So many questions, so little time. That seemed to be the issue for Saline City Council Monday night, as they sat down for a one-hour meeting to discuss the substantially-completed wastewater treatment plant odor abatement project.
By the time Brian Rubel, VP of Tetra Tech, the company that managed the two-year, $3.8 million project for the city, finished his report, council had about 20 minutes for questions.
With a spike in odor complaints coming only weeks after city officials declared the project a success, council had many questions.
Rubel said that his firm, and Webster, the company which conducted odor testing, were “thrilled” with the results of testing conducted 45 days apart earlier this year. Tests showed the fixes removed more hydrogen sulfide than specified, Rubel said.
E&L Construction, of Flint, performed the work, replacing odor scrubbers and adding carbon adsorbers around the Monroe Street plant and a pumping station on South Ann Arbor Street.
Mayor Brian Marl was pleased the work came in $220,000 under budget, thanks in large part to a $100,000 in debt forgiveness by the state.
Still, Marl was troubled by increased odor complaints over the last two weeks.
“It seems as if the number of complaints have spiked over a two-week period, and that concerns me,” Marl said.
It’s unclear what’s causing the more recent odor complaints.
Rubel seemed to point toward malfunctioning rotating biological contactors. Rubel said hydrogen sulfide concentrations are 10 times higher than they were two years ago in the RBCs.
Six of the 18 RBCs aren’t rotating.
“Fixing the RBCs should lower concentrations of hydrogen sulfide,” he said.
Rubel said any leaks in the RBCs could cause odor issues.
Asked by Mayor Marl how much it would cost and how long it would take to repair the RBCs, city water and wastewater treatment plant superintendent Steve Wyzgoski estimated it might cost $16,000 to repair one. He said repairs might take 2 ½ months.
Councillor Janet Dillon questioned the wisdom of repairing the RBCs.
“I’m concerned we’re repairing obsolete equipment. If we fix these, are we going to have six more break down? It seems like a perpetual problem. At what point is it too much,” she said.
Wyzgoski said that until the city determines its longterm plans, which might involve changing the technology at the exiting site, building a new plant, or connecting to a regional wastewater system, the city has to work with existing technology.
“For treatment purposes and odor control, we need to have functional RBCs,” Wysgoski said.
Rubel noted that RBCs do require maintenance every year, but said they save $60,000 a year in energy costs.
It’s not clear the malfunctioning RBCs are the cause of the odor. Rubel said he visited the wastewater treatment plant over the weekend and quickly came up with a list of 13 things that could be causing odor issues. Councillor Girbach asked to be provided with the list.
Girbach said he’s noticed different types of odors from the plant. He described one odor as “chemical” and another as smelling like “rotten cabbage.” He also said he’s noticed the odors seem worse between 5 and 8 p.m.
“For me, a key is understanding why we have different odors,” Girbach said.
He wondered if an industrial water user like American Soy might contribute to the issue.
Councillor Christen Mitchell was upset that the $3.8 million odor abatement project hadn’t put an end to odor issues.
“I’m cross because when we talked about this repair, my question was, ‘Was there anything else we need to look at? We are going to spend millions of dollars, is this going to fix it?’ And the answer was, ‘This is going to fix it,’” Mitchell said. “It’s Sept. 9, 2019, and it’s pretty bad.”
Mitchell wasn’t happy with an RBC repair that might take two months or more.
She said council needed another work session to go over issues in the report.
Toward the end of the meeting, Mitchell and Rubel had an exchange that may encapsulate the issue.
“Can we isolate the equipment and say for sure, yes, this is working,” Mitchell asked.
Rubel defended the project.
“It meets the specification,” he said.
Mitchell took issue with the answer.
“The specification might be, Mr. Rubel, that it doesn’t smell,” she said.
“There will be odor from a wastewater treatment plant,” he replied.
The meeting began with public comments from Bonnie Armbruster and Jim Roth, who live near the plant, and Mary Hess.
Armbruster lives on Circle Court, across the river from the plant. She said she’s experienced the odor problem for 26 years and she’s had enough.
“I can’t use my yard. I can’t sit on my deck. At 3 o’clock in the morning, I’m awakened thinking my little dog has done her business under my bed. When I get up, and look under the bed and walk through the house, there’s nothing there,” Armbruster said. “It’s coming into my home. It’s not just my home. It’s neighbors. It’s people across the court for me.”
Roth, a former council member who was frustrated by the city’s reaction to this problem when the problem worsened several years ago, said he lives 150 feet from the plant’s clarifier. Roth thanked council for the time and money spent on the issue. But, he said, council was misled by the experts they hired.
“It’s déjà vu all over again. And I can’t blame you on council. You’ve been taken again by consultants who are supposed to be the experts. It happens to the City of Saline all too often,” Roth said.
At some point, council will have to decide what’s an acceptable level of odor for people who bought homes near a wastewater treatment plant.
That might explain why Mayor Marl laughed off reported odor issues as far away as Woodland Meadows school or Saline High School. Marl said he thought those complaints were unrealistic and illogical and said they distracted from those experiencing what he said were legitimate issues near the plant.
“I’m never obligated to prove a negative. I don’t have to prove you don’t smell the plant. You would have to provide me metrics and data to prove that you can,” Marl said.
Marl said council will discuss this issue at its meeting Sept. 16. Council will discuss the RBCs issue and could schedule another work meeting.