State agency offices pollute creek in Vancouver
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
VANCOUVER, Wash. -- Thirteen years after Washington state's environmental agency found a creek severely polluted, the contamination has been traced back to the agency's regional office.
City workers discovered this week that a sewer line from the building housing the regional offices of the state Department of Ecology and Department of Fish and Game, and a small U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contingent, was mistakenly connected to a storm water runoff system, rather than a municipal sewer main.
As a result, sewage from the building has been entering Burnt Bridge Creek and eventually Vancouver Lake for an unknown number of years.
Workers in the leased offices were stunned when they got the word Wednesday, The Columbian newspaper reported.
"As a person who loves her area and the environment, it was like, 'Holy crap, let's get this taken care of,'" said Laura Sauermilch, a spill response specialist.
Jay J. Manning, Ecology director in Olympia, said the discovery was "embarrassing and upsetting."
Employees immediately closed the men's and women's restrooms, and portable toilets and hand-washing stations were brought to the site.
City officials have agreed to fix the problem at the building owner's expense by next week.
In 1996, the Ecology Department determined that Burnt Bridge Creek was severely polluted with fecal coliform bacteria.
For 2 1/2 years, city workers have been using a probe mounted with a small television camera to survey 300 miles of underground storm water pipes. Municipal public works director Brian Carlson said this is the first time an old sanitary sewer has been found mistakenly hooked into a storm water pipe.
"The irony is not lost on us," Carlson said.
State officials believe the problem dates from the opening of the building in the early 1970s as a garden center for a Fred Meyer outlet across the street. The garden center was closed in the mid-1990s and in 1997 the building was reopened with offices for 80 Fish and Wildlife employees, 14 from Ecology and three from the Army engineers.
Melinda Merrill, a Fred Meyer spokeswoman in neighboring Portland, Ore., said the retailer intends to cooperate in sharing information but no longer owns the property.
Local and state agencies have yet to sort out questions of legal liability and potential penalties, said Kim Schmanke, an Ecology spokeswoman in Lacey.
The current owner, Watumull Properties of Honolulu, just wants it fixed.
"I'm just horrified," said J.D. Watumull, company vice president. "We're just trying to get it rectified and back to the way it was."