Fecal Matters

When it comes to sewers, San Francisco just can't get its shit together

The spill released 94 million gallons of rainwater and sewage into Lobos Creek, doing so much damage to the ecosystem that Water Board inspectors estimated it would take three years to recover. In all, the catastrophe cost San Francisco an estimated $25 million in emergency repairs, fines, and legal settlements.

While clearly the largest, and perhaps weirdest, the Sea Cliff incident was not the first such occurrence. Earlier in 1995, a sinkhole had grabbed a firetruck in the Richmond District. In November 1994, collapsing pipes caused a 100-foot-wide hole on Pacific Avenue that sucked in four cars.

For most of his life, John Allen has worked for the City and County of San Francisco in some fashion or another. He retired from the city's employ after 25 years of service, but continued to serve on public interest committees in Bayview-Hunters Point. A particularly polite gentleman, Allen has reaped the rewards of hard work and frugal existence. He owns eight apartment buildings in the area, recognizable by the passages of biblical Scripture painted prominently on the outside of each. Allen believes the Scripture sets an inspirational, respectful tone. One of his apartment buildings is near the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant.

Allen is very familiar with the dull stench of rotting sewage. Off and on, he smells the sewage at his home, across Third Street from the plant. His tenants live with the stink every day. But there's something even more aggravating to Allen than the smell. It is the mosquitoes that breed at the sewage plant.

"I would be over working on the building and come home covered with bites," Allen says, poking a finger at his face and neck for emphasis. "My tenants were complaining. It would be epidemic, and the sewer plant refused to acknowledge that they had a problem.

"At one point, they sent someone out to exterminate the mosquitoes," Allen says. "Other times they just ignored me."

From the beginning, residents of Bayview-Hunters Point wanted nothing to do with the sewer plant expansion called for in the waste-water master plan. But then-Mayor Joseph Alioto struck a deal with the community: Along with an expanded southeast treatment plant, the neighborhood would get a new community center, with a branch of City College on-site. Also, an underground, cross-town tunnel would be built, to take most of the sewage west, to the Oceanside Treatment Plant. And, the neighbors were promised, the newly renovated southeast plant would be "odorless."

The neighbors got a community center.
The tunnel, estimated to cost $300 million, has created years of controversy -- environmentalists opposed it, Bayview neighborhood groups demanded it -- but has yet to be built. City officials say it's dead. Johnson Lam, inspector for the Regional Water Quality Control Board, says it's still a possibility. There is absolutely no ambiguity, however, on the issue of odor. The Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant still stinks to high heaven.

The plant, first constructed in 1952, now includes about 40 acres of sewage treatment facilities that handle 85 million gallons of waste per day (250 million gallons per day in wet weather).

Once at the plant, sewer water goes into seven or eight big tubs called primary clarifiers. At least some of the doors atop these tanks are typically open, so that engineers can observe the flow. Not surprisingly, the tanks smell like rank, standing water. The sewage then moves along into open pools that are about 100 feet across and 15 feet deep. There, sprinklers add fresh water, in an aeration process that approximates what might happen in a natural pond.

Things really start to stink when waste moves into the secondary treatment side of the equation. This secondary process starts with something called dissolved air flotation thickeners -- six big tubs of warm, thick, bubbly, brown goo that smells so foul it's nearly impossible to be near them for more than a few minutes without losing lunch. The tubs are entirely open, their pungent smell filling the air.

And then, the sewage moves into the much-discussed star of the plant -- the anaerobic digesters, which look kind of like silos. There are currently six in use, each full of about 1.7 million gallons of thickened, smelly sludge. That sludge stays for about 20 days. During that time, bacteria digest the sludge, in a process similar to what goes on inside human intestines. Not surprisingly, the digesters constantly create gas. These old digesters are designed in such a way that there is about 4 inches around the top of each one that is open to the outside. The smell emitted from the digesters is basically that of methane -- swamp gas.

The city hired a consultant to create an Odor Control Master Plan for the southeast plant. It prescribes more than $180 million of covering, venting, and replacing of equipment. It is unclear where that money would come from.

By contrast, the Oceanside plant, built in the early 1990s, has modern digesters that are entirely enclosed and self-cleaning. In fact, the entire plant is enclosed and barely noticeable to the casual observer, a particular sore point with the neighbors of its smelly, old, southeast cousin.

On the kind of summer evening that turns a warm, sunny day into a cool, foggy night in the Bayview, a group of people who are painfully out of their element gravitates to the front of a room in the Southeast Community Center. They take seats behind their name plates: Ann Moller Caen, Robert Werbe, Frank Cook, Dennis Normandy. They are San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission, charged with overseeing such vital yet mundane functions as the city's sewer and water systems.

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