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Six Year Effort to Fix Sewage District Culminates in Award of Contract to U.S. Filter
May 16, 2002
One of the bitterest political battles in recent Richmond memory culminated on May 14, 2002, when the City Council voted to execute a 20-year contract with U.S. Filter to operate the Sewage District No. 1 wastewater treatment plant that serves approximately 60 percent of Richmond. Ironically, the event received no attention from the media – not even the West County Times. The vote was 6-0-3. The final action followed over five months of negotiations after the City Council voted 5-2-2 in December, 2001, to initiate negotiations with U.S. Filter to operate the Richmond Sewer District No. 1 treatment plant.

I initially investigated the operation and fiscal condition of Wastewater District No. 1 in 1997 and wrote former City Manager Floyd Johnson a scathing review that ended with the admonition: “In my opinion, the management of Richmond Municipal Sewer District No.1 demonstrates evidence of gross dereliction of duty and may be even criminally negligent. I am demanding that you immediately prepare a written implementation plan to operate, maintain, and improve the facilities of Richmond Municipal Sewer District No.1 in a functionally and fiscally responsible manner.”

Not much has changed since 1997. In a recent report on the plant by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, environmental scientist Ray Balcom wrote, “I have been inspecting treatment plants for 12 years and this is the most neglected plant I have ever inspected.”

The December selection of U.S. Filter followed a four year process to fund an upgrade and decide how to implement it. The first step, taken in 1999, was to increase fees for the 60% of Richmond household and businesses that are served by the plant in order to provide sufficient funding for capital improvements as well as future operations and maintenance.
The fee increase was itself controversial, becoming a campaign issue in the 1999 City Council race. Those of us who supported the fee increase also committed to finding the most efficient and least costly way to operate the plant. The result was a competitive bid process that lasted nearly one and a half years and ultimately produced four proposals: two from the private sector, one form the existing City of Richmond staff and one from EBMUD.
My personal favorite was EBMUD. Unlike the other three, which would continue operating the Richmond plant, EBMUD proposed to pipe the sewage to its Oakland treatment plant, which had enormous excess capacity. The solution seemed a no-brainer. EBMUD could handle the excess flow with minimal additional expense and use the new revenue stream to actually reduce the costs to all of its ratepayers. For Richmond, the responsibility of a wastewater plant would go away forever, along with the stink, the mosquitoes, the history of inept management by both Council and staff and the risk of fines for water quality violations.

Unfortunately, EBMUD could not make the firm commitments needed to meet the selection schedule. Their first proposal almost matched the Richmond staff proposal as the highest of the four bids. Then they proceeded to modify their proposal until, after five revisions, it was virtually the same price as U.S. Filter. The problem was that EBMUD, unlike U.S. Filter, would not guarantee their price. It was conditioned on a number of variables that would not be resolved for months, including the cost of toxics remediation during pipeline construction and the prospects of obtaining a modified NPDES permit.

The process also became very political with SEIU Local 790 mounting a months long campaign to protect City workers’ jobs, even though the City staff proposal was the most expensive of all. Eventually, Local 790 accepted the fact that there were not five votes for the most expensive solution, and they rallied behind the EBMUD proposal after EBMUD offered to employ all the existing treatment plant employees. In the December meeting, hundreds of SEIU 790 members packed the City Council chambers and participated in a loud demonstration. This was another potential advantage to the EBMUD solution; it would have good for City labor relations, and it would have satisfied many citizens who believe that basic services such as sewage treatment should remain totally in public hands.

Ultimately, however, I became disenchanted with EBMUD’s unwillingness to stand behind their bid, and I felt that, after, nearly five years of pursuing a solution to our decrepit treatment plant, I had to go with what was offered, not what might someday be. The U.S. Filter proposal was, after all, still slightly less expensive than even EBMUD’s most optimistic projection. After an initial motion to select City staff to operate the plant failed, I joined Bates, Belcher, Penn and Bell in voting to select U.S. Filter.

As the contract with U.S. Filter was approved this week, labor objections have vanished. All current employees of the wastewater treatment plant, except one, will be hired by U.S. Filter, receive a buy-out or transfer to another City job. SEIU Local 790 has approved the arrangement. The one holdout is the laboratory director, who is represented by a different union.