Last Update: Thursday, December 14, 2023, at 11:30 a.m.
The Richmond City Council and Point Richmond residents took the city’s wastewater plant operator to task for the overpoweringly foul odor in the surrounding neighborhoods last week.
Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez, who presided over the entire Tuesday meeting while wearing a surgical mask with a sad-face poop emoji, said it has been difficult getting information from Violia.
“It is like pulling teeth. Anytime we want information, we have to demand and demand and demand before it finally comes to us,” Martinez said at the meeting. “In the future, what I want from you is utter transparency, and I want information given to the city without any dance we have to do in order to receive what is ours since it is our plant. We’re paying you. It is our information.”
Veolia regional vice president Melissa Sandvold, who has overseen the operations for the Richmond facility since 2020, said Veolia regrets the impact the odors created for their neighbors.
“We wanted to dispel any doubt that we haven’t taken these matters seriously. We know the odors and the communication difficulties last week were a burden on our neighbors,” Sandvold said. “Our team is committed to doing better. As a part of that, our team has already started making changes. We’ve amended our communications strategy and construction reviews to reflect mitigation planning for potential odor-causing activities.”
Chandrasekar Venkatraman, director of capital program management at Veolia North America, detailed construction and other factors that led to the odor.
With heavy rains in the forecast for December 6, workers at the plant were attempting to complete several critical activities ahead of the rains.
“Since we are doing construction in a fully operating facility where we get 7 million gallons of wastewater coming in every single day, we are always very cognizant of the construction windows available,” Venkatraman told the council during the meeting. “Unfortunately, along with the planned activities over the two-day period from Monday the fourth through Tuesday, December 5, additional factors compounded the odor production at the site.”
On Monday, two odor sensors at the fence line indicated above-typical levels of hydrogen sulfide around the same time Veolia began receiving odor complaints at the site.
Plant workers were removing an obsolete air exhaust fan and replacing it with a new, more efficient, powerful one.
“This activity created a window of time where effluent odors were only being evacuated with smaller fans. In hindsight, they were insufficiently sized for the tank,” Venkatraman said.
While this was happening, crews were draining a secondary clarifier, a large open million-gallon tank at the end of the wastewater process. The workers were drawing down the tank to connect new piping to existing assets with the newly installed equipment at the site.
“Normally, draining a secondary process tank would not negatively impact odor with all of the activities,” Venkatraman said.
An unexpected third factor was an electrical brownout on the PG&E service line on Monday that coincided with the activities workers were performing.
“It effectively shut down the aeration blowers at the site and impacted some of the controls at the facility, which heightened the opportunity for odors to leave the site,” Venkatraman said.
PG&E Spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian said there were no PG&E outages on December 4, impacting 601 Canal Blvd. in Richmond.
Councilmember Doria Robinson said after hearing about hundreds of incidents at the plant this year, including delayed and incomplete critical maintenance of the storm drains system, the council must act.
Robinson made a motion to direct the city attorney’s office to enforce the contract, explore potential grounds for breach of contract, investigate the claims of fraudulent charges, and look into transitioning to a more responsible provider.
“This is not about a single incident but rather about a history of hundreds of incidents, reports of fraud, reports of inaccurate reports, reports of lack of maintenance. It is crazy that we have to tell a multi-billion dollar provider they should have a maintenance plan. Why do we have to tell them that?” Robinson said.
Councilmember Cesar Zepeda said the community has been upset for many years, especially in Point Richmond, where residents are affected no matter how the wind blows. Zepeda said things have changed with a new leadership and council in the city.
“That disrespect for our community, we are going to change it one way or the other,” Zepeda said. “Going forward, you’re either with us or you’re not with us.”
Zepeda demanded Violia submit a technical report to the city by January 8 outlining the reasons for the odor event, why odor issues occurred, and what went wrong. He also asked Veolia to provide assurances that they will take corrective steps to resolve the odor issues permanently.
Point Richmond Neighborhood Council President Philip Rosenthal slammed Veolia during the council’s public comment section.
“The only thing that is worse than the stench of the Veolia plant is that this multi-billion dollar corporation whose job and expertise is to run, opens their mouth and more sewage comes out is the stench of this BS that we’ve heard in the chamber today,” Rosenthal said.
Point Richmond resident Edie Sellers said she came to the meeting angry about living with the smell of poo but was walking out of the meeting appalled at the grossly negligent, gross incompetence she heard from Veolia.
“It made clear that Veolia is operating in a vacuum with no respect for you, no respect for us, no respect for Richmond students, no respect for Richmond residents,” Sellers said.
The Richmond City Council plans to discuss the report on the plant at the meeting on January 23.
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