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The Smell of Sewage in the Morning

Actually, the Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant smelled remarkably sweet as some 20 City officials including Mayor Anderson and Councilmembers Butt, Rogers and McLaughlin sipped coffee and munched donuts last Tuesday morning while gathering for an up close and personal inspection of the last stop for that which goes down Richmond toilets. See attached photos.

The plant is designed for a maximum throughput of 16 million gallons/day. Because of recent rains and leaky pipes that admit groundwater (inflow and infiltration, or I & I), the plant was receiving 30 million gallons/day and having to discharge some partially treated sewage in a process called “blending” where partially treated sewage is mixed with secondary treated sewage. This practice is allowed by the current permit but may not be in the future.

One cure for I & I is to repair leaky laterals that are the responsibility of property owners. Although some 2/3 of I & I comes from leaky laterals, the City continues to drag its feet in adopting a lateral management plan and legislation.

The good news is that since taking over the plant in 2001, Veolia has made $7 million in repairs and capital upgrades using the proceeds from a $37.4 million 1999 bond that was intended to yield about $33 million for project expenditures. According to Veolia, the plant is fully functional and capable of meeting the requirements of its current NPDES permit.

The bad news is that there is only $15 million of bond proceeds remaining, and the City and Veolia have identified $44 million that needs to be spent on the plant, the sanitary collection system and the stormwater system. Of that, $20 million additional has to be spent in the next five years. Veolia now is under contract to maintain not only the wastewater plant but also the sanitary sewer collection system and the stormwater system.

Preliminary calculations by the City’s finance director indicate that sewer rates will have to be raised at least 7.5% this year to pay for the necessary upgrades and repairs. That is unless the Water Board adds additional requirements to the City’s NPDES permit, which is up for renewal in 2007. That could make the hit worse – perhaps much worse.

The City commissioned a study in 1999 by Kennedy-Jenks that concluded in a 10-year plan that included fee increases and the bond sales. We are now only six years into the 10-year plan and are finding that its projections were significantly underestimated. In typical Richmond fashion, no one is willing to admit any mistakes, cast any aspersions or look to anybody other than our taxpayers to make us whole.