Right now, dissolved oxygen levels in many parts of Puget Sound and the rest of the Salish Sea are below the levels needed for fish and other marine life to thrive. 

Nutrient pollution from human activities is worsening the region’s naturally low oxygen levels. Years of research and scientific data confirm that municipal sewage treatment plants are the biggest human source of Puget Sound’s nutrient problem, though there are other significant sources. A newly proposed Puget Sound Nutrient General Permit released by the Washington Department of Ecology is intended to address nutrients – primarily, nitrogen and carbon – from sewage treatment plants.  

To control their pollution, sewage treatment plants discharging excessive nutrients may need to adopt better treatment technologies that fall under the umbrella of “advanced treatment,” such as reverse osmosis. These advanced treatment technologies are not yet required by federal law but have been around for decades and are already in place or being used throughout Puget Sound. There are at least a dozen sewage treatment plants throughout the Sound that already achieve a high standard of nutrient control: the LOTT facility in Olympia, Shelton, and Sequim are examples. 

The Clean Water Act requires polluters to control their discharges to ensure the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our waters. Sewage treatment plants contributing nutrient pollution to Puget Sound must reduce their nutrient discharges, and in some cases, this will require advanced treatment. 

Soundkeeper supports the development of a strong Nutrients General Permit, but recognizes that the biggest challenge will be the cost of these necessary infrastructure upgrades at larger plants. To address this challenge, the Preliminary Draft Permit framework would require Permittees to cap their nitrogen discharges, optimize the use of existing technology, monitor and plan for future infrastructure upgrades. This framework would allow Permittees time to budget for investments, but Ecology must do more to ensure that effective nutrient controls are implemented.

Though the Preliminary Draft Permit is not yet finalized, some utilities have already filed a lawsuit against Ecology, challenging its decision to issue the Permit. Soundkeeper and our environmental partners are working on comments that would strengthen the Draft Permit. Ecology is seeking feedback on the Preliminary Draft Permit online here until March 15, 2020.