After two major food processing businesses in Petaluma said they may be forced to leave town due to the cost and difficulty of disposing of their wastewater, the Petaluma City Council directed staff to actively pursue ways to better accommodate such users.

Just days after the council made analyzing the sewer plant a priority at its annual goal setting session last Saturday, Public Works Director Dan St. John had already been given the go-ahead to study the plant's ability to handle food processors' waste and find solutions.

After news surfaced that, for many food processors, the cost is prohibitive to pretreat their waste to a level the Ellis Creek Wastewater Recycling Facility can accept — despite a call to recruit these types of businesses in the city's Economic Development Strategy — city staff and several local businesses began looking for solutions to present to the City Council.

Currently, businesses that produce high density waste — like food, beverage and industrial users — can dispose of their waste at the city's plant after they've pretreated it to acceptable plant levels, which are kept stringent in an effort to protect the environment from harmful discharge. Or, they can truck their untreated waste to another municipality that will accept it. Both options come at a high cost to the businesses, and while companies say they're willing to pay their fair share, some contend that the current costs are simply too high for them to bear.

At the council's goal setting session, representatives from Straus Family Creamery, Cowgirl Creamery and the Alvarado Street Bakery all shared their concerns, with both Straus and Cowgirl saying the city's current wastewater fees and regulations were forcing them to consider leaving Petaluma.

For Straus, which employs about 100 people and currently has its offices in Petaluma and its processing plant in Marshall, the problem is expansion. According to Straus Chief Operating and Financial Officer Bob McGee, the creamery is looking to combine its two facilities into one location in late 2014 or early 2015. But to bring its food processing plant, which produces high density waste, to Petaluma, McGee said Straus would be facing approximately $1 million in initial costs to connect to the sewer system and build a pretreatment facility.

McGee said that as the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi River and the first certified organic creamery in the United States, Straus has always been focused on sustainability and environmental protection, aggressively pretreating and reusing as much of its wastewater as possible.

"We certainly understand that there are costs to become part of a system — and there should be — but the costs should be reasonable so that the business can continue," he said.

McGee added that the company has been looking at sites in both Marin and Sonoma Counties and is hoping to make a decision on a location within the next three to six months.

The Cowgirl Creamery, which employs 40 people who mostly live in Petaluma, said its costs to pretreat and connect to the sewer system have become so high that the company does not see a way to stay in Petaluma beyond their five-year lease and has begun to explore other sites.

"The number one challenge for Cowgirl Creamery as a small food processor in Petaluma is affordable wastewater treatment," wrote Sue Conley, co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery in a letter to City Council.

Conley said that when the company moved its main cheese manufacturing facility from rural Marin County to Petaluma five years ago, one of the main reasons was the allure of the future, state-of-the-art waste treatment plant the city was planning to build.

But Conley said that the total upfront cost to utilize the Ellis Creek facility would add up to about half a million dollars for the small company that disposes of 3,000 gallons of wastewater per day.

"Paying upfront for the lifetime use of Petaluma's municipal wastewater facility has a crippling effect on existing food businesses and will not do much to lure energetic entrepreneurs to our area," she added.

Joseph Tuck of the cooperative Alvarado Street Bakery, which employs 120 workers, said that though the current levels of high density material and trace minerals are very low in their waste, they are having trouble meeting the plant's standards. "We are working with the city of Petaluma on that, hoping that we can find a way for them to handle our waste," Tuck said. "If we had known at the time we expanded to Petaluma five years ago that the plant was set up the way it is, we probably would have selected a different location."

At Saturday's City Council goal setting session, all the council members agreed to make it a priority for city staff to find a way to help these businesses. Mayor David Glass pointed out that these businesses are "dear to this community's heart" and expressed a deep interest in keeping them in Petaluma.

Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said she wants to see the city play an active part in retaining these companies. "As long as it's local businesses, I'd like to have a role in that," she said.

City Manager John Brown and St. John, along with city staff, have already begun looking at options, though both say the process will not be quick and easy.

"This is going to take some work, so we just needed council to direct us to either do it or not," said Brown at the meeting.

Specifically, St. John has been tasked with analyzing the capabilities of the plant to handle food processors' waste and seeing if the plant can be or needs to be modified to retain these businesses. He will be bringing in an outside consultant to assist with the analysis. If plant changes are deemed to be required, St. John and the consultant would also need to create a rate structure that guarantees any costs stemming from modifications to the plant would be borne by the food processing and industrial users, rather than general ratepayers.

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