Veolia Water’s days running the Point Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant may be numbered after Tuesday night’s city council meeting. The council passed a measure to direct city staff members to prepare a list of all feasible legal options to handle wastewater treatment in Richmond, including the dissolution of the city’s current contract with the multinational company. They also voted to block Veolia from restarting full operations at the site until they are satisfied that the facility can be operated reliably and safely.
“We need to look at everything, every option that is reasonable,” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who proposed the two wastewater issues.
Solid waste processing was shut down at the wastewater treatment facility in early October last year 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. This costs the company between $20,000-$50,000 each month, according to Chad Davisson, the city’s wastewater manager.
The digester was shut down after a flurry of complaints from nearby residents about a strong rotten-egg smell, the result of hydrogen sulfide—a byproduct of the anaerobic digestive process noxious at high levels—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.
“Anyone who has a wastewater treatment plant has a problem with odor,” said Councilmember Nat Bates. He said the key to the problem was installing a new digester cover, which the company has ordered and is in the process of installing.
During the public comment session, Xina Lyons, who lives near the plant, rebuked the councilmembers, saying that referring to the hydrogen sulfide and methane leaks from the plant as “odors” diminishes their impact. “It’s called poison,” she said. “My daughter has been subjected to those poisons again and again.” Lyons said she moved her family to Point Richmond because she thought it was safer than other areas after a bullet was shot through her garage at her previous residence. Now, her daughter has kidney problems that Lyons attributes to hydrogen sulfide exposure.
About a dozen nearby residents and parents of Washington Elementary students also shared their concerns about the company’s ability to run the site safely given what they said was a track record of neglect and disregard for community health.
Citing what he called the company’s “disrespect” for children, residents and the city itself, Councilmember Corky Boozé urged the council to end its contract with Veolia. “We need to take our lumps and get the ball rolling,” he said. He suggested contracting with the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which bid for the contract against Veolia eight years ago, to handle Richmond’s wastewater treatment.
Davisson said he has been told Veolia anticipates having a new digester cover and permits approved by the beginning of April. Although Veolia representatives were present, they did not speak about whether this timeline was correct. Asked what he thought was the right decision, Davisson suggested it would be valuable for the council to have more information before allowing digester operations to restart.
Davisson said the city, as the owner of the plant, has received four notices for nuisance violations. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has opened an investigation, but has not yet shared its findings with the city. In addition, Davisson said he received notice that the California Attorney General’s Office is going to monitor work done by the city, Veolia and BAAQMD as the site begins digester operations again.
Two weeks ago, Richmond’s City Council approved the purchase of six permanent hydrogen sulfide monitors to be placed around the wastewater treatment plant. These devices would alert residents and city officials if there were to be an unhealthy release of hydrogen sulfide or methane into the air. Davisson said he expects the first pair of these monitors to be installed in four to six weeks.
Aaron Weiner, district manager for Veolia Water, said the company, “would not start digester operations until it was safe to do so,” adding that Veolia workers had installed two permanent hydrogen sulfide monitors of its own at the plant as soon as they found the tears in the digester cover that caused the leaks. He said he does not know of any other wastewater treatment plants that have on-line on-site hydrogen sulfide monitors installed.
Rick Norris, a lawyer for Veolia, said the company had met with Richmond’s city attorney and was “looking to do what’s right.”