Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2020  
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  Veolia and the Wastewater System
October 18, 2020

Although it has been burning up social media for weeks,  Veolia and the Wastewater System with the treatment plant on Canal Boulevard serves only 60 percent of Richmond residents, and the complaints involve even fewer – mostly the residents of Point Richmond. Most Richmond residents are unaffected, but Point Richmond residents are livid.

Odor complaints, and more recently, mosquitoes have been the focus.

People are looking for someone to blame, and my name pops up often. I will explain how the City’s contract with Veolia works and who does what.

For almost the last 20 years, Veolia has been under contract to operate the wastewater plant, and more recently, to maintain the collection system. Basic funding comes from sewer fees that residents and businesses pay. The fees are based on detailed studies that evaluate the quality of the effluent of users, and thus the effort and cost required to treat it. Large businesses and industries pay a base fee plus an additional fee that is based on physical analysis of their actual effluent stream. It would be impractical to evaluate the effluent stream of each residential user, so the fee is based on the average quality residential effluent.

The City pays Veolia a more or less fixed price for operation and routine maintenance of the system, which is continuous. In addition, the City funds major capital improvements, which are typically financed by bonds paid for by sewer fees. The need for and the cost of capital improvements has been the main driver of fee increases over the last two decades, not the ongoing costs of Veolia operating the system. The plant is nearly 70 years old and requires a continuous progression of capital improvements to upgrade it to acceptable standards.

In addition to the contract with the City of Richmond, standards and regulations for operating the system are governed and enforced by the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Control Board and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Settlement of a lawsuit with Baykeeper has placed additional requirements on the City and Veolia primarily related to the collection system. Being both old and proximate to the Bay, the collection system (sewer pipes) allows infiltration of a lot of extraneous ground water into the system, including saltwater, through cracks and joints. This excess water in the rainy season has resulted in overflows that affect water quality in the Bay. Add to this a consent decree from the Contra Costa District Attorney several years ago primarily dealing with odor control.

Managing the Veolia contract is currently the responsibility of Public Works Director Yader Bermudez, who reports to the city manager. The city manager, of course, reports to the City Council. The City Attorney’s Office is also deeply involved in the process, since the City and Veolia have been trading claims and counter claims for years, and there is the added dimension of the Baykeeper Lawsuit, which the city attorney has to monitor and manage. The city attorney also reports to the City Council.

There are also outside attorneys from Gordon Rees and Downy Brand billing up to $425 an hour almost continuously.

The contract with Veolia has only one method of resolving disputes and claims, first mediation and then binding arbitration. We just completed a mediation with Veolia on September 21, with Ben Choi, Eduardo Martinez and me attending along with the city manager and legal counsel. The details are confidential, but the mediation was not successful, and the City Council will have to decide whether to move on to binding arbitration. Again, I can’t discuss details, but we are talking about 8 figures.

The City has limited options of how to deal with this system. Contrary to claims by some, EBMUD has no interest in operating the system, and even of they did, the cost would probably exceed the existing costs substantially. Neither does West County Sanitary District. If the City unilaterally terminated Veolia’s contract for any other option, litigation could be prolonged and expensive.

Yes, the plant has major odor problems. And yes, the plant is the source of a mosquito outbreak that has plagued Point Richmond residents all summer until it was recently confirmed and mitigated by the Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector Control District.

Incidentally, I am looking for a new City representative to the Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector Control District Board – who will step up?

How did we get here? The wastewater plant was built in the mid-1950s and operated by City employees for the next 40 years with almost no improvements or major maintenance. Same with the collection system, portions of which by the mid-1990s was approaching 100 years old. They basically drove it into the ground. I suspect no one wanted to raise the political specter of a necessary fee increase. After only two years on the City Council, I alerted the city manager to the dire straits of the plant in 1997 (Click here for my letter). Who was to blame? The City Council, city manager and City staff all share responsibility.

The City Council finally took notice and by 2001 was ready to move to new operational model. Contrary to accusations of people who weren’t even around then,  the selection of U.S. Filter (now Veolia) was neither rigged nor corrupt. The City retained a consultant to prepare an RFP for a future operator, which could be a contractor, another public agency or City employees. A Blue Ribbon Community Committee was appointed by all City Council members to monitor the process. Everything was extremely transparent. See Richmond City Council Picks U.S. Filter As Wastewater Plant Operator,December 19, 2001, for how it turned out. At the end of the day, there were not a lot of choices.

Veolia has had its ups and down over the years, but it’s pretty clear the City chose the least expensive, if not the least odiferous, option. The last two Veolia managers in Richmond were hired away by the West County Wastewater District, often cited as a model agency.

In 2013, responding to a consent decree, Veolia engaged a consultant to prepare an odor evaluation and mitigation report. Some measures have been implemented, and others are planned.

What can you do:

  • Report Odors. By contract, Veolia is required to answer a 24-hour odor hotline, record and investigate all complaints and file a monthly report on complaints and actions taken. Veolia Water 24-Hour Odor Hotline: 510-412-2001. Most people I talk to are reluctant to call Veolia because they feel nothing happens. If you do call and don’t get a response, let me know. This is a breach of contract. The record of calls to this number is the official list of complaints. Fewer calls mean fewer official complaints.
  • You can also call the Bay Area Air Quality Management 24-Hour Odor Hotline 800-334-ODOR (6367), but I am personally disappointed in their lack of actions.
  • Continually complain to your City Council members.
  • Don’t complain about fee increases, which are necessary to upgrade thesystem.

I hope this has been helpful. There are a lot of other documents and resources on the City website at

Against that general background, I am providing the following content from recent emails pertaining to the most recent plant upsets, H2S spikes and odors.

From Brain K. Bruce of Veola to Robert Schlipf and Anna Gallagher of the SFBWQCB, dated October 18, 2020:

Hello Robert & Anna,

As expected with the ongoing aeration issues and with the incoming black substance during the middle of the week, our Average EFF TSS for the week of 10/11-10/17 was 64 mg/L, exceeding the 45 mg/l limit. Saturday’s EFF TSS was 48 mg/L. We expect the BOD to exceed the weekly regulatory limits as well once the results finish coming in. We should have the diversion basins emptied of the black substance by sometime tomorrow.  Hopefully, this should help speed up our recovery this week as well. The plant continues to show slight color improvement in the aerators and some improved clarity in the secondary clarifiers. We have continued to use the extra portable mixers in the aeration basins as well as our diesel pump. We did increase hypo to the headworks over the weekend and continued feeding hypo to the diversion basins to assist in controlling odor complaints. Let us know if you have any questions. 


From Brian Bruce to Tom Butt and Yader Bermudez, October 16, 2020:

Hi Yader & Mayor Butt,  

The higher than normal odor last night that we also registered on our handhelds was coming from the Headworks coming into the plant, primaries and the diversion basins.  Yader, as I stated in the email to you and the State Board at the end of the day yesterday this was anticipated to happen with the high heat and if the wind died like it did. We were adding hypo to the full diversion basins all day yesterday, which are filled with the unidentified black water that came into the Plant on Wednesday. We started slowly draining these basins back to the front of the plant yesterday and will continue to do so until they get emptied.  We also started adding hypo to the headworks this morning to try and assist with the odor. We had UST bump up the hydrogen peroxide feed coming into headworks a couple weeks ago and we have all the odor misters running and Ferric is continuing to be added to the digesters. Digester H2S reading yesterday was only 10 ppm. It has been no higher than 20 ppm since Oct 1st.  The aerators have been running high to try and sustain the required O2 for the bugs, so they are definitely kicking up more odor into the air at night when the flows drop down to 2 -3 MGD. Also, this week during the day, between 7am - 3pm, we have been using our diesel pump to help circulate the aeration basin that had the drive fail in it. This is increasing the smell immensely because it is shooting the sludge about 6 feet into the air over the wall. We are running the portable waste sludge thickener, which was brought in because of the DAF breakdown, between the hours of 7 am and 6 pm, but this belt press process definitely increases the odor around the plant all day compared to the DAF unit. BAAQMD was here again yesterday with a new staff member as well testing all the different areas of the plant. Would love to have you tour the plant anytime, especially with the diversion basins full of the black fluid. Smelt like a burnt metal coming in when we first caught it and then after the basins were full, it smelt like a fish factory. Let me know if you have any questions.


From Brain K. Bruce of Veola to Robert Schlipf SFBWQCB, dated October 16, 2020:

Answers to your questions are in red below. Let me know if you have any further questions. 


On Fri, 16 Oct 2020 at 08:11, Schlipf, Robert@Waterboards <> wrote:

Hi Brian,

Thank you for the update and for the photos.  A few more questions:

  • Have you noted the heavy black influent before or was this the first time? 
    Since I have only been here since March, I asked all the operators that are here. To this degree, Yes, first time anyone seen this much or for this duration.  There has been multiple times when they have seen shorter inflows of blackened water in the past.  
  • Did you observe any odors with the heavy black influent?
    Yes, that morning it initially smelt like a burnt metal and then after we filled the diversion basins that night,  it smelt like a fish factory before we started adding hypo.
  • To characterize the heavy black influent, what are you planning to analyze samples for (e.g., metals, priority pollutant scan)?
    MBAS, NH3-N,COD, Metals (As, Cd,Cr,Ni,Pb,Zn), Volatiles, Semi-volatiles,TPH,TOC, Oil & Grease

Have you received lab results from the foam investigation? 
Just received the reports this afternoon from the first foam samples we sent. Inconclusive. 

  • Can you update us on measures you’re taking to control odors (location of the treatment plant and corrective actions such as chemical control)?
    We have increased hypo to the conversion basins and we have started adding hypo to the headworks this morning as we bring the water from the diversion basins back through the headworks. Have dropped the basins down about 3 feet so far. Have over 8 feet to go. We have bumped up the hydrogen peroxide feed coming into headworks. Ferric is continuing to be added to the digesters. All of the odor misters are up and running, including one close to the portable waste sludge thickener. 

We also received two odor complaints yesterday on our spill response line. So I would like to update management a bit more on how things are going at the treatment plant. It sounds like you have had some unfortunate events (illicit discharges to the system, operator error with return sludge routing, and aeration issues). If you’re able to give an overview on how the treatment plant is recovering from these events that would be great. Please reach out when you can.
The treatment plant is slowly recovering by the quantitative results for BOD, TSS, pH, etc. and qualitative results for settlometer, SVI and microorganisms which are showing positive signs. At this time it is premature to predict a date for total recovery. We will continue to provide detailed updates for the performance of the facility. Hope to have Aeration # 2A VFD back up and running on Monday. Crane is scheduled to be here. We will then move the portable mixer from there to between basins 1B &1C to hopefully help with the Low DO in those basins. We have installed the other portable mixer we have between 2B & 2C Aerators to try and maintain the DO there. We would like to encourage the Water Board representatives to visit the facility to obtain an overview of the process and challenges we are facing. 
Thank you, Robert

From Brian K. Bruce of Veola to Robert Schlipf and Anna Gallagher of the SFBWQCB, dated October 15, 2020:

Hi Anna & Robert,

We experienced a heavy black influent in our primary basin yesterday morning. We isolated the one half of the primaries and started diverting the flow to diversion basins. We did this for approx 5 to 6 hours until the primaries started returning to normal. 

Upon notification to the City, they immediately began checking all of their trunk line areas as did our collection crews. We ended up filling the diversion basins to approximately 12+ FT. We then started feeding the plant through the aeration basins again. So far it seems we limited the possible negative effects on the plant. Will know more after test results tomorrow. We treated the diversion basins with Hypo to help reduce the odor overnight. We sent out samples of the primary basins and the diversion basins to the lab. Should have results back in 5 days. With the Intense heat yesterday, today and the remainder of the week, odor smells and complaints will be up from what we were already dealing with. We dosed the basins with hypo again today and have begun to slowly start draining the diversion basins back to the headworks of the plant. We have dropped the level by about 8 inches so far today and will continue the process until we get it emptied. I have attached some pics of the diversion basins. We had staff here today from BAAQMD checking on the odor and what we were able to divert. Let me know if you have any questions. 

From Anna Gallagher to Brian Bruce, dated October 14, 2020:

On Wed, 14 Oct 2020 at 13:57, Gallagher, Anna@Waterboards <> wrote:
Thanks so much, Brian. No questions right now, but please do keep me in the loop as you move forward with the projects. Also, I'd appreciate if you could let me know the results of your investigations/mitigation efforts related to the plant's current water quality concerns.

From Brain K. Bruce of Veola to Robert Schlipf and Anna Gallagher of the SFBWQCB, dated October 14, 2020:

Hi Anna, 

Here is the updated schedule. It is contingent on the finalizing of the SRF Agreement between the City and the State this fall.

Grit & Aeration Project
Bids Posted: 15th September 2020
Bids Due Date: November 23, 2020
Targeted NTP Date: January 2021/February 2021
Targeted completion of construction: July / August 2023
Targeted project closeout date: July / August 2023

Sludge Thickener Project
RFB Publication Date: 
Bids Posted: October 26, 2020
Bids Due Date: November 20, 2020
Targeted NTP Date: February 2021
Targeted completion of construction: January / February 2022
Targeted project closeout date: March 2022

Also, the repair of the DAF unit is dependent on the estimated arrival of the ordered parts (the main column pipe had to be fabricated) which are scheduled for Mid-December.  The portable sludge thickener will continue to operate until then. 

Let us know if you have any questions. 


From Brain K. Bruce of Veola to Robert Schlipf and Anna Gallagher of the SFBWQCB, dated October 13, 2020:

Hi Anna, 

We were successful in re-installing the repaired Aerator # 2C yesterday and then with pulling out Aerator #1A. We installed the temporary mixer into 1A while we diagnose the issues on the pulled motor. We are still waiting for lab results from last week's sampling of the foam. We are continuing to feed poly and ferric to the secondaries as well as now to the primaries. We took additional samples of the foam and sent it out for analysis as well. 

From Brain K. Bruce of Veola to Robert Schlipf and Anna Gallagher of the SFBWQCB, dated October 11, 2020:

Hi Anna,
As we discussed on Friday, Our week of 10/4 - 10/10 average for EFF 002 TSS ended up at 51.7 mg/L vs the weekly limits of 45 mg/l. We are continuing the same mitigation efforts with the addition of feeding poly and ferric to the Primaries as well as continuing to feed them to the Secondaries. We have Aerator #2C repaired and it is scheduled to go back in service tomorrow.

Unfortunately, we had another, Aerator # 2A fail yesterday morning. Because we couldn't get the crane until Monday, we did hook up our diesel pump to try and assist with some circulation in the basin. We will pull the failed aerator and install the temporary mixer after installing the repaired drive. I will send you over the schedule of the plant capital improvements by tomorrow.  --

Brian Bruce
General Manager
Municipal & Commercial


tel   +1 510 255 8169
 / cell   +1 510 374 9863
601 Canal Blvd, / Richmond, CA 94804