The wastewater treatment plant in Point Richmond will soon restart full operations, said Aaron Weiner, district manager at Veolia Water, the company that runs the facility. The plant processes roughly two-thirds of the city’s sewage. Solid waste processing at the plant was shut down in early October, 2010, after several tears were found in the cover of the plant’s anaerobic digester, which uses microorganisms to break down solid waste.
Since then, the company has been hauling about a hundred trucks of solid human waste each week to an East Bay Municipal Utility District facility in Oakland rather than conveying it through underground pipes. At a recent meeting of the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, Weiner said Veolia will use a process called lime stabilization, which involves injecting lime into the sludge to render it stable enough to move through normal pipelines.
The digester was shut down last fall after residents near the plant in Point Richmond filed complaints about a strong rotten-egg smell, the result of hydrogen sulfide—a byproduct of the anaerobic digestive process—leaking from the digester. Residents also complained of symptoms associated with hydrogen sulfide exposure, including irritation of the nose, eyes and throat as well as nausea and vomiting.
At a packed neighborhood council meeting at the Point Richmond Community Center Wednesday evening, Weiner acknowledged that lime stabilization is not an ideal solution, but said it was less disruptive and expensive that hauling the waste to Oakland. “It’s better economically, and it gets the trucks off the roads,” he said.
He said it was an “interim” measure until a new digester cover arrives. Although he said a new cover was ordered, he did not say when it would arrive or how long it would take to install.
Chad Davisson, the wastewater management officer for the city, said that using lime stabilization was a crude solution, but that it has been used safely for a long time. “It’s not ideal. It will stabilize the sludge,” he said, “but it doesn’t reduce the volume [of waste] the way the digester does.” Davisson said that the infrastructure could handle the extra waste in the meantime.
Maureen Decombe, a nearby resident, dismissed the lime stabilization method as stopgap, calling it “latrine technology,” She doesn’t deny that the method would work, but said it was the process that she objected to.
Decombe said that many of the plant’s neighbors were frustrated when they found out that the plant would re-start operations because they were not informed that Veolia had applied for a permit to restart operations, and that they feel the company has not been open with residents nearby about what is happening. “What we have is a clash between corporate culture and a public utility,” she said.
Like many residents, she is concerned about a return to hydrogen sulfide levels experienced in October. She said that the information at the meeting was the most information Veolia had shared with the community about their plans.
Regardless of when the company is allowed to begin processing biosolids again, Decombe and other residents worry that the long-term problem is the plant itself, which is sixty years old. It operates in close a proximity to several homes and to Washington Elementary School, about 1,200 yards away, said Decombe. Another resident suggested that even if a new cover is installed, the basic infrastructure has not been improved and problems will continue.
Decombe is optimistic that a longer conversation about Richmond’s wastewater infrastructure will come out of this. “We are very pleased that City Council is paying attention to this situation,” she said.
Jeff Ritterman, who attended the meeting with fellow city councilmembers Corky Boozé and Tom Butt, said that the wastewater treatment plant is likely to be the most expensive capital project that Richmond will take on in the next five years.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has opened an investigation into the digester problems in October, and residents have asked the California EPA and the Attorney General’s office to open inquiries as well.