Flooded wastewater plant relying on sewage-eating bugs

SEATTLE — Managers at a flooded wastewater-treatment plant in Seattle that is dumping raw sewage into Puget Sound are counting on bugs to get the plant back up and running normally.

Millions of gallons of raw sewage and stormwater have flowed into Puget Sound since high tides and heavy rains overwhelmed the facility last month. Electrical and equipment failures have been blamed for the spill and negative effects on microorganisms, The Seattle Times reported Sunday.

The bugs, which are at the center of the plant's recovery plan, help reduce the amount of solids in the treatment process, kill harmful bacteria and produce methane that heats the plant.

But the bugs have had little food or heat since the flooding damaged boilers and took out equipment. Plant managers are now working with a team of consultants to revive the bugs before they die.

"It's kind of uncharted territory for us," said Eugene Sugita, process control supervisor at the West Point Treatment plant. "We are hoping (the bug activity) comes back."

The soonest the plant will return to normal operations is April 30, King County wastewater managers said. The repairs have been estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars.

Damage to pumps, motors, electrical panels and more has left the plant only able to screen out trash and limited its ability to settle incoming flow. The discharge that gets released into Puget Sound is required to be 85 percent clean under the state permit, but right now it is only about 30 percent clean.

Robert Waddle, operations manager for the county Department of Natural Resources and Parks' Wastewater Treatment Division, said he has not yet seen any indication that the bugs in the plant's five sewage-filled concrete towers have died.

He said he hopes daily light feedings and air pumped in the tanks will keep them alive.

"They are resilient," Waddle said.