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City council to explore alternative operators for wastewater plant

on March 16, 2011

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.

wastewater plant

Veolia has ordered and is in the process of installing new digester covers to the wastewater treatment plant at 601 Canal Street. Seventeen tears were found in the fabric of the digester cover in October, leading Veolia to halt solid waste processing at the site. Photo by Veronica Moscoso.

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.”


  1. Jim Kay on March 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Well it’s about time. Time to kick’em to the curb, Richmond.

  2. Jim Kay on March 16, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Hey Nat Bates-NO wastewater plants should emit the odors of that poorly operated,veolia plant you seem to love so much. So your commet; “Anyone who has a wastewater treatment plant has a problem with odor” is a bunch of bull. A properly operated, well maintained wasetwater plant is un-noticeable. All you have to do is spend the money for modern day odor control measures that are widely available.

  3. LLee on March 17, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Wow – watching the video from the city council meeting (the waste stuff start at 5:49 at: one would think Nat Bates actually works for Veolia – oh wait, according to the Secretary of State of California, more than $60,000 from them to his compaign and/or to the PAC he founded over the past 5 or so years — that is a lot of money in Richmond politics especially if you look at the lavish parties this PAC likes to throw at the Richmond Country Club. What a shame, shame, shame — money over children’s health — not sure it gets any worse than that.

  4. Maureen Decombe on March 18, 2011 at 11:04 am

    There were two items addressed by the council, and the headline is a bit misleading on the first item. The idea is to look at alternatives to the operation of ancient the wastewater plant at all, and has less to do with the competence of the operator than with the viability operating that plant in that location. Just to be clear, the Council did not vote to look at alternative “operators”, they voted to look at alternatives to operating the plant at all. Given the problems at the plant, I see that as their only responsible course of action. The ratepayers have been throwing good money after bad, and what did it get us? Digester gases released into the community.

    The second item addressed the eventuality of turning those anaerobic digester back on. This is where we get into the actions—or lack thereof—of the operator, and the ability of the operator to run the plant without repeating the conditions that caused such a community uproar. How to you get a bunch of people really mad? Make their homes smell like *$%# for months, and pretend there isn’t a problem.

    As we have learned, odor was only the indicator of the problem. H2S was gathering in our basements, our homes, and exposing children at the local school, as proved by BAAQMD monitoring records. Given the contradictory comments to Council by the operator (comparing October statements and those made Tuesday night), the operator is still not ready to respond to the community in a transparent and cooperative manner, choosing instead to bring on the lawyers and try to pressure the Council and regulators. Public/Private Partnership? Really?

    And let’s remember- if the digester(s) had been maintained properly by the operator, had not been allowed to develop 17 tears through which digester gasses leaked, had been properly monitored, (a Jerome meter was not even owned by the company!), had redundancies in place (not once since 2002 have both digesters operated at the same time, which is appalling given the $$ we’ve spent to repair them), etc., etc., etc., we would not even be having this issue. The alternate digester would have been started up, and presto, back to business—no 100 trucks a week of solid human waste, no angry community members screaming to be heard, no embarrassing exposure of the “duct tape best practices” at both the Novato and Richmond plants.

    • Jim Kay on March 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm

      unfortunately it cost Indianapolis 29million USD to break their contract early with this crappy company. I am sure that Richmond will have to pay a fortune to break this contract. This is the only way veolia water makes money now a days…too bad for the cities that they screw. and as a side bar, I dont think the digesters were the cause of your odor problems, it was total mismanagement of the plant. Influent pumping, cleaning out empty clarifies and a bounty of other mismanaged tasks.

      • Maureen Decombe on March 18, 2011 at 1:35 pm

        Yes, Jim, if we’re talking about “odors”, there are many plant management at play. Properly operated digesters, from what I understand, do not contribute to “odor”. In this case, as you know, digester gasses were released into the community for an indeterminate period of time.

        And then, after that, we get into the odor control scenarios, which are many, and one can only conclude that if the digesters were not managed properly—which has been proved—there may be other things that are not managed properly. Still, so far I’m focusing on what can be proved, and that is enough for the community to insist upon clear and precise measures and demonstration of the operator’s ability to manage the plant.

        • Maureen Decombe on March 18, 2011 at 1:37 pm

          sorry, I meant to say “many plant management issues at play”.

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