Friday, December 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hospital waste ends up in lake

Seattle Times staff reporter

In mid-October, a Seattle city consultant spotted cloudy water, syringes, tampon applicators and toilet paper flowing from the pipe that is supposed to carry rainwater into south Lake Union.

A combination of peering down manholes and testing for bacteria in the water eventually led to a culprit: Swedish Medical Center's flagship hospital on First Hill, Seattle officials said. A sewer line apparently has been dumping raw sewage into the stormwater system and Lake Union.

Tuesday, Seattle Public Utilities cited Swedish for unauthorized dumping of sewage and ordered the hospital to take immediate steps to stop the flow.

Thursday, after an inquiry by The Seattle Times, the agency posted a sign near the shore of south Lake Union warning people that the water might be contaminated. It began alerting nearby businesses, and it issued a statement saying public health isn't threatened.

But the utility also acknowledged that city workers first documented the problem seven years ago, when they videotaped soap and toilet paper pouring through the pipe from Swedish.

"I think we missed it," said Sally Marquis, who manages the utility's stormwater-system division. "Somebody saw the problem in 1998 and apparently took pictures, and then there was some time that passed, and we don't know why things were passed up."

Dorothy Teeter, interim director and health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said in the city's news release that health risk is low because people don't usually swim in Lake Union.

Swedish is working on a temporary fix that could start rerouting the waste as soon as today, and moving toward a more permanent solution, said Cal Knight, chief operating officer of Swedish Medical Center's First Hill Campus.

"We at Swedish would never knowingly discharge waste," he said. "We are taking this very seriously and moving as expeditiously as possible."

Seattle Public Utilities spokesman Andy Ryan said the city hadn't warned the public earlier because the pipe is in a hard-to-reach spot away from any public beach.

The discovery may solve a mystery about cloudy water, toilet paper and other debris showing up in that part of the lake, Marquis said. The city has gotten several complaints about that over the years, but it never traced it to this particular stormwater pipe, she said.

As for the 1998 video, it's possible it was made before the city re-engineered the pipes in that part of town to separate stormwater from sewage, though Ryan said he didn't know when that was done.

It's not clear whether all the various waste, including the syringes, came from Swedish. Knight said he considered it "very unlikely" that all of it came from the hospital.

Ellen Stewart, the utilities inspector who peered down more than 30 manholes to track the sewage back to its source, said some of the trash may have washed into the stormwater system elsewhere.

But tests have clearly shown sewage contamination coming from the pipe at Swedish, she said.

The hospital could be ordered to pay the cost of the investigation to find the sewage source, Ryan said.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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