Richmond council wants sewage plant operator to clean up its act
By Hannah Dreier
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 09/13/2011 11:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 09/13/2011 11:10:26 PM PDT
RICHMOND -- Veolia Water will continue to treat Richmond's sewage through the fall, but the city has made clear that it is unhappy with the company's performance.
The City Council voted Tuesday to allow itself until December to decide whether to cancel the treatment company's contract, though some residents urged them to cancel it on the spot.
Councilman Nat Bates, who wanted to remove the threat of canceling Veolia's contract to operate the Point Richmond treatment plant, cast a sole dissenting vote.
The Council shut down some operations at the Veolia-run sewage treatment plant in October after tears in a digester cover allowed the release of hydrogen sulfide, a gas produced during the breakdown of organic material that smells like rotten eggs.
At the time, residents reported symptoms of exposure including vomiting, headaches, eye irritations and breathing troubles.
For the past year, while city staff and outside regulatory agencies have investigated the incident, the company trucked its treatment byproducts to the East Bay Municipal Utility District.
But residents who live close to the plant in Point Richmond say neither the smell nor their symptoms have gone away.
Residents fed up with years of odors and health issues are urging the city to close the 50-year-old facility and either build a better plant or construct a pipeline to send the waste to EBMUD.
On Tuesday, the council voted to wait until early December to make their decision. This will give Veolia the opportunity to meet concrete performance benchmarks the city has established for it since last year's accident, and also give city staff time to gather more information about Veolia's operations.
Though they granted a three-month extension, City Council members were generally critical of the corporation.
"I can't tell you how much time my office has spent on this and there are so many other things in the city that need our attention" Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin also echoed some residents' discomfort with the privatization of the city's water treatment.
"When you have a private company they put profits first," she said. "We have to consider that the health of the community comes first."
Veolia maintains that it has fixed its original digester problem and has pointed out that the rotten egg odor is not necessarily coming from the treatment plant.
On Tuesday, Veolia Vice President Jim Good said he was pleased with the council's decision and feeling optimistic about the prospects of working things out with the city.
"I'm proud of the level of service that we've provided since we got here," Good said.
He noted that since the company took over operations of the plant in 2002, water quality violations have decrease by 97 percent.
City leaders and Veolia managers agree that Richmond's sewage system is antiquated and in need of renovation.
Councilman Jim Rogers asked staff to make clear in its December report how Veolia stacks up against other sewage plant operators.
"We had a lot of problems prior to Veolia, we're having problems with Veolia, and if Veolia leaves I would except we will continue to have problems," he said. "So some comparison would be helpful."