September 12, 2007

7 Engineering Wonders: Environmental — Brightwater planning raises awareness, not eyebrows

  • Implementing the wastewater treatment plant plan required a balance among engineers, environmentalists, financiers and the community.
    ESA Adolfson

    Photos courtesy of King County
    King County restored 43 acres of open space and wetland habitat to reduce Brightwater’s environmental and community impacts. The area will open next year.

    In late 1999, King County started looking for a new wastewater treatment plant site. The King County Council had just adopted the Regional Wastewater Services Plan, which included building a third regional wastewater treatment plant, called Brightwater, to serve north King and south Snohomish counties.

    Implementing the Brightwater plan presented substantial engineering challenges. But, at times the engineering issues became secondary to the political, community and environmental challenges posed by this high-profile project. Balancing engineering, environmental, community and financial considerations was the greatest challenge ESA Adolfson faced in helping implement the plan. The complexity of the project — which involved multiple jurisdictions, thousands of stakeholders and challenging engineering requirements in addition to an extensive, complicated permitting process — required sustained, focused attention from the entire project team. Maintaining balance and momentum throughout the entire duration of the project proved to be a difficult and challenging task.

    Finding a site

    The first step was to identify a plant location. That decision would influence the location of a new outfall into Puget Sound, and together these factors would shape the process to site the conveyance system that would be needed to link the new facilities to the existing service area. About 95 sites were originally identified for the treatment plant. These were screened to 35, and then to six. Screening factors included engineering requirements, environmental/community considerations, costs and long-term system operation considerations.

    At the same time plants were screened, the county evaluated several potential location zones for a new marine outfall, as well as options for conveyance corridors. During this time, King County held a series of meetings throughout the potential project areas. Wastewater treatment plants aren’t usually what most folks have in mind for their neighborhood. Some of these meetings drew more than 500 attendees, some equipped with signs and banners to emphasize their opposition. There was no welcome mat being rolled out for Brightwater during these early stages.

    The six candidate sites were narrowed down to two: the Edmonds Unocal site, located in the city of Edmonds near the Puget Sound shoreline; and the state Route 9 site, an inland location in unincorporated Snohomish County nearly 15 miles east of the Puget Sound shoreline. At this time, the county embarked upon its environmental documentation process, and accelerated its already extensive public involvement program to keep stakeholders and neighbors of the possible treatment plant sites and conveyance routes informed and involved. All potentially affected jurisdictions, tribal governments and regulatory agencies were included, along with citizens, community organizations and environmental groups.

    The two finalist sites became lightning rods for public comment, agency interest and media scrutiny throughout the region. Communities along the proposed conveyance corridors where deep tunnels would be built were highly concerned that conveyance pipeline portals, which would serve as access shafts and staging areas during tunnel construction, would be located in their neighborhoods. Public meetings were packed, usually with Brightwater opponents. It took strong, focused facilitation to keep the meetings civil and productive, but as the communities learned more about the project and the proposed mitigation, many of them grew more accepting of the possibility of Brightwater facilities in their neighborhood.

    Assembling an EIS

    The public was given a chance to vent, shape the planning process, and get questions answered.

    Following continued, intense technical evaluations, community outreach and environmental study, the draft environmental impact statement was issued in November 2002, in compliance with the State Environmental Policy Act. Producing this document involved more than 50 specialized experts in water quality, marine biology, terrestrial ecology, air and noise, transportation and other technical specialties, in addition to the engineering team. The draft EIS, which presented a thorough examination of probable project impacts and ways to mitigate them, assisted decision makers in selecting an alternative. The document was completed on a compressed schedule, requiring continuous coordination among all members of the consultant engineering, environmental and public outreach teams and county staff.

    The three-volume environmental document, with seven appendices, received more than 5,000 comments that were responded to in the final EIS, which was released in November 2003. The final EIS was subsequently challenged in 2004 by a community organization opposed to the Route 9 location. A hearing examiner later upheld the adequacy of the final EIS, but additional on-site investigation regarding the potential for seismic activity at the Brightwater site was required.

    Throughout the EIS process there was need for constant project adjustments to incorporate new information, address a regulatory requirement, or reflect some other consideration. Everyone had to be kept informed of each change and its rationale in order to maintain the credibility of the process. The EIS process provided a critical foundation for the daunting task of permitting the Brightwater system.

    Securing permits

    Permitting a project of this magnitude, requiring more than 100 approvals from a range of jurisdictions and regulatory agencies, is no small matter. All the permits required attention, but the biggest permitting challenge was the Army Corps of Engineers 404 permit under the federal Clean Water Act. While most of the construction permits could be broken down to focus on individual elements of the system, the corps needed to issue one permit to cover the entirety of the Brightwater system, including construction of the treatment plant, conveyance system and marine outfall. The permitting team knew that permit approvals from the corps would become the critical path for the project.

    Every site-planning decision by the county and its project team needed to consider the corps’ permitting requirements because schedule was of paramount importance in order to bring the treatment facility on line in time to provide adequate service capacity. The permitting group was concerned that the complexity and high profile of the project could lead to a protracted and contentious review process. Potential schedule issues were exacerbated by staffing limitations and competing project demands at the corps.

    Even under these conditions, the Brightwater team was able to secure a corps permit in less than 18 months, including all necessary interagency consultations. This feat was accomplished by maintaining open lines of communications and keeping focused on the big picture without being sidetracked by day-to-day problems. King County built upon the relationship it had established with the corps over time, working on other major regional projects. It was not easy and required several thousand person hours before the effort was complete. What started out looking like an overwhelming regulatory challenge ended up becoming a model for how to permit a regional scale, multi-jurisdictional, multi-faceted project.

    The core of this success was finding an acceptable balance — even if only grudgingly acknowledged at times — among engineering, environmental, community and financial considerations. Each of these taken alone faced monumental challenges in the Brightwater project. But all the considerations needed continuous, well-communicated adjustment to find the sweet spot where balance is achieved without unacceptable compromise to physical, monetary, natural or political perceptions. Finding that tiny spot and arranging the complexities around it is a great achievement.

    Molly Adolfson, vice president at ESA Adolfson, served as consultant manager for the Brightwater EIS. She has more than 25 years of experience evaluating and implementing wastewater facilities. ESA Adolfson also managed the system-wide permitting process for the consultant team.

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