Wastewater management may be leaving in 90 days
on September 14, 2011
After a series of foul odors released from its sewage treatment plant over the last year, the multinational company Veolia may only have 90 days left in Richmond. Although the City Council had considered terminating the contract immediately at the council meeting Tuesday, council members opted to consider the arguments and the possibility of alternatives, and set a decision on the contract for Dec. 6.
Mark Russell, a lawyer who is providing the city with outside legal counsel, said Tuesday that the odors are the result of hydrogen sulfide and that legally Veolia is in breach of their contract due to violations issued by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Though the air quality board hasn’t released reports with exact numbers, Chad Davidson, Richmond’s wastewater management officer, said that they had identified violations during more than 100 days in 2010, with the potential for more once the study is completed.
Veolia Water Executive Vice President James Good pledged to improve, and said Veolia has upgraded both staff and procedure. He said they are putting rubber seals on manholes to seal in odor and are installing biofilters, which are made of tree shavings stacked about 10 feet high that filter air in the wastewater plant.
“If we can do something better, we will do it,” Good said.
Council members seemed split on what to do. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she wants more time to consider the issue but “has not felt a sense of satisfaction from this company” after hearing a multitude of problems and concerns from the community about Veolia over the last few years.
But Councilmember Nat Bates defended the company, saying those who complain about the odor are a small, very vocal dissident group. Bates, who lives on Seacliff, near the wastewater plant, said, “I occasionally do smell odor, but if you have a sewage treatment plant, you have a smell.”
The options for switching service could be costly, and many residents spoke in support of Veolia by noting its low rates.
One resident, Armando Leaphart, said that Veolia has lowered his rates since Richmond signed the contract in 2002 and the odor only affects a small portion of Richmond.
“What do you get before you flush the toilet?” he said. “You get a smell, so you can’t really complain about something that we pay low rates for.”
But an equal number of residents spoke against Veolia, affirming both the stench and a general mistrust in Veolia. Some residents said that their rates had skyrocketed and called the Richmond facility a “cash cow” for Veolia.
McLaughlin said that her constituents have told her that the rates are the highest they have ever been.
Another difficulty the council faces is the age of the 80-year-old treatment plant. Councilmember Jim Rogers argued that any management company would run into problems dealing with such a facility.
“The plant is old,” Rogers said. “They aren’t operating a standard plant in a standard city.”
Councilmember Jeff Ritterman said he wanted to take residents’ concerns about the plants seriously, especially because of the proximity of an elementary school to the wastewater treatment plant. But he said he was willing to give Veolia extra time after Good seemed open to alternative methods.
“We have to recognize how difficult this problem is,” Ritterman said.
No matter how the council members feel about Veolia, the alternatives are limited. One option would be transferring management to the East Bay Municipal Utilities District – but a pipe to EBMUD could cost the city $100 million.
Taxpayers can’t afford that just because of an odor, Bates said.
“We can’t get rid of Veolia without paying a heavy price,” Bates said, adding that the company before Veolia was much worse in regards to leaks and cost to the city.
Veolia is working with companies like Intellergy, a green, clean energy, Richmond-based company, to find cleaner and more sustainable ways to deal with wastewater. Veolia Innovation Acceleration is branch of the company’s website where people can submit their ideas for more efficient and cleaner ways to deal with waste. Good promised that he would work with any idea that seems viable.
In the meantime, Veolia’s contract will stay in a limbo of sorts while the council looks over air quality reports, continues to talk to Richmond residents and considers the practicality of alternatives.
“We can’t look in the rearview,” McLaughlin said. “We must look forward.”
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