School lets a learning opportunity go to waste

March 27, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

Brightwater plant gleams, but smell gets attention of Clark Elementary science students

Clark Elementary School students react to the smells in one of the large treatment rooms during a tour of the Brightwater wastewater treatment plant in Woodinville March 22. By Tom Corrigan

Tour guide and instructor Lansia Gipson probably wisely wanted her young audience to get the giggles and sputters out of their systems.

After visiting their classroom, Gipson led about 20 or so Clark Elementary School fourth- and fifth-graders on a March 22 tour of the Brightwater sewage treatment plant in Woodinville. She wasn’t shy regarding what the plant removes from waste water gathered from northern King and southern Snohomish counties.

“We’re going to say the word ‘poop’ a lot today,” Gipson told the students prior to the tour, inviting them to look at their neighbors and say “poop.”

After some giggling, the students settled down surprisingly quickly.

Starting operations in September 2011, Brightwater doesn’t treat water from Issaquah. But the visit fit right in with Clark science and technology teacher Tom Fields’ current lesson plan about water ecology and conservation, he said.

Brightwater has the capacity to treat about 36 million gallons of waste water per day, according to its King County website. That’s about 12 swimming pools worth of water, according to Gipson. Many parts of the plant look like the setting for some science fiction movie, with large shiny piping and plenty of high-tech controls. Very few workers can be seen because Brightwater is heavily automated.

Water entering the plant goes through several stages of cleaning. The first removes what Gipson called trash, larger items caught by a strainer or sieve. Brightwater ships two dump-truck loads of the stuff to Oregon every week. Most of the items shouldn’t even be in the system, according to Gipson.

Trash caught by the sieve includes diapers, baby wipes and similar items. Gipson told students that only the “Four Ps” should be placed in toilets: pee, poop, puke and toilet paper. It was the trash collection area that one student said smelled like Los Angeles.

After trash is removed, water next goes through a primary treatment phase. Gravity provides most of the cleaning power. Heavy pollutants sink to the bottom; lighter items head to the top to be skimmed away. Gravity has to be given a chance to work, so waste water sits for a time in large pools. Gipson warned students, teachers and chaperones the smell in the trash room was nothing compared to the primary treatment area. A description of the reek? The best might be an overfilled port-a-potty on a hot day.

“I don’t know how I got out alive,” said Jackson Rubin, 11.

“It smelled pretty bad,” added Colson Wang, 9. “I had to cover my nose a few times.”

He demonstrated how he did so with his arm. Gipson had warned students and others not to touch their faces while passing through the treatment area. Notably, there was no sign of the smell outside of the treatment facility.

In traditional sewage plants, treatment basically stopped after gravity did its work. There is an added step at Brightwater, one officials said makes the plant state-of-the-art. The technical name is membrane bio-reactor technology. There are several steps to the system, one of which acts sort of like a straw with holes, according to Gipson. Water can it make through the straw; contaminants can’t. Water is then treated with a disinfectant in the last stage of treatment before being returned to local waterways.

“It’s really impressive,” Jackson said of the plant, adding he was surprised by the amount of pollutants that get into the water.

Fields said there is no comparison between talking about water treatment in the classroom and actually seeing a treatment plant.

“I’m sure there’s going to be stories they share with other kids,” Fields said of his students.

All in all, the Brightwater facility covers 114 acres alongside state Route 9. Some 40 acres is untouched woodland, which makes the plant a unique teaching opportunity, according to Thatcher Heldring, marketing director for Islandwood, an environmental school based on Bainbridge Island. In partnership with King County, Islandwood supplies instructors such as Gipson at Brightwater and in classrooms in the area. Fields’ Clark Elementary class is part of the Issaquah School District’s science and technology magnet program. Kids earn a spot in the class based on a lottery.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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