|Flushing it Down the Richmond
January 30, 2006
If there was to be one Richmond success story of the decade, I thought it would involve Richmond’s wastewater treatment plant and collection system, Unfortunately, that was not to be.
The Richmond City Council is responsible for the governance of Richmond Municipal Sewer District No. 1, which serves about 60 percent of Richmond, but like the proverbial farmed mushroom, the City Council is typically fed manure and kept in the dark.
If you live in the northern half of Richmond (approximately north of Rheem) the sewers are maintained by the West County Sanitation District and flow to the waste water plant on Garden Tract by the landfill. If you live in the southern part of the Richmond “Annex” the sewers are maintained by Stege Sanitation District, and flow to the EBMUD waste water plant located near the Oakland San Francisco Bridge.
Just last week, the City of Richmond was sued by Baykeeper, a non-profit corporation whose mission it is to see that laws are enforced to keep San Francisco Bay clean.
The essence of the Baykeeper suit is that the City of Richmond has not been making reasonable progress in improving its treatment plant and collection system to operate in conformance with the federal Clean Water Act and its NPDES permit for discharging waste water into the Bay.
Unfortunately, Baykeeper is mostly right, and despite significant surges of progress, the City has more typically followed “The Richmond Way,” consisting of foot-dragging delays, excuses and failure to keep the City Council informed.
Although disappointing, this should not be surprising. Nearly 10 years ago, I personally discovered that the City of Richmond had, like a slum landlord, essentially run the treatment plant into the ground. After an investigation of my own in 1997, I wrote to then City Manager Floyd Johnson (see attached PDF file):
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.
It took two years, but the City administration produced a plan. At a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, a consulting firm, Kennedy/Jenks , was retained and eventually produced a report in March of 1999 that purportedly described all the improvement required to bring both the treatment plant and the collection system up to industry standards.
Based on the recommendations and budget projections of Kennedy/Jinks, the City substantially increased sewer fees and sold $33 million in bonds to fund capital improvements.
But money was not the entire problem. The staff and management of the plant were largely incompetent and incapable of operating it effectively and efficiently. In 2001, the City looked at other options, including piping the sewage to EBMUD for processing or contracting with a private firm.
The latter option was selected as the most cost effective, and in 2002, operation of the plant was contracted to U.S. Filter, now Veolia. See
By all accounts, including that of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, Veolia has done an admirable job in the last four years operating the plant. Violations have diminished, and many improvement have been implemented. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Richmond continued to manage the collection system using City employees. The same incompetence and culture of neglect that brought the treatment plant to its knees continued to plague the collection system. The City failed to adopt policies to control fats, oils and grease (FOG) and to require upgrading of crumbling laterals that admitted huge amounts of water during storms. Damage from blocked sewers cost the City millions of wasted dollars that should have gone into improvements.
Ultimately, the City got smart in 2004 and also contracted with Veolia for maintenance of the collection system. Veolia is still in the process of a comprehensive assessment of the system to determine the priorities where improvements have to be made. Only after those improvements have been made will Veolia take full responsibility for the system.
Our City staff and the counsel they have retained tell us that the Baykeeper suit is unfair and frivolous, that the City is in the process of undertaking all of the improvements requested by Baykeeper and simply needs time to complete them.
They also tell us that the City is not alone and that our problems are typical for publicly operated sewer systems all over. The Water Quality Control Board engineers, however, tell me a different story. In an interview just last week, I was told by a Board representative that Richmond is uniquely challenged by old and crumbling infrastructure and is not at all representative of other jurisdictions.
We have also been told by City staff that the required improvements to the treatment plant have been completed and that all remains is the upgrade of the collection system. The truth, however, seems to be that neither the collection system nor the plant can handle the volume of water typically produced during winter storms, which is a combination of sewage and stormwater produced by what the engineers call “inflow and infiltration,” or I & I. This is the water from rain that penetrates into the ground, infiltrates cracks in pipes and mixes with sewage.
The volume of this mixed water is so high that the collection system cannot handle it, and it often overflows into the Bay before it even reaches the treatment plant. These types of spillages are illegal, and the City has and will suffer substantial penalties when they occur. Neither can the treatment plant handle the increase flows that actually reach the plant, in which case, the “blended” sewage is partially treated and released into the Bay, which is allowed within certain limits by the City’s NPDES permit managed by San Francisco Bay Region Water Quality Control Board.
So where as the City fallen down? The two areas that most distress me are the lack of urgency and the failure of staff to keep the city Council informed.
The wastewater bond was passed in 1999, and despite continuing discharge violations of substantial proportions, only a fraction of the collection system upgrades have been made. We were told years ago that one of the first orders of business would be to survey the existing collection system to determine its condition in detail, and the City has spent millions of dollars in this effort that continues to drag on with results insufficient to actually implement the necessary repair projects.
Even though the City turned over maintenance of the collection system to Veolia in October of 2004, no maintenance responsibilities have been taken over by Veolia due to insufficient or information about the condition of the pipes or incomplete repairs.
Two important tools for avoiding overflows are regulations involving reduction of FOG (Fats, Oils and Grease) and inflow and infiltration. These have been discussed for years, but staff never brought a FOG ordinance to the City Council until two weeks ago. There still is no action on inflow and infiltration.
The last report we have received on the status of collection system and plant repairs was five months ago when $16 million was remaining unspent.
Even with the $16 million, credible speculation is that it will not be enough, and the City will once again have to raise sewer fees. It now appears that the 1999 Kennedy./Jenks study on which the original upgrade plan and financing was based may have served the City poorly by being deficient in undershooting the magnitude of the problems and the cost of upgrades.
Despite the City Council’s ultimate responsibility for the system, we have never been provided by staff a copy of the City’s NPDES permit or
any information about the number or magnitude of overflows and violations. It’s like we don’t even exist.
When the Baykeeper threat to sue was received by the City in July 2005, the reaction was not to discuss the substance of the City’s violations but to hire an attorney. Neither was the City Council briefed on the substance of the negotiations that apparently ensued from July 2005 until the Baykeeper suit was actually filed. Like most City business, this was conducted in secret by staff and counsel. Only after the Baykeeper suit was filed last week was the substance of the settlement negotiations provided to the City Council – and then only at my request.
It’s a real shame that it takes litigation from a public interest organization to force the City to simply take care of business. And, you can rest assured that Baykeeper didn’t do this for free. The City will pay handsomely for this boost, another waste of taxpayers money that should have gone into system repairs instead of lawyers’ pockets. When will we ever learn?
alleges city's water system pollutes Bay
A suit over illegal sewage overflows into the Bay was served simply to meet a court-appointed deadline, an attorney for Richmond said.
The environmental protection group Baykeeper announced on Monday that it had served a suit against Richmond, Veolia Water North America Operating Services and the West County Wastewater District for dumping large amounts of untreated sewage into the Bay mostly during heavy rains.
A judge could have dismissed the case against Richmond if the groups hadn't filed suit by then, said Melissa Thorme, an attorney hired by Richmond to negotiate a settlement with Baykeeper.
"I'm really surprised they put out a press release," Thorme said. "I'm disappointed because I'm getting a lot of calls on this and it's really a non-event. We're still in negotiations and nothing has changed."
"Ms. Thorme is right that nothing has changed," said Layne Friedrich, an attorney with Clean Water Inc., which represents Baykeeper. "That's the point. Richmond is still spilling and we're not getting any closer to a solution that will address those spills."
Baykeeper originally filed the suit in September to get Richmond to provide a clear schedule for repairing its sewer system, Friedrich said. But five months of negotiating have produced very little, she added; and Monday's serving starts the clock ticking again.
Friedrich said the chronic spills violate the Federal Clean Water Act, and the city could be fined as much as $32,500 per spill for the last five years. Attorneys' fees and other court costs are also part of the negotiations.
In 2005, Richmond reported 40 spills to the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board. The West County Wastewater District, which includes North Richmond, parts of Pinole, San Pablo and El Sobrante, reported 13 spills.
During a heavy rain in December, 505,300 gallons of sewage mixed with storm water overflowed into the Santa Fe Channel at Harbour Way South and Wright Avenue, according to a regional water quality report. In another incident on the same day, 100,000 gallons spilled at Boat Ramp Road, which also overflowed into the Santa Fe Channel.
Untreated sewage contains numerous pollutants including toxins and pathogens that interfere with the safe enjoyment of the Bay, San Pablo Bay and the Richmond Inner Harbor, according to Baykeeper's 29-page notice to file suit.
Baykeeper and co-plaintiff West County Toxics Coalition claim Richmond's sewage system is antiquated and no longer capable of handling the demands of a growing community. Some of the city's sewer system was constructed in 1918, and much of the remainder in south Richmond was constructed during World War II, according to Veolia spokesman Shilen Patel.
In 2002, Richmond signed a 20-year, $70 million contract with Texas-based Veolia to maintain the city's 185 miles of sewers. Veolia has been videotaping the city's sewer lines to make a thorough assessment of their condition. Once the assessment is complete, the worst sections will be repaired and those no longer able to handle the increased volume will be expanded, said Patel.
Thorme said Richmond's overflow problems are not unusual for a city of its age and size, adding that the city had taken steps to fix the problems long before Baykeeper filed suit.
"Veolia was on a path to do all the things Baykeeper says they want us to do anyway," Thorme said. "And you just can't fix these things overnight."
Contact John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.