Industrial Waste Stretches Treatment Plant to its Limits

Unexpected growth of local breweries and dairies has caused the city to consider new upgrades to the Ellis Creek Treatment facility. But what they will be and who will pay for it all remains unclear


The Ellis Creek Wastewater Treatment plant has increased capacity to treat both industrial and residential waste and is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

An article in last week’s Argus Courier said that the plant, which opened in 2009 and cost the city more than $120 million, has design flaws that prevent it from taking on high-grade industrial waste from breweries and dairies. 

But according to Petaluma Public Works Director Dan St. John, that’s just not true.

“We got what we ordered. But times have changed and now we’re being asked to do more,” St. John said. “We have food and beer waste demands that were not anticipated ten years ago when the plant was being designed.”

Complaining about it, says St. John, is a bit like buying a Ford and then wanting to take it to the Indianapolis 500.

“There’s nothing wrong with a Ford; it just wasn’t designed for that.”

Unprecedented Growth

Over the past decade, companies like Lagunitas, Clover Stornetta Farms, Petaluma Creamery and Petaluma Poultry have grown, some, like Lagunitas, by leaps and bounds.

But more product means more waste, such as whey from cheese manufacturing, fat from milk and ice cream production and high nutrient water from beer brewing, that can’t simply be piped back into the city’s wastewater treatment plant without doing serious damage.

Large industrial users have always had to pre-treat their waste, separating sludgy solids and hauling them to bigger facilities that can process them, while sending the rest of the pretreated waste to Ellis Creek.

But in recent years, local companies have complained that pre-treatment is expensive, costing them millions each year. Unhappy businesses make the Chamber of Commerce and many at City Hall nervous these industries will pick up and leave, robbing the city of critical tax revenue and jobs.

Leon Sharyon, CFO of Lagunitas Brewing Company, said his company is willing to pay for improvements, but wants the city to meet them half way.

“Industrial users don’t expect the residential community to bear our costs, but at the same time we’re not insignificant businesses as tax payers and employers,” Sharyon said. “It’s a balance between allowing us to grow and generate tax revenues and the ability for them being able to accommodate the growth. You have to find that sweet spot.”

Financing Improvements

Everyone agrees that expanding Ellis Creek’s ability to process more industrial waste is an important part of keeping Petaluma’s dairy and craft beer industries thriving, as well as attracting new companies to town.

But the question remains: Who should pay for it all?

If upgrades are done, it may mean an increase in rates, which have already doubled over the past decade to pay for Ellis Creek.

“There may be some inexpensive things we can do at the plant to increase capacity,” said St. John, the Public Works director.

“We have a brand new extended aeration system, so it’s something we can study. But if we get into major capital improvements, someone has to pay for it. And if we do something that benefits a certain class of customers, then the folks that benefit need to be the ones who pay.”

Ned Orett, a Petaluma engineer who served on the citizens’ advisory committee for the plant and was a sustainability advisor on the initial design process, says one way of dealing with high strength wastewater is to build a pretreatment unit at Ellis Creek capable of handling high-density waste.

Another option is for companies to get together and build one shared pre-treatment facility.

“The likely least expensive way to take care of this would be to build an animal waste digester that would convert the waste to energy,” he said, adding that similar projects have been built in Denmark, Germany and India.

Out of Compliance

The city has strict guidelines on handling industrial waste, requiring any company that discharges more than 25,000 gallons a year to pre-treat it first. But the extent of the pre-treatment varies from company to company.

For example, Lagunitas segregates its waste and does a pH adjustment, then hauls the wastewater to East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland. Clover pre-treats waste on site, then transports the solids to another facility.

Meanwhile, the city’s Water Resources and Conservation Department conducts annual inspections of industrial users and collects samples twice a year. In addition, companies are required to conduct their own sampling each month and submit results to the city.

“We get involved when we need to, but if everything is working smoothly, we trust them to take samples and report to us,” said Lena Cox, an environmental services supervisor at Ellis Creek. “We trust them to do the right thing.”

But according to a recent report, not everything is going smoothly.

In the first six months of 2012, five of the city’s seven largest industrial users were found to be out of compliance when it came to testing their pre-treated waste.

Lagunitas was found to be in “significant non-compliance” in at least seven instances, with tests showing elevated levels of nickel, copper, biochemical oxygen demand, which is the amount of water needed to break down organic material.

Petaluma Creamery was also found to be in non-compliance, with higher than allowable levels of oil, grease and copper in their treated waste water. Lace House Linen, a commercial laundry, was fined for higher than allowable levels of oil and grease in their treated water.

See the full list of violations in the documents on the right

A call and emails to Lace House Linen were not returned by press time, but Lagunitas’ Sharyon said his company is aware of the violations.

“We also know that the limits imposed by the city are very low relative to other municipalities,” he said. “So we end up triggering all of them.”

Ralph Sartori, the former plant manager of California Cooperative Creamery, now Petaluma Creamery, said the plant has since taken steps to correct the problems, but also criticized the way contaminants were measured.

“We want to conserve water, but there is no incentive for food processors to do so because when you do, your concentrations go up and the way the permits are written, you will be fined,” he said.

“If I was a food processor, Petaluma would be one of the last locations I’d want to move to is here because of the high cost of wastewater.”

No one quite knows how much upgrades to Ellis Creek will cost or what they will entail, although a serious discussion is under way to address the issue. The topic will likely be discussed at council’s upcoming goal setting session on Saturday, February 2.

“It’s easy to ask questions, but finding an answer for each question may cost $50,000,” said St. John. “We need to be patient. We need to get the best people on the project and cost them out so we have a full understanding of what the economic implications are.”

What do you think is the best way to upgrade Ellis Creek? 

Montgomery Powell January 24, 2013 at 03:54 PM
Business that do not pay their own freight should move to Texas or Oklahoma. Petaluma is not an industrial town. It is a bed room community. We do not need polluting parasites. And the sewage plant is a fiscal and planning disaster. Giving even more money to the incompetent and out of control water dept is NOT a good idea.
Max January 25, 2013 at 03:03 AM
This is just the the start of our city's problems with unresolved growth polices and unsustainable planning & development practices. A $165 million dollar water treatment plant without factoring in the "pro business" mantra? City planning seminar 101 will tell you; Infrastructure is all based upon projected population and business growth & development. So, who subsidizes the development industry? Get ready folks, cause hundreds of millions in traffic infrastructure is almost upon us, when two very large retail projects come on line in Petaluma. This is obviously a result of many years of poor leadership in city hall. For instance, at a recent scoping session, council member Healy was asked about defining development & zoning codes, he responded, "not necessary... we'll know it when we see it" We will be paying for the infrastructure and city services to support all the new development in the city, get ready for another tax bond measure to raise the revenue needed! M. Powell, Petaluma is not a "bed room community" anymore!
Mitch January 25, 2013 at 05:54 AM
We paid $120 million for the plant and Mr. St. John says we got what we ordered? Admit fault for once, Dan.
Bryant Moynihan January 25, 2013 at 06:14 AM
Oops! Dan St. Jean wasn't here when the city promised to serve the community for the next 25 years. The city council can't manage the utilities and play politics at the same time. We need a PUC to serve the community -B
Garrett January 26, 2013 at 06:45 PM
These comments are interesting, however if you look at the businesses that are listed, these are small businesses. They are focused on high quality food products made in Sonoma County. Its not like these are huge companies producing low quality foods. These companies reflect our values for organic foods, sustainable agriculture, and product labeling. Most interesting to me is that these are all in locations that were built decades ago. Its not like Target is causing *this* problem. These are not developments where we are converting empty farm land to manufacturing, these are spaces that are being converted from "Dirtier" businesses to the new economy that Sonoma County needs. The City of Petaluma would be wise to show some leadership here and set a vision for this type of activity by becoming the most progressive city in the county to properly develop these businesses.
Craig Marston January 28, 2013 at 06:45 PM
Really, Less than four years into our " 50 year plant " and it's already not meeting our needs. What kind of future did you plan for ? Population reduction ? And None of our city leaders ( past and present )are accountable. The large price tag would be tolerable, If our needs were met.
Margaret Diamond March 01, 2013 at 08:59 PM
From what I read it's not the industrial waste that does the major contamination of our water but the agricultural waste that needs pre-treatment before it gets into our rivers and drinking water. This website shows the REAL problems with Petaluma's water. http://www.ewg.org/research/water-treatment-contaminants


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