The sewer debate goes on

Because the city's 3-year-old wastewater treatment plant currently does not process untreated, high density waste from Petaluma's food processing users — despite the fact that the city's General Plan specifically calls for the growth of those industries — city staff and local business leaders are looking for ways to address the growing need in the hopes that the City Council will make it a goal at its upcoming goal setting session.

The evaluation of the plant comes on the heels of news that, while the state-of-the-art and environmentally cutting-edge plant is doing its job of producing treated wastewater that far exceeds state requirements for cleanliness, it does not take high density waste produced by many of the food processing and industrial businesses in town if that waste hasn't been pre-treated to a certain level first.

Many businesses say they are finding it cost-prohibitive to build a pre-treatment facility.

Public Works Director Dan St. John said that when it was designed, the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility was meant to strike a balance between financial costs and environmental and public benefits for the city.

"It may not have been the cheapest, but it accomplishes the same (sewage treatment) goals while enriching the environment and the city. That's what the council wanted," said St. John.

The plant design was approved in 2005, while the city's General Plan was adopted three years later. The plant was designed to require food processors to pretreat their high density waste to a certain, stringent level before taking it for further treatment to the plant, something that many food processors say is prohibitively costly. Meanwhile the General Plan and Economic Development Strategy, seemingly in contrast, call for the development of these businesses.

Why the apparent disconnect exists between the three city planning documents remains unclear. Several people involved in the facility's design gave differing answers as to whether the plant was ever meant to take high density waste.

According to former City Councilmember David Keller, who was on the council that approved the new plant, it was never the goal to accept high density waste from food processing and industrial users without the companies pretreating the waste themselves. Janice Cader-Thompson, a former city councilmember who sat on the council just before the plant was approved, contended that it was always the intention to accomodate more food processors at the plant, but that high density waste producers were meant to have to pay additional costs for their waste to be treated.

Gary Imm, former CEO of Clover Stornetta Farms, and Ralph Sartori, former plant manager of what is now Petaluma Creamery, said they recall being promised a plant that would be able to handle their companies' high density waste.

Regardless of the original intentions, city officials now say the plant may need some tweaking in light of growing food processing and industrial needs in town.

Onita Pellegrini, CEO of the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce, said that the business interests in town merely want to know what needs to be done to allow high density waste from food processors and industrial users to be treated at the facility.

"There's a great deal of expense associated with trucking high density waste to other sewer plants," she said, referring to companies like Lagunitas Brewing Co., which anticipates spending approximately $1.5 million in 2013 to truck its sludgy waste to the East Bay Municipal Utilities Department in Oakland. "Businesses are happy to pay their own way, so let's figure out what it costs and do it."

Some options the city might consider include building a joint pretreatment facility for all food processing and industrial users to share — at the food processors' expense, creating a sliding scale for users to dump their waste at the plant at higher rates, or keeping everything as is and having companies continue to pretreat all their waste at a high expense or truck it to other municipalities. There are other methods the city is studying as well, such as accepting the waste and using it to generate electricity, though these methods would require major modifications to the existing plant.

Meanwhile, debate continues about how the city came to have a 3-year-old, $120 million dollar, state-of-the-art plant that doesn't meet the needs of some food processors. Before the facility was finalized, Sartori sat on a four-person citizen advisory committee that spent more than two years reviewing the potential design of the city's new sewage treatment plant. Sartori said the committee came up with a plant they felt would meet the needs of Petaluma, with a special eye toward food processing interests.

"The plant that was proposed by us was estimated to cost approximately $40 million, and would have handled agricultural waste," said Sartori. "Then it went to council and we wound up with a completely different plant than what we proposed."

But according to some, the original citizen advisory committee may have not focused enough on balancing environmental needs with financial responsibility. Cader-Thompon said that the citizen advisory committee provided a "low-ball" estimation with the hope of simply building it for as low a cost as possible. She and Keller said that additions to the original plant design, such as the polishing ponds, were a huge environmental benefit.

"We're releasing directly into the Petaluma River so cleanliness is extremely important," said Cader-Thompson.

But some food processing interests in town claim that the environmental benefits have outweighed the capabilities and financial costs of the plant. "It's a great facility, but when you look at what we got for the price tag, it's a far cry from what we now need — especially when you realize that we thought we were investing in a plant that would meet all our needs for a long time to come," said Sartori.

City staff is planning to present its findings on how food processing needs could be better met at the City Council's yearly planning session on Saturday, Feb. 2.

(This story was amended on Feb. 6, 2013 to more accurately reflect what kind of wastewater the plant can accommodate.)

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)