King County Council targets “forever chemicals” in wastewater

The motion would initiate a study on how to mitigate the Puget Sound’s exposure to the toxic runoff.

West Point Treatment Plant in Seattle. Photo courtesy of King County

Following a December 2022 report that found an increasing number of “forever chemicals” in King County’s wastewater being discharged into Puget Sound, King County Councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Claudia Balducci introduced legislation aiming to reduce the runoff of those chemicals now shown to impact the region’s entire marine food chain, including chinook salmon, the main prey of endangered southern resident orcas.

“Southern resident orcas are crucial inhabitants of our region, holding fundamental value not only in upholding the marine ecosystem, but also to the culture of many Indigenous Peoples, as reflected in history, art, and storytelling,” Kohl-Welles said. “I believe it is incumbent on us to do all possible to protect these iconic, intelligent creatures from the dangers of habitat loss, pollution, and a diminishing food source, and that this work begins with the careful management of dangerous chemicals in their home.”

Often called “forever chemicals,” PCBs and PFAS are toxins that do not easily break down in the environment, in animals or in humans, and have been shown to impair immune function and cause cancer and other serious diseases in humans, as well as harm aquatic life, birds, and mammals.

According to the county, wastewater treatment facilities are not historically designed to capture these chemicals, so many of them pass through facilities and are discharged into Puget Sound and wind up accumulating in marine organisms and ecosystems.

“To preserve the health of people, animals, and the environment, it is imperative that we get and keep PFAS chemicals out of our waterways. The fairest and most effective way to do that is through source control – keeping these harmful ‘forever chemicals’ out of our waters in the first place,” Balducci said. “With this motion, we take the next step to identify and advance all the ways we can keep these chemicals from harming our habitats, wildlife, and residents. The response to this motion will build on our knowledge of sources and help us identify the most effective solutions, which will have long-lasting positive impacts for our region.”

The motion requests King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division to “to identify, prioritize, reduce, and control sources, exposures, and risk” from these forever chemicals including sampling from potential major sources, new regulations or limits on PCBs and PFAS, voluntary action plans, and coordination with agencies and partners.

The legislation as currently written does not direct specific actions to reduce the runoff of these toxic chemicals, however it would initiate studies and efforts among the county’s relevant agencies.

The motion will receive a dual referral to the Committee of the Whole and the Regional Water Quality Committee for a hearing in the coming weeks.

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