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These bugs could help Seattle's poop spill. But they're hibernating

A sculpture of the microorganisms that help treat wastwater at the West Point Treatment Plant at Seattle's Discovery Park.
Courtesy of Ellen Sollod
A sculpture of the microorganisms that help treat wastwater at the West Point Treatment Plant at Seattle's Discovery Park.

Workers continue their efforts to get the West Point Treatment Plant in Seattle up and running.

The plant was crippled by a flood last month and it continues to spew solid waste into the Puget Sound every day.

And restoring the plant's full treatment capacity relies on its tiniest workers – bugs: microorganisms that kill harmful bacteria and help in the treatment process. But there's a problem: These tiny little bugs are hibernating.

"The microorganisms that we use in the secondary process are very important to breaking down the solid organic material that's in waste water. And they are a huge part of our ability to meet our environmental permits," said Annie Kolb-Nelson, spokeswoman for King County Wastewater Treatment.

Here’s how waste treatment works:

Sewage and storm water come into the plant.

First, sediment, trash and grit settle and are removed.

The wastewater moves to tanks where solid waste sinks to the bottom and greases and fats rise to the surface. The solids are skimmed from the bottom and the top, and the liquid moves to a secondary treatment where it’s cleaned and disinfected.

The solids go to digester tanks where the bugs live. The bugs get to work reducing the waste. It works kind of like a human gut. And what’s leftover once the bugs are done is a nutrient-rich product that is trucked from the plant and used as fertilizer.

But here's the problem: The bugs need heat and food to survive. And the flood on Feb. 9 knocked out the boilers that heat the plant.

"We weren't able to heat our digesters where a large quantity of our bugs live and break down the solid material," Kolb-Nelson said. "So they've been dormant. They've been essentially in hibernation."

Kolb-Nelson said crews have been working hard to restore heat and wake up the bugs. But until that's done, there's nowhere for solid waste to go.

Currently it's being disinfected and released into the sound. Kolb-Nelson said this isn't causing a public health hazard but it does violate their permits.

They've got teams working with the bugs and they hope to find out this week if they're waking up properly and in a healthy state.

Kolb-Nelson said they should have the plant functioning normally again by April 30.

Year started with KUOW: 2015