world. In addition to climate change, regional development and the associated infrastructure for handling waste also have an impact on the composition of shellfish, including mussels, geoents, mussels and oysters. As filter feeders who indiscriminately consume whatever washes over their beds, shellfish are prone to sucking metals, waste-borne viruses and prescription drugs, and other harmful pollutants into their soft tissues and even their shells. This puts anyone unfortunate enough to consume them on the path of disease and poisoning.

While nutrient overload can cause algal blooms that unbalance aquatic ecosystems, fecal concerns are mostly related to people who eat spoiled shellfish. “Clams are pretty tough little beasts. And as long as they are not killed by certain chemicals or suffocated by sediments, they will likely survive, ”says Dr. Sheri Tonn, professor emeritus of chemistry at Pacific Lutheran University and co-founder of Communities for a Healthy Bay.

New funding to repair costly wastewater treatment plants and efforts to locate incompletely documented wastewater treatment plants have helped the region make further progress. But there is plenty of room for growth – both in the maintenance of wastewater treatment plants and in their monitoring. As climate change leads to heavy rainfall, sea level rise and flooding, and as the population boom and development increase the load on waste systems, environmental groups and government agencies are closely monitoring sewage treatment plants.

Is Septic Surveillance On The Right Track?

Puget Sound has made the greatest advances in wastewater treatment plant identification and has room for improved inspections and repairs.

The Puget Sound Partnership’s 2011 goal for 2020 was for the region’s 12 public health systems to complete the inventory of on-site sanitation systems in specially designated areas, to be up to date with 95% of inspections, and to resolve any system failures. Designated areas covered by the report include areas near potential or threatened collection points for shellfish, including marine catchment areas and shellfish sanctuaries – not all sewage treatment plants in the region. A 2011 draft technical memo from the Puget Sound Partnership also set the target of a net increase of 10.80 acres of net area for harvestable shellfish.

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