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Puget Sound waterfront residents living near waste-water outfalls in Federal Way and West Seattle are fed up with stincky summer beaches.

In recent decades, waterfront property owners and beach visitors along the shores of Puget Sound have experienced an increasingly noxious smell during the hot summer months of July and August. The stench has caused some beach-front residents to drift away from their usual summer plans in lieu of cleaner shores somewhere else. So much so that county and city officials are concerned about an eventual negative effect on property values in the highest taxed neighborhoods between Seattle and Tacoma. But the foul whiff in the air is a sign of troubles down deep according to government environmental scientists.

Ulva Sea Lettuce

The smell is hydrogen sulfide which occurs when organic matter decomposes. "We have lots of it around here when the weather gets hot and it's becoming a real problem" according to residents of Fauntleroy Cove and Dumas Bay. Some scientists believe that the immense summer algae blooms on the sound are the leading cause of the deadly oxygen depletion that has been killing off bottom fish. The explosive growth of Ulva seaweed, otherwise known as 'sea lettuce' is threatening to adversely effect species of birds, plants and fish according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. Hydrogen sulfide gas is also considered to be unhealthy for humans as it can cause eye, lung and throat irritation.

It's a complex subject. Vegetation is often assumed to be a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Seaweed grows readily where water is full of nutrients and clear enough for sunlight to penetrate its depths. Like most other plant life, Ulva seaweed converts sunlight to energy through photosynthesis and converts CO2 to oxygen in the process. So on the surface, one would think that the abundance of seaweed was a good thing for the environment since it helps create oxygen to combat the effects of global warming, right? Well, not really. Gluttony in nature leads to as much ill health effects as it does our own bodies. When light is not present, seaweed consumes oxygen and gives off CO2. This happens when high concentrations of seaweed occur and block light from reaching the depths. Under normal conditions, seaweed only consumes oxygen during the hours of darkness. While some marine species thrive on abundant food and shade in seaweed patches, others are smothered by its presence. Light-starved seaweed also becomes unhealthy and infected with bacteria that consume oxygen and expel CO2.

Seaweed is actually considered a type of macro-algae rather than a plant. In other words, the cells are all the same. Algae type vegetation has no root system that delivers nutrients from the soil like land-based plants. Seaweed just absorbs nutrients directly into its leaves from the surrounding water. When large amounts of nutrients are available, and the sun and sea temperatures are right, it goes into hyper-growth. When seaweed grows too quickly, it becomes buoyant with oxygen and overloads its tether--breaking away from its delicate moorings to rocks and pebbles on the seafloor. Once adrift, seaweed becomes susceptible to damage from excessive sun, currents and infection from a host of micro-organisms thus beginning the cycle of rot and decay. Rotting matter consumes immense amounts of oxygen, ultimately making the seawater uninhabitable by native marine life in areas where there is slow circulation such as South Puget Sound and Hood Canal. When wind and tides push seaweed ashore, it smothers the beaches in a blanket of gaseous fumes and kills oxygen-breathing animals that live in the tidal zones--adding even more decaying biomass to the equation.

The excess nutrients are emanating from human activity according to the University of Washington who has been tracking the problem for several years. Nitrates and phosphates in treated sewage water, failing septic systems, lawn & garden fertilizer, agricultural runoff and acid-rain are all to blame according to their studies. With the dramatic population growth in the Puget Sound region over the last several decades, a runaway train scenario is developing where some believe there is little (if anything) that can be done to drastically reduce the nutrient inputs in the near future.


Macro algae growth, decay and oxygen depletion diagram1.) Nutrient-rich inputs from sewer treatment plants and storm runoff.

2.) Sea lettuce grows rapidly in shallow waters near food sources.

3.) Hyper-growth and current action shear seaweed from its attachments to become free-floating in the water column.

4.) When seaweed starts to decay, it develops gas bubbles and floats to the surface.

5.) Wind and waves drive some seaweed ashore.

6.) After a few days at sea, the free-floating seaweed rots and sinks to the bottom.

7.) Bacteria in the decaying seaweed consumes immense amounts of oxygen from the surrounding water.

On February 6th 2008, a bill passed the Washington State Senate to allow cleanup of excess seaweed from Puget Sound beaches. The bill is specifically meant to address areas where human-induced nutrient inputs have caused excessive seaweed growth. The new law will allow any county to establish a beach management district and create plans for removal and disposal of seaweed under the guidelines of appropriate state agencies. Top of the list are sites in Fauntleroy Cove (West Seattle), and Dumas Bay (Federal Way).

While the State's long term goals are to reduce artificial nutrient loading in Puget Sound, costly remediation is an immediate solution to getting rid of the stink. However, there's still is a question as to what to do with all the muck once it's picked up. Some 92 tons of beached seaweed was removed from Fauntleroy Cove during a remediation effort in the summer of 1990 according to Federal Way's D-30th District Senator Tracey Eide. "The problem in Dumas Bay is even greater" she declares.

Ironically, like in the famed TV show Beverly Hillbillies, scientist James Stephens of Blue Marble Energy Corporation has found a way to make proverbial lemonade from lemons. In all the stink lies the same kind of energy that is sucked out of the sands of Iraq and Saudi Arabia (and all the other fossil fuel deposits around the world). Blue Marble Energy, a Seattle-based alternative energy startup, is focused on creating biofuels and bioenergy from the stuff that grows in the sea. They cite that water-based vegetation contains a much higher percentage of energy making ingredients than land based plants such as corn, switchgrass and sugarcane (now used widely in ethanol and biodiesel production). The simple reason is that water born plant life has much less cellulose, which is the organic material that makes plants stand up from the ground. Most underwater vegetation floats in the suspension of the water around it.

Blue Marble Energy's President Kelly Ogilvie is a proponent of green sustainable energy. His company envisions building a bio-refinery that processes rouge algae to create carbon-neutral electricity and fuel for the Northwest. "It's not likely that the State of Washington can drastically reduce the nutrient inputs in time to avoid an ecological disaster on Puget Sound. We are already seeing substantial evidence of oxygen depletion in the dead zones in Hood Canal and South Puget Sound where water is less subject to circulation" according to Ogilvie.

Algae Based Negative Carbon Bio-Energy System Diagram
Proposed negative-carbon alternative energy system based on macro-algae (seaweed).

The company is in the research & development stages now with plans to install test sites (algae accumulation systems) near sewer treatment plant outfalls as well as to investigate the deployment of open sea recovery systems that resemble commercial fishing operations. Washington State Department of Ecology and the Department of Fish and Wildlife are working the company to collect and study the ecological issues with utilizing noxious algae for energy. There is potentially thousands of tons of excess seaweed that could be removed to make a healthier ecosystem according to Ogilvie.

To achieve a carbon-neutral situation, natural "seaweed gas" will be used to power electrical generators. The CO2 emissions from these generators will be used to grow additional cultivated algae for the refinery. CO2 gas is considered the leading cause of global warming as its insulating properties allow it to trap heat (like what happens in a greenhouse), which increases atmospheric temperatures. Oxygen on the other-hand, helps to dissipate heat. Environmentally-conscious organizations track their overall carbon contribution. Carbon neutrality basically means that CO2 emissions are on par with oxygen.

Nutrient rich fertilizer is a natural byproduct of the refinery process after the oils and sugars are extracted. This algae-based fertilizer will be used to replenish farm land. Some nutritionists believe seaweed mulch is a healthy alternative to the animal and human waste fertilizers used today. Another side benefit of converting seaweed to fuel is that macro-algae cells in seaweed trap pollutants as the multiply and grow, enabling the removal of heavy metals and toxins from the waters of Puget Sound. Much of which can be extracted and nullified during the refinery process.

Some argue that removing seaweed form the natural environment will reduce the organisms that feed on it. While this is true, the imbalance of nutrients that has caused the overgrowth of certain species has created a detrimental situation for many other native species which had evolved to adapt to the Puget Sound region over the last millenniums since the ice age. While the cleanup of waterfront beaches will be a relief to beach-front residents and visitors alike, the real problems (and solutions) lie in the depths beyond the shore.

For more information about Washington State Legislation see Senate Bill SB 6508 - 2007-08.For more information about Blue Marble Energy, visit