Runoff kiboshes car washes
June 9, 2008 · Updated 2:56 PM
"Community car washes may leave sparkling automobiles, but when it comes to Puget Sound, their impact can be decidedly dirty.So say Bainbridge Island public works officials, who, citing environmental violations, this week issued a ban on future car washes at the Village Chevron station at 305 and High School Road.The action was met with chagrin by representatives of local youth sports teams and community groups, who have held sudsy fund-raisers at the site for over 10 years.Thousands and thousands of dollars were raised down there, said Mary Clare Kersten of the Bainbridge Roller Hockey League. (Car washes are) a positive interaction for the kids with the rest of the community.But the interaction of soapy runoff with the environment has been far from healthy, said Melva Hill, the city's senior engineering technician.Normally, surface water draining off the gas station parking lot does not cause major environmental harm, she said, because it passes through a separator device that removes most oil and grease before sending the runoff out to the sound.However, Hill said, When you allow that soapy water (from car washes) to go through the separator, it dislodges the oil and the grease and makes that separator ineffective.As a result, water carries pollutants into the Winslow stormwater system. Runoff goes through a drainage pipe beneath Ericksen Avenue, then empties into a wet pond before draining through a swale and flowing into the ravine along Highway 305.Normally, the wet pond and swale further filter the stormwater, because chemicals bind to grasses and aquatic plants, and are slowly broken down with the aid of microbiotic organisms.But when a soapy flow passes through these systems, it again dislodges oils and grease from plants, and carries such pollutants out to Eagle Harbor.It's like washing your clothes, said city public works employee Terry Ash. (...When) you get soap with oil, it releases it.Crackdown starts with federal regsCommunity car washes at the Chevron have been technically illegal since early last year, when the city incorporated provisions in the Washington State Department of Ecology stormwater management manual as part of the Bainbridge Island Municipal Code.Yet Chevron manager James Coker said city employees have never approached him about the violations. This is the first time the issue has come up, he said, asking, Why not sooner?Hill answers that the Chevron crackdown is part of an ongoing effort to tighten up stormwater regulation enforcement policy to address the National Marine Fisheries Service's 4(d) rules, under which local governments are mandated to protect chinook salmon from environmental harm.With the 4(d) rules, everybody is up in arms about the near-shore habitat and what is happening with the impact we are making to our surface water, she said, When (the Department of Ecology) started asking questions about why we were not dealing with the regulations on car washes, basically they started leaning on us about what we were doing and how to fix it.Preventing fuel tainted runoff is of obvious importance to salmon protection, said environmental consultant Wayne Daley, because (petrochemicals) enter (salmon's) blood stream and destroy their ability to function normally.It's pretty simple, he said, It just kills them.Other local governments seem to have taken that message to heart, Hill observed. Basically, other cities are already. . .enforcing the current rules and regulations, she said. Well, we're not.But now, that is changing, as Hill - hired four years ago to enforce stormwater laws - catches up with a long backlog of violations.Healthy Salmon, Dirty Cars?Will the oft-repeated spectacle of wet young entrepreneurs waving cardboard signs along 305 and diligently scrubbing away on automobiles - and even dirty dogs - now become a relic of simpler times?Hopefully not, city officials say.We're not at all interested in stopping all car washes, said assistant city engineer Ross Hathaway, but (the Chevron ban) is just so elementary to protect the environment.Other area gas stations continue to host wash-a-thons, but unlike the Bainbridge Chevron, their drains have been retrofitted with special sump pumps that suck out soapy water and divert it into the sewer system, where it flows to a treatment plant.These pumps are not inordinately expensive to build or operate, but apparently would not fit into the basins below the Chevron stormwater drains.That's because the risers connecting underground basins to the surface of the pavement were installed at an an irregular angle, making the space underneath the drains too narrow to insert the sump pump apparatus.Retrofitting the Chevron would require tearing up the parking lot, which would probably be prohibitively expensive, said Coker, who will be sad to see the car washes go.It's enjoyable seeing the community at work here around me, he said. It will be a loss personally, but I don't think it will be a loss financially. We really didn't do it for the money, said Coker, whose station has donated water, hoses, and sometimes even soap for the car washes.The resources Chevron provided helped boost morale for local teenagers, said hockey mom Kersten, citing her son as an example. That was a great thing for him in terms of his feeling of self-worth and what he had done for the league, she said. All of them need that.Now it's unclear where the car washes could relocate, but city employees said Arco could probably be outfitted with a sump pump, adding that station owners have in the past expressed a desire for community involvement.If Arco volunteered, or another suitable location was found, Hill predicted the car washes could resume again with minimal effort. Representatives of Arco could not be reached for comment Friday.We're not talking about a lot of things that need to happen in order to get this thing to be resolved, Kersten said.Hill said she hopes that an engineer will offer to help build the necessary sump pump, and then somebody from the community will volunteer to operate the device during future wash events.Keeping bands of soapy entrepreneurs scrubbing would not only benefit local sports teams and nonprofits, Hathaway said.In my view (the wash-a-thons) are an environmental plus, he said, because if you put it all in one place and then capture (the runoff), that is much better than putting it all over the island."