Firms finding out that preventing pollution pays off
By JIM DiPESO
Soap suds bubble to the ground during vehicle washing. Dirt, grease and chemicals meander across a parking lot and down a storm drain. Soil erodes off construction and excavation sites. Fertilizer and pesticides leach unseen from overwatered landscaping. Toxic paints flake off boat bottoms and into a bay. Fresh water is used once and dumped.
Soap suds and soil particles may seem penny ante as pollution sources go. But in the fast growing Puget Sound metropolitan area, small, "non-point" pollution sources add up and they all run downhill into the streams and bays where salmon are having a harder time making a living.
Reducing the flow of sediment, chemical wastes and oxygen-depleting nutrients into waterways likely will be one of the key elements in the salmon recovery program the Puget Sound region is facing, as will using water more efficiently so there is more to go around.
The sources of water pollution are all over the map, but they grow from the same roots: waste and inefficiency. Preventing waste at the source, through improved efficiency, process changes, substitute materials and better work practices, keeps pollutants out of the water. Moreover, pollution prevention benefits business by reducing costs and keeping them ahead of the regulatory curve, which is likely to get steeper as requirements related to endangered species listings and Clean Water Act mandates take hold in the coming years.
"It's cheaper to comply than to not comply, and it's cheaper to be ahead of the game than to play catch-up," said Bob Bunch, environmental manager of Container Care International, which three years ago installed a closed loop recycling system that reduced process water consumption for its freight container washing operations by about two-thirds.
Reducing waste at the source means there is less waste to manage with "end-of-pipe" measures. Faced with water quality permit requirements, "We concluded that it would be cheaper and better for our operations to do prevention and best management practices as opposed to treatment," said Robin Nelson, environmental manager for Cadman, Inc., a sand, gravel and concrete supplier.
A number of businesses around the Puget Sound region have acted proactively to prevent water pollution. A significant carrier of pollutants is "stormwater" -- rain and snowmelt that can pick up pollutants and carry them to nearby streams and bays.
Cadman, Inc., which has eight facilities in western Washington, collects rainfall and uses it as process water for aggregate production. At its Seattle facility on the Duwamish River, for example, stormwater is directed into a 16,000-cubic-foot detention vault. The stormwater can be discharged to the river after solids are removed, but the company uses it as a process water supply.
"Since last October (1997), we've managed to avoid a discharge," Nelson said. At its Black Diamond facility, stormwater is directed to a vegetation pond and tapped for process needs.
An important element of pollution prevention is good housekeeping habits, such as fixing leaks and storing chemicals securely. The measures need not be complicated. PSF Industries, a Seattle steel-plate fabricator, developed an easy-to-use cover for scrap metal storage bins. The company sweeps paved areas instead of hosing them down, in order to keep pollutants out of storm drains. Acid wash water used for outdoor stainless steel cleaning is captured, neutralized, then re-used, keeping it out of storm drains, reducing the company's water bill, and avoiding hazardous waste charges when the water is eventually disposed of.
Boatyards are a special case because of their proximity to the water. Paints, solvents and other chemicals used in boat repair and maintenance have a straight shot to the water if not managed carefully. A special concern for marine life are the toxins mixed in "anti-fouling" paints that are used on vessel bottoms to prevent barnacle growth.
Wilson Marine was a company looking to set a clean operating standard when it invested in prevention measures at its Lake Union boatyard about a decade ago.
"We could see the handwriting on the wall, so we decided to take a step ahead and have fewer concerns later on," co-owner David Wilson said. The boatyard's dry dock is sealed to collect wash water and direct it to an on-site filtration plant. The yard built a bermed and fenced containment area for batteries and other potentially leaky wastes. Waste oil is stored in a double-lined tank.
Every day vehicle washing produces cleaning chemicals, dirt and grease which find their way untreated into waterways. Gray Line of Seattle, for example, installed a collection system that recycles about 92 percent of water used for bus washing. The company has reduced wastewater discharges and cut its water bill by about $1,000 monthly during the peak season as a result.
Landscaping measures are another means of keeping polluted runoff out of streams. Impervious surfaces such as buildings and pavement enlarge and speed storm runoff. Grassy swales and ponds can be installed adjacent to streets and parking lots to capture runoff, slow it down and allow it to percolate into the ground for natural filtering, a technique used at Elliott Bay Marina's parking lot.
Landscaping, however, can be a pollution source if it is poorly conceived or managed. Unseen quantities of chemicals and oxygen-depleting nutrients can seep into streams from pesticides and fertilizers when too much is applied and overwatering pushes the unneeded surplus into surface or groundwater.
A key to preventing this type of pollution is careful landscape planning focused on plant health. The right plants in the right location will stay healthy and won't need as much help from fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation, said Ladd Smith, co-owner of In Harmony, a residential landscape service company based in Woodinville. In Harmony relies on organic methods. When pest control is necessary, for example, the company uses non-toxic alternatives such as horticultural oils, bacteria and nematodes that attack root weevils.
Good landscape planning also translates into reduced maintenance costs. At a project in Snohomish County, for example, In Harmony recommended replacing some of the water and chemical-gobbling turf with perennials and a rockscape. Water consumption was cut by about 90 percent after the changes were made.
Water efficiency measures can be implemented both outdoors and indoors. The Medical Dental Building has cut water usage nearly 60,000 gallons daily by replacing a water-based heating and cooling system with an air-based system. The Pure Food Fish Market at Pike Place Market installed a cooling tower that cut a refrigeration system's water consumption by 90 percent.
Even the humble toilet can be a source of water savings. Installation of approximately 10,000 water-efficient fixtures at 600 Seattle businesses participating in a commercial toilet rebate program has reduced the city's water consumption by 800,000 gallons per day, according to Suzan Hill, who manages the program at Seattle Public Utilities.
For best results, pollution prevention must be integrated into a business' daily operations, in all departments, not thought of separately as just the environmental manager's job.
Said Nelson of Cadman, Inc.: "The first step is you have to have a corporate commitment from the top down," said Nelson of Cadman, Inc. "Once you have that, then it's just a matter of implementing the process."
Involving workers is also important, said Container Care's Bunch. "We found it beneficial to involve employees in training and coming up with ideas. They felt part of the team and caught on quickly."
Education plays a central role in pollution prevention. The Pipers Creek watershed restoration project in north Seattle, one of the first in the state, keyed on education as a way to help businesses and residents keep paints, yard care materials, vehicle fluids, soap suds and other potential pollutants from ending up in the creek.
Education and drainage improvement projects undertaken through the watershed plan seem to be paying off. For many years, the creek was largely devoid of salmon as a result of pollution and habitat damage, but in the last five years, more salmon have returned to Pipers Creek than in the previous half century combined.
An ounce of prevention today could be worth a pound of salmon tomorrow.
Jim DiPeso is communications director for the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center in Seattle.
Copyright © 1998 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.