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caption: EPA acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler at the construction site for a stormwater treatment plant near Seattle's Duwamish River.
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EPA acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler at the construction site for a stormwater treatment plant near Seattle's Duwamish River.
Credit: KUOW Photo / John Ryan

EPA head touts Duwamish cleanup project

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency came to Seattle for the first time since the Obama administration on Wednesday. 

With a piledriver making an intermittent, deafening rumble behind him, EPA acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler spoke to reporters at a sewage treatment plant being built in the Georgetown neighborhood.

The $275 million project has a million-gallon storage tank and intake pipes wide enough for an adult to stand up in.

"When this project is completed, it will collect and treat up to 70 million gallons of wastewater and stormwater per day that would have spilled into the Duwamish River and eventually drained into Puget Sound," Wheeler said.

A decade ago, Seattle was spewing 200 million gallons of raw sewage annually into waterways around the city. King County was discharging more than four times that amount.

The two governments agreed in 2013 to pay six-figure fines to the EPA and to clean up their acts.

The Georgetown plant is part of more than $850 million in investments aimed at keeping raw sewage out of waterways when sewer systems are overwhelmed by rain.

The EPA is helping finance the project with a $134.5 million loan. When the plant opens in 2022, it will reduce combined sewer overflows entering the Duwamish River by 95 percent, according to the EPA.

Other actions and proposals by EPA under the Trump administration are expected to be less beneficial for Washington waters.

Two years in a row, the Trump administration has proposed to eliminate funding for Puget Sound cleanup. Congress rejected those cuts both years.

The EPA is now considering a petition by pulp mills and other Washington businesses to weaken the state's water quality standards. 

That move could make it more dangerous to eat fish from places like the Duwamish.

"It is a very delicate issue, and we are taking a look at that, but we've made no final decision," Wheeler said Wednesday.

Wheeler took over the agency after Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned amid ethics scandals and federal investigations in July.

During his two-day visit to Washington state, Wheeler met with Boeing officials, tribal officials and the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative group led by a University of Washington undergraduate.

He also met with the Washington Farm Bureau, which supports the administration's efforts to reduce protections for wetlands and small water bodies.

The new treatment plant would remove solids and bacteria during big storms. It would not keep toxic chemicals like PCBs out of the Duwamish, the fish that swim there or the people that fish there.

A press release on Wheeler's visit reflected the environmental agency's pro-industry, anti-regulation approach: It called industry "partners," while other groups he met with were just "stakeholders."

"He met with regional and tribal stakeholders, EPA staff, and industry partners," the release states.

"The people of Washington are excited about President Trump’s efforts to improve environmental protections and secure better trade deals for America’s workers,” the release claims without offering supporting evidence.