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Veolia will be leaving Richmond

on December 7, 2011

After nine years of service, Veolia will began the process of terminating its 10-year contract with Richmond, which will start the search for a viable alternative for its wastewater management plan.

Residents in Richmond have voiced concerns about odor issues in relation to the plant, and Veolia cited a need for capital investment to improve the condition of the plant as a reason not to continue its contract.

“It looks like we are negotiating a divorce,” Councilmember Jeff Ritterman said. “Which is not the best analogy because you can live single but you can’t live without a wastewater system.”

Veolia will stay with Richmond until services are transferred, so the city does not go without wastewater treatment and can move services seamlessly.

A consultant group, Carollo Engineering, will look to find a viable solution — both financially and logistically — for Richmond, which may include rerouting the waste to EBMUD, decommissioning the wastewater plant, or upgrading the plant.

Though the real solution will most likely be a hybrid of one or more of the alternatives, estimates for the cost to change wastewater treatment plans range as high as $150 million, which is more than the city’s annual budget.

“This is the kind of funding that I think the federal government should help us out with,” Ritterman said.

One of the hardest things that the consultant group will deal with is the extra flow of water that the stormwater system takes in during rainy months. Ritterman suggested that having the community or large companies like Chevron collect rainwater might be a viable solution.

Veolia has encountered a few problems in Richmond over the last nine years, but the most commonly reported is odor from hydrogen sulfide emissions, particularly over the last few years.

The odor is result of a bad “digester,” or more specifically, a faulty cover on one of the two digesters. It was an issue during contract negotiations in 2002, and some Point Richmond residents have been vocal about the odor for the past few years, some citing health issues as a direct result.

“People started getting sick about a year ago,” said Maureen Decombe, a Point Richmond resident. “It seeped into our house and would smell like the dog made a mess inside. It was really bad.”

Lower levels of exposure may result in eye irritation, headache, and fatigue, Excessive hydrogen sulfide can cause death, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

When Point Richmond residents began voicing their concerns about the odors, Veolia agreed to institute air monitors at three places around the plant – on the north end, the south end and near the Washington Elementary School.

The appropriate value of hydrogen sulfide exposure set by the Center for Disease Control is 20 parts hydrogen sulfide per one million parts of air. In the last month, both the north and south monitors have peaked above 20 parts per billion (.02 ppm) multiple times, but the monitor near Washington Elementary School has not risen above 20 ppb.

The proximity of Washington Elementary School – which is about 1,000 feet from the wastewater treatment plant – is one of the most pressing concerns. Since hydrogen sulfide is heavier than air, it tends to sink closer to the ground, and close to where children are playing and breathing heavily.

“All the data I have seen this whole time, I have never seen H2S rise to the level of causing a health impact,” said James Good, the executive vice president of Veolia Water. “Having said that, different people have different sensitivities. I am not trying to minimize the discomfort the odor has caused somebody.”

In previous City Council meetings, Veolia addressed the issues of staffing the plant on the weekends and evacuation plans, in the case of a hydrogen sulfide emergency.

When Veolia took over the wastewater treatment plant, it inherited a mess of problems, including water pollution issues, air quality concerns and an old plant with massive infrastructure problems.

“Before my time, it was rogue operation, being run into the ground by city employees,” Councilmember Tom Butts said.

The company spent $5 million on renovations last year to help curb some of the odor issues.

Since Veolia took over the plant in 2002, water pollution has dropped nearly 90 percent and the facility responds to nearly all the complaints, according to a study done by Veolia.

“Our people are just as frustrated,” Good said. “It’s a very old plant and frankly before we came on board, it was a very little maintenance or capital investment done.

“We have absorbed a huge loss,” he added. “Most companies would have walked away.”

But residents still aren’t happy with the rate of upgrades.

“It really gets you down when your house smells like poop,” Docombe said. “We love it in Richmond, but now we are on the fence about leaving.”


  1. Jim Kay on December 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Nothing was hidden when veolia took this contract so why complain about the run down conditions that they were supposed to fix? I guess veolia’s solution to a challenge is to place tail between legs and slither away. Typical “Good” job, veolia.

    • Maureen Decombe on December 8, 2011 at 9:12 pm

      No, what Veolia did was ask for $10M to fix the problem. They linked an upgrade of the electrical system to the odor control recommendations that were made in 2007. Why this dire need for electrical upgrades was not identified and requested earlier, I don’t know.

  2. Jason Myers on December 8, 2011 at 9:32 am

    At the 12/6 council meeting Tom Butt said that the city should keep the company but find a way to “motivate Veolia” into following the contract and do what they were hired to do.

    I thought that’s what the 2008-2009 17-month lawsuit that ended with Veolia paying Richmond $1.92 million would have been motivation enough.

    Then again, I suppose for the largest water co. in the world with over $50 billion in revenue and “global expertise” that’s chump change

    The three Veolia proponents on the council who shy away from terminating the contract and tread lightly to criticize the company coincidentally take campaign contributions from them.

    Tom Butt, Nat Bates, and Jim Rogers

  3. Maureen Decombe on December 8, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Wendi, thanks for this article. There are a couple of clarifications that might be helpful. First, the Council voted to direct staff to begin a mutual separation agreement that would allow for “termination for convenience”, which should be a standard contractual element in the kind of M & O services the City contracts with Veolia. The City negotiated away their right to terminate for convenience when they settled a lawsuit with Veolia which originated from a water violation. (I question the claim that violations have reduced by 97%).

    The City has not “fired” Veolia, they have merely entered into negotiations to take back leverage they need to ensure accountability to the ratepayers.

    The article focuses on “odors”. Mr. Good, a Veolia executive, claims that the release of H2S due to highly unusual and egregious operational errors was not sufficient to cause health effects. Studies by the World Health Organization and other sources place a threshold of as low as 3ppb as a problem for children in chronic exposure. Your own graphic shows spikes at 70ppb at the plant’s fenceline. This is not about “sensitive” individuals. Those individuals are ratepayers who shell out $600 per year to pay for a service. Veolia has failed at virtually every turn to resolve what should have been a minor glitch. If they had maintained a viable redundancy, i.e., two digesters, we would never have come to this pass.

  4. Jim Kay on December 13, 2011 at 5:30 am

    veolia vp jim good: ” bla bla bla……blaaaahhh!

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