Leaking wastewater treatment dome likely source of foul odor

Emissions from Veolia's wastewater treatment plant has spiked several times this past month. (Photo by Robert Rogers)

Emissions from Veolia's wastewater treatment plant has spiked several times this past month. (Photo by Robert Rogers)

A wastewater treatment plant just blocks from homes and a school is the likely source of elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide in the community, plant officials said Thursday.

The disclosure—and an explanation of safety measures and repair plans—came during a morning tour of the Veolia Water treatment facility that company officials provided for Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and members of the community and press.

The systems manager at the site, which sits at 601 Canal Blvd., stressed that the company has responded quickly to address what are believed to be small leaks in a massive wastewater treatment dome.

“There have been many accusations that we didn’t do our job,” said Veolia’s Mark Grushayev. “And I’m here to defend that.”

But the suspected dome, called a “digester,” is not being taken offline, Grushayev said. Instead, operations will be reduced and emissions monitored to ensure hydrogen sulfide doesn’t exceed safe levels until repairs can be made.

Charles Smith, a community representative on the tour and a state-licensed wastewater plant operator, questioned the company’s response.

“It concerns me that it takes community complaints for them to check their system,” Smith said. “They are dealing with potentially explosive gases.”

Systems manager giving presentation

Systems manager Mark Grushayev explains the likely source of foul odor.

The meeting and brief tour of the site were prompted by a surge in resident complaints that bubbled over at a recent council meeting. Chad Davisson, the city’s wastewater manager and a liaison between the city and the company, accompanied the mayor and a member of her staff.

Residents’ complaints about an overwhelming smell deluged Veolia beginning earlier this month.

Assessments of damage and emissions were set in motion immediately, with the help of Bay Area Air Quality Management District officials and a private consultant, Grushayev said.

On Oct. 5, management district officials recorded their highest reading of hydrogen sulfide during this investigation, getting a reading of 53 parts per billion at the Point Richmond Fire Station.

This is within acceptable levels.

Management District Air Quality regulations set the highest permissible level of the invisible gas at 60 parts per billion, according to Michael Polkabla, an independent consultant hired by the wastewater company to assess the leak. Polkabla said he used high-tech gas detection equipment to test for levels at Washington Elementary School, which is about one-third of a mile from the cylinder-shaped waste processing dome.

“We got all zeros at the school,” Polkabla said.

Hydrogen sulfide is a known respiratory irritant that can cause respiratory problems, headaches and nausea.

The odors triggered a strong reaction toward the company, which culminated Saturday, Oct. 9. The plant has operated since 1953 at the site, which sits between the shores of the city’s canal and Point Richmond.

“We’ve never had such an influx of emails,” Grushayev said.

It is unclear how many Point Richmond residents reported illnesses, but no one disputes that residents reported multiple reports of nausea, headaches, respiratory irritation and other symptoms in recent weeks.

“We know that people have felt sick and nauseated,” Davisson said. “That is real.”

Davisson also suggested that while leaks in the seven-year-old, 100-foot diameter dome were the likely culprit, it is premature to conclude that the facility is the sole source of elevated gas levels.

“It’s not deflecting responsibility,” Davisson said. “We need to make sure this house is in order before we even think about whether (gases) are coming from Chevron or anyone else. There are multiple sources of hydrogen sulfide in this area.”

Chevron Corp. spokesman Brent Tippen did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The triangular waterfront area where Veolia operates is bordered by a canal, Richmond Inner Harbor and San Francisco Bay and is heavily industrialized. Prevailing winds either carry airborne toxins from several facilities away from residential areas or into places like Point Richmond and North Richmond, depending on weather patterns.

If the dome is indeed the culprit, replacing it will cost more than $400,000 and take “several months,” Grushayev said, adding that if the suspected leaks are substantiated he expects the company to face fines from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

McLaughlin, who is known in part for taking on local industries suspected of emitting pollutants, said she was heartened by what she heard Thursday.

“I needed to come out here and get some explanations,” McLaughlin said. “I think we had some good discussions and they’re controlling the problem. They need to understand that public safety is paramount.”

Veolia will install several monitors around Point Richmond in the next few days to ensure safety and ease public concern.

2 Comments

  1. The plant may have operated since 1953, but Veolia has only recently been the official operators. We, as Richmond citizens, have gotten a higher sewer rate and, in exchange, have gotten poorer safety monitoring. Fifty-three parts per billion is not that far under sixty parts per billion. Without public outcry, would Veolia have waited until they were out of compliance?

  2. Chad Davisson

    I am the City’s Wastewater Manager. I’d like to clarify that the services of the independent Industrial Hygeniest, Michael Polkabla were requested by the City and is completely independent of Veolia or the Veolia contract. This monitoring is separate and additional to any hydrogen sulfide monitoring being conducted by Veolia.

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