SEATTLE -- Puget Sound is a northwest treasure; but it's in danger.
"Puget Sound is beautiful on the surface; underneath, it's sick,” said Michael Grayum, Director of Public Affairs for Puget Sound Partnership.
The number one cause of Puget Sound’s sickness—pollutants washed into the Sound when it rains.
Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency, spends millions of tax dollars every year spreading the message that it’s up to everyone to help restore and protect Puget Sound. Public service announcements urge everyone to think about what they put into storm drains.
“We want every city and individual, every home and every business, to strive to have only rain go down the drain,” Grayum said.
Seattle has been preaching the same message for over a decade: Urging motorists not to wash their cars in their driveways, asking homeowners to give up pesticides and to dump nothing into storm drains.
The Downtown Seattle Association sends out teams of “ambassadors” daily to collect trash and clean the streets throughout the 225 block Metropolitan Improvement District (MID) in Seattle’s urban core.
So, commuter Steve Suhy said he was stunned by what he saw almost daily walking to his bus in the heart of downtown Seattle. “These guys fill up these large cafeteria size trash bins of cleanser or something like that and just dump it right down this alley all the way through here,” Suhy said.
The alley runs behind the Plaza 600 building located at 600 Stewart Street.
Suhy said he often smells it before he sees it. “The smell is very heavy detergent smell,” he said, “I mean you would walk by it and it is strong enough that your eyes may tear up a little bit.”
Based on Suhy’s tip, the KING 5 Investigators decided to look into what goes on in that alley.
We saw nearly a half dozen large trash cans being cleaned with water and Pine-Sol and the foamy mess being dumped into the alley and running into a storm drain.
It happened repeatedly.
Who’s doing the dumping? Those Downtown Ambassadors paid to clean up the city.
We still weren’t sure if what we’d seen was wrong, so we took our findings to the experts -- the people who monitor stormwater for the city, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU).
SPU said it all depends on which drain the Pine-Sol flowed into. In this case, it’s a drain at the corner of Westlake and Virginia. SPU told us that particular drain goes to the sewage treatment plant, not directly into Puget Sound, so allowing cleanser to flow into that drain isn’t a big deal.
That explanation surprised Michael Grayum of the Puget Sound Partnership because, he said, it flies in the face of the message his agency has been spreading for years.
"We want only rain to go down the drain throughout the whole region," Grayum said. “We have many partners (including Seattle) and we believe they are unified behind that message.”
WATCH: The twists and turns of the stormwater drain story
There were more surprises. When we showed our video to Kate Joncas, the President of the Downtown Seattle Association, she told us that Seattle Public Utilities knows exactly how the cleaning is being handled.
“We have been cleaning the streets for about eight years and in the very beginning we worked out all the protocols with SPU because we want to be sure. We use some chemicals and we want it to be safe for our staff and safe for the environment,” Joncas said.
We also showed the video to Andy Ryan, Media Relations Coordinator for Seattle Public Utilities. Ryan said that SPU won’t stop the Downtown Ambassadors from using the Pine-Sol or dumping the soapy water into the storm drain.
“It’s going to a treatment facility,” Ryan said. “It’s a different drain, it’s treated differently. It’s not going into water that can hurt fish.”
Ryan said the ambassadors have to use Pine-Sol to clean the garbage cans because they pick up everything from trash to human waste when they clean the streets.
Ryan agrees the video looks bad. “In the vast majority of cases, if people saw that happening, it wouldn’t be okay. It would not only be bad for the environment, it would be illegal,” Ryan said.
Ryan said it’s important that the public knows what they’re seeing is not causing pollution so he suggested one change. “They (Downtown Ambassadors) are going to be putting signs up when they’re doing the washing that says, ‘This water is going to a salmon-friendly facility.'”
The ambassadors have stopped cleaning the trash cans outside until they get the signs explaining that the procedure is environmentally safe.
Ryan said the vast majority of drains in Seattle flow into Puget Sound, so his message to the public remains the same: “We want people to continue to understand that only rain should go down the drain.”
Ryan said it’s impossible to tell by looking at a drain whether it flows into Puget Sound or a sewage treatment facility.