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A day in the life of Kitsap County Health District workers

Richard Bazzell (left) and Newton Morgan of the Kitsap County Health District, collect and record water samples along the Oyster Bay shoreline. The samples were gathered to test for fecal coliform bacteria. - Photo by Jesse Beals
Richard Bazzell (left) and Newton Morgan of the Kitsap County Health District, collect and record water samples along the Oyster Bay shoreline. The samples were gathered to test for fecal coliform bacteria.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals

By PAUL BALCERAK

Staff writer

It’s a gray-skied day at NAD Park by Oyster Bay, but a quartet of health district workers from Kitsap and Jefferson counties don’t seem to mind. They get to spend the bulk of their afternoon in the great outdoors, hiking a three-mile stretch of the beach. The best part is, they get paid for it.

Kitsap County Health District employees Richard Bazzell and Newton Morgan and Jefferson County Public Health employees Alicia Hicklin and Mike Radford comprise the team. All they have to do in return for a day out of the office is find water runoffs that are draining into the bay and fill up test tubes with samples.

There is a catch, however.

“You’re standing in the second-most contaminated creek in the county,” Bazzell says to the crew at one point, subsequently dipping a test tube into Oyster Bay Creek.

Contaminated with what? Mostly fecal coliform bacteria. That’s what has Bazzell and company marching through potentially contaminated sludge, stopping occasionally to take water samples — by hand.

At least they have gloves.

Their labors are what the health district refers to as a Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) project. It’s part of the greater South Dyes Inlet Restoration Project, which is a cleanup effort to identify and fix fecal pollution sources in and around the shoreline from Ostrich Bay to Phinney Bay.

The PIC project crew keeps a pretty healthy sense of humor while they traipse through what could very well be raw sewage in a few cases. But they’re also serious about the work they do and the threat fecal contaminants present to everyday people.

“We’re trying to prevent public contact with the contaminants and sediments,” Morgan said. “Basically what it is, is little kids. Little kids and dogs, playing in the streams.”

What better reason to get down and dirty?

Shady past for Dyes

Pollution problems in Dyes Inlet go all the way back to the 1960s, when the Washington State Department of Health classified shellfish in the inlet as unsafe to eat. The reason? Fecal pollution.

This was, of course, in the days long before modern, streamlined sewer systems, but it wasn’t until 2003 that a few areas in the inlet were “conditionally approved” for shellfish harvesting. Several areas, like those around Oyster Bay, still have high levels of fecal pollutants.

Health District workers have a pretty good idea of what’s causing pollutants to show up in the water — faulty septic systems, increased runoff from urban development that sweeps animal waste into the inlet, etc. — but they don’t exactly know where these things are coming from; hence the PIC project.

Despite the fact that Dyes Inlet is still pretty dirty, the Dyes Inlet Project has been fairly successful. Hicklin and Radford chose to tag along with Bazzell and Morgan in the hope of taking mental notes to help develop a similar project in Jefferson County.

“Because Kitsap County has had their program going on for like 10 years now, they have a really good handle on what needs to be done,” Hicklin explained.

‘A lot of walking’

As the team starts walking the beach, keeping ever-vigilant eyes on runoff sites opposite the water, it becomes clear the job isn’t insanely complicated — at least not today.

The team works through the afternoon, during a low-tide, to make walking and water sampling easy. Because the work is dependent on where the tide is, some samplings have to be done at night.

“I personally haven’t (done a night sampling) but some of our people have,” Morgan said. “Some of your most modest tides are at night.”

Health district workers get multiple samplings each year, during dry weather summer months and wet weather winter months.

The process of a sampling is pretty basic.

Bazzell swoops a test tube down into a trickle of running water, labels it and spouts off some technobabble to Morgan.

“Uh, SD-4, Newton?” Bazzell asks.

“SD-4,” Morgan responds.

While Bazzell collects samples, Morgan records them, Hicklin takes a picture of the test site and Radford rattles off GPS coordinates. It’s a thorough profiling of each area intended to make life easier on another health district worker, should he or she need to relocate the site.

Note-taking relies mostly on the preferences of the note taker, though, and sometimes site locations just consist of pictures or written descriptions.

“It all kind of depends if you’re right brain/left brain, old school/new school,” Morgan said. “If all else fails (and you can’t find a previous site) you just call the last person who did it.”

On this day, all the sites are new and the team is making a first sweep of the area.

The work is repetitive, but necessary.

“It’s mostly just a lot of walking and writing stuff down,” Hicklin said.

On-site diplomacy

Occasionally, a PIC involves more than just a process of walk, stop, sample, repeat.

About halfway into the project, while taking samples, a homeowner comes trotting up to Bazzell, pointing toward a manhole cover on the beach.

“Sample right here, I suggest,” the homeowner says.

He goes on to explain that during high tides and floods, the cover, which is supposed to be sealed air-tight, overflows, dumping raw sewage into the bay.

“It’s not meant to be an overflow,” Bazzell says.

“Oh, but it is,” the homeowner assures him.

Before long, several other homeowners show up out of the woodwork and huddle around Bazzell. They’re curious of his work, but also cautious and somewhat skeptical. Health district workers aren’t always well-received and it sometimes takes a little explaining to calm people down and reassure them of the agency’s intentions.

In rare cases, property owners have become confrontational and aggressive, but district workers have a plan in place for that, too.

“Part of the job is being able to deal with people of all kinds,” Morgan said. “If we’re ever in danger, we’re authorized to back off.”

That tactic is rarely used anyway. Most of the trouble district workers run into isn’t from people.

“Our employees often have more trouble with dogs than with people,” Morgan said. “How we deal with dogs is, we give them dog biscuits.”

It’s one of the essential pieces of gear on a shoreline sampling trip, he said: “log book, sample containers, GPS and dog biscuits.”

Bazzell’s current conversation isn’t nearly so hostile, however, and it actually gives him an opportunity to explain some of the health district’s police powers. After all, their reason for taking water samples in the first place is to identify problem areas for pollution and the data isn’t much good if nothing can be done about it.

After a sample is taken, it’s sent to be lab-tested. If a sample comes back “hot” — that is, if it tests positive for the fecal coliform bacteria Bazzell and crew are looking for — another sample will be taken from the same site. If that sample comes back hot, the district will start an investigation of the property in question.

“You guys put dye in their toilet or something?” one of the homeowners asks of the investigation process.

“If we suspect something, that’s how it works,” Bazzell responds.

He dishes out a few business cards as he leaves and takes down the homeowners’ names and contact information and the day continues. Bazzell is just happy to have avoided any sort of tense situation.

“Luckily, those guys were nice,” he said. “Nobody dropped the F-bomb this time.”

Calling it a day

The crew has one last, long stretch of beach to test, but it’s pretty dry and most of the excitement of the day has been had. The team’s end of the job is more or less done and all that’s left is to pack up the gear and send the samples back to the lab.

One more site awaits them before they walk off on their final haul: a cordoned-off section of beach with an ominous “raw sewage” warning blaring on a few signs.

Apparently, a sewer main below the ground burst, Bazzell said, and there’s really no telling what’s on the ground, covering everyone’s shoes at this point.

“Oh, wow, that’s ... lovely,” Hicklin said, showing the only audible sign of disgust all day.

All in a day’s work.

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