Better procedures needed in wake of sewage spill

It's hard to decide what's more disturbing about the recent sewage spill into the Yakima River -- that it happened or how it was handled.

A power failure at the Mabton sewage treatment plant April 16 sent 370,000 gallons untreated domestic sewage into the Yakima River.

Apparently, a computer system failed to detect the power loss, and the problem went undiscovered from Friday until Monday, according to accounts by the Yakima Herald-Republic and Tri-City Herald.

We're not engineers, but a power outage shouldn't result in massive sewage spills. Sooner or later, the electricity is going down. When the inevitable occurs, there ought to be a fail-safe system to handle it.

The particular glitch that caused the spill obviously needs to be fixed, but procedures also need to be in place to make it impossible for any future spill to go undetected for days.

That may mean more frequent physical inspections, new equipment, some combination of the two or something else altogether.

Regardless of the changes made, the public needs to know what's being done to prevent a recurrence. That means providing details, not simply assurances.

As Gordon Kelly, environmental health director of the Yakima Health District, pointed out to reporters, exposure to untreated sewage can infect people with E. coli, parasites, bacteria and viruses that cause nausea, diarrhea and other stomach problems.

In some cases, exposure can even cause a fatal illness.

The spill was bad, but so was the state Department of Ecology's delay in alerting local and state health agencies.

According to state officials, the river's current quickly flushed away any potential health risk from the sewage. By the time the spill was discovered, the river's flow had already diluted it to harmless levels. Environmental harm was also negligible.

According to state environmental and wildlife officials, there were no reports of illnesses or fish and wildlife kills in the wake of the spill.

Maybe, but no doubt anglers and boaters on the Yakima over the weekend would have wanted to know as soon as possible that they might have been exposed to more concentrated sewage.

To their credit, Ecology officials aren't defending their failure to report the spill to health officials immediately.

"Under the circumstances, we probably should have," said Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokeswoman for the Department of Ecology's Yakima office.

Health officials in communities along the river agree. So would recreational river users, we're guessing.

The state isn't required to notify the public of accidents like the Mabton spill, but Ecology is thinking about making it the department's policy for future occurrences.

Good idea.