sewer pond.jpg

While the smell of tomato processing is an annual summer occurrence in downtown Hollister, the foul aroma blowing across the city from the sewer ponds on the city’s west side in recent weeks were as bad as ever — prompting a full-scale review of the way effluent from San Benito Foods is handled.

“Citizen calls were critical,” said Manny Molina of Veolia Water, which operates the city’s industrial sewer ponds. “Most were simply stating, ‘it smells.’ Others said it was intermittent. That was a key component for Veolia to understand what was occurring.” Aerators used to mix up the water coming from the cannery to the ponds were intermittently sucking up sludge and casting it into the air, which spread a bad smell acorss town with the help of prevailing westerly winds.

Flows from the cannery to the ponds began to increase around July 10 and increased to 200,000 to 300,000 gallons per day by mid-July, eventually increasing to more than 2.5 million gallons per day. That is 300,000 more gallons per day than the domestic wastewater facility processes from all water and sewer users in Hollister. “It’s kinds of zero to 100 miles per hour in a few days,” Molina said. “San Benito Foods effectively out-produces all the citizens.”

An on-call operator for Veolia received the first report of a foul aroma at 12:30 a.m. on July 27, Molina told the council. Crews later that morning turned on aerators in an effort to help process the water but the aroma complaints persisted. The city received calls from July 29-31, during which time Mayor Ignacio Velasquez called a meeting with the city manager, Veolia, the city engineering department and San Benito Foods to seek a solution.

On July 31, Veolia requested that San Benito Foods discharge an additional 200,000 gallons of water per day to help flush the system and the company immediately responded. The cannery, Molina said, “has been a responsive and responsible corporate citizen.”

Odor complaints have “dropped off significantly,” Molina noted, saying that “now we’re down to the standard tomato smell that you’re going to smell” and away from the “more obnoxious odors.”

In a PowerPoint presentation, Molina laid out steps that will be taken by the various stakeholders to prevent another smelly summer next year:

– The city and San Benito Foods will “review the efficacy of the treatment permit,” which is five years old.

– The city will increase its staff’s pre-processing checks to gauge the cannery’s preparedness prior to the discharge of processing waste

– The city anually flushes the sewer line that transmits waste from the downtown cannery to the treatment plant on the city’s west side, but because of the drought less solids were naturally washed out of the system, increasing the bad aroma.

“Thirty-three million gallons of water drained out of those ponds due to the drought stressed the plant,” Molina reported. “We will evaluate 30 days prior to the anticipated start of canning whether we need more water,” such as well water, which he noted is a “very valuable resource.” Veolia also plans to do preseason checks to make sure it can handle the cannery flows as well.

“These ponds sit idle for months,” Molina said. “It changes from a bad Bloody Mary to a pond where geese and ducks live. The sudden load of water (during the processing season) may require ponds to be seasoned, if you will, so the biology develops (to break down the tomato processing wastewater) when the flows come. The system is very old. We will evaluate the processes and impact of sludge and capacity of the plant.”

Councilman Victor Gomez said he did not receive constituent complaints about the smell in his district, which is across the city from the sewer ponds, but he said “it was miserable” downtown. “We just need to come together and figure out a solution before the next operating year begins.”

Mayor Velasquez said he was “impressed to see everybody work together toward a solution.”

“It’s important that we have these conversations,” he said. “The cannery is a very important part of our community and, of course, we’re glad that you’re here” he said to San Benito Foods representatives in the audience. “We won’t get rid of the smell entirely — we’re going to smell some odors. But we should never have to go through what the citizens had to go through. I smelled it at my house every morning and every evening.”