As City Hall continues to brainstorm about how to increase the wastewater treatment plant’s capacity, patience is running out for some local businesses, including Lagunitas.
The brewery has had a meteoric rise since opening in 1995, with sales nearly doubling last year. The tasting room is regularly packed and production booming, with 235,000 barrels churned out last year and 175 people on the payroll in Petaluma.
But because the Ellis Creek plant can’t handle all of Lagunitas’ nutrient-rich beer discharge, the company must pay $250,000 every month to truck it to East Bay Municipal District. It has also accrued thousands in fees for not adequately pre-treating its wastewater before releasing it into the city’s system.
“The reason we haven’t pulled the trigger yet is because the city keeps on telling us to hold on,” said Tony Magee, founder and chief operating officer. “But we can’t wait two years. That’s $3 million!”
Instead, Magee is contemplating building his own pre-treatment facility on a 3-acre parcel behind the brewery the company purchased last year. If he does so, other companies have indicated that they would consider bringing their waste to the pre-treatment facility.
“It’s definitely a maybe,” said Joseph Tuck, CEO and general coordinator at Alvardo Street Bakery. “We’d look at what the most cost effective way would be,” adding that the bakery’s output is significantly lower than Lagunitas and many other food manufacturers.
Five years ago Alvardo Street Bakery moved from Rohnert Park, but Tuck says the company has been disappointed with the fees the company has been slapped with.
“If we had known this would be an issue, we may have looked at other cities,” he said.
That’s a sentiment echoed by other food manufacturers including Cow Girl Creamery, which has also looked at building its own pre-treatment plant at its First Street location but says the costs of doing so are prohibitive.
In addition to the $250,000 plant, the building owner would have to put in a bigger pipe to handle the waste. Cow Girl would then have to pay a $236,000 sewer capacity fee in order to transfer the waste to the Ellis Creek facility.
“Although we were hopeful that Petaluma would be an easier place to do business than Marin County, this has not proven to be the case,” wrote owner Sue Conley in a letter addressed to the city. “At every step when we deal with the city everyone is friendly and supportive, but the policies, costs and confusion around zoning rules and regulations make Petaluma an incredibly difficult place to do business.”
Petaluma’s Economic Development Director Ingrid Alverde says the city is aware of businesses’ concerns and is working as fast as it can to correct the problem.
“It’s a complicated issue and it takes time…It would be ideal if businesses’ needs and the city’s needs dovetailed, but that doesn’t always happen,” Alverde said.
Still, Petaluma has “bent over backwards” to meet the needs of Lagunitas in terms of permits and fees, she said.
“At the end of the day, every business is going to make a decision that makes sense for them.”
Despite the steep costs of treating waste and ongoing fines for surpassing the set standards for water quality, Lagunitas isn’t about to pack up and move somewhere else. But, says Magee, it can reduce how much production occurs in Petaluma in lieu of its new production facility in Chicago, opened last year.
“There is no cost to the city to say ‘no’ to me, but there is a cost of saying ‘yes,’ says Magee. “And as the old saying goes, you shouldn’t have a partner who has less to lose than you.”
What do you think is the best way to increase Ellis Creek's capacity for treating high density waste? Are you concerned that companies like Cow Girl could leave Petaluma?