• King County employee closes gate, allows 230,000 gallons of untreated sewage into people's yards

    By: Linzi Sheldon

    Updated:
    • People living at more than a dozen properties on Lake Ballinger in Edmonds had untreated sewage in their yards, covering items
    • Records show the employee at fault was not assigned to be working at the Lake Ballinger pump station that day
    • Records also show he could have caused an explosion at another pump station less than a month before this incident

     

    Internal emails reveal a King County employee, already under disciplinary review for creating an “unsafe work environment” less than a month earlier, caused more than 230,000 gallons of untreated sewage to spew into people’s backyards along Lake Ballinger in Edmonds.

    Records show he closed a gate he had no training or authorization to operate.

    “I was like, 'Ohhh! My worst nightmare has occurred,'” Julie Rose said.

    Her video from March 14 shows raw sewage pouring out of the sewer hole in the Roses’ backyard, soaking the sandbox where her kids had been playing that day and the kids’ toys. Fourteen properties, including the Roses’, were affected by the sewage spill.

    “They came running in and were like, ‘Mom! There’s water going everywhere!’” she said. 

    There was so much pressure, the grout around the base of a maintenance hole had simply come off.

    “I am thinking any minute, I’m going to get sewer -- spewing at the same rate and magnitude that's coming out of this in my house,” Rose said.

    “Out of your toilets,” reporter Linzi Sheldon said.

    “Right!” said Rose.

    A backflow preventer saved that from happening. Click here to read more. 

    But Julie Rose wasn't the only one in panic mode. Down the street, Mitchell Lewis was already calling the water company.

    “It could’ve probably filled up a couple of swimming pools in about a half an hour,” he said.
    An employee had closed the gate at the Lake Ballinger pump station and sewage was backing up and then pouring out by the second.

    “Did it smell?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked Lewis.

    “It did, it did,” he said. “After it kind of stopped running… oh yeah, it started to kind of smell. It was like, ‘Oh, that is sewage!”

    Lewis said the water reached about a foot deep in the middle of his yard.

    The cost to fix the damage at all 14 properties affected? About $300,000.

    “What do you have to say to these residents who had to deal with this overflow in their backyards?” KIRO 7's Linzi Sheldon asked Christie True, director of King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

    “We're very sorry that this happened,” she said.

    Emails reveal the employee at fault was "not assigned or authorized to work" at the pump station at all that day. 

    And, KIRO 7 found out, less than a month before this overflow, this employee created a "serious and unsafe work environment" at another King County location, where he "could have caused an explosion" by improperly operating a grinder.

    “Why was he even on the job to be able to go to Lake Ballinger?” Sheldon asked True.

    “Well, I would just say, in general, with our employees, when there's a performance problem, we work with that employee to address any performance problem, provide more training if necessary,” True said.

    King County later said that the employee's previous mistake was being reviewed in a disciplinary process that was underway when the mistake happened.

    True said the employee has since been fired.

    “I’d like to say, actually, human errors related to overflows is very rare in our system,” True said.

    KIRO 7 reviewed King County's 11 sewer overflows since its massive spill at the West Point treatment plant in February of 2017.

    Nearly all were some kind of mechanical failure, from valves to pumps to power outages with no stand-by generator on site. It’s the result, True said, of aging equipment and infrastructure that King County is spending $450 million over six years to upgrade.

    The largest spill was a result of faulty wiring and a lack of battery back-up at the Sweyolocken pump station in February. About 610,000 gallons of sewage spilled into Lake Washington.

    “So that’s an example where we learn from what may have happened at one pump station and then we want to make sure that we don’t have a similar situation in another pump station,” True said.

    As for Lake Ballinger, neighbors said it took about a month for King County to replace lawns, sand, soil, and toys and play sets.

    “They wanted to make sure that they made everything really safe for the kids,” Julie Rose said.
    She’s placed new items farther away from that sewer hole, just in case.

    “I'm just so thankful that they put in all of the effort and energy that they could in making it right,” she said.

    Residents asked KIRO 7 why there was no alarm when that gate was closed and Sheldon asked King County about it. 

    They told her the gate control doesn't have an alarm and they're not installing one, because only authorized operators are supposed to use it.

    King County also said they're continually evaluating how to "minimize risks through training and capital investments" -- though they did not say how.


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