Aerators and floating islands may not be topics that leap to the head of the line in most discussions, but when Hollister's interim city engineer, David Rubcic, gave an update on May 1 to the Hollister City Council, the conversation quickly heated up, especially where Mayor Ignacio Velazquez was concerned.
In his report, Rubcic said a study session in 2015 about a floating-island proposal to deal with a sludge problem at the industrial wastewater treatment facility was determined to be unacceptable, so city staff looked at above-water aerators to treat tomato waste from the San Benito Foods cannery in downtown Hollister. Recently, city staff has been looking at subsurface aerators that do not throw water up into the air, but instead inject air into impellers under water.
Consultant Lloyd Bracewell, of Bracewell Engineering, gave the background for the study of the floating islands. After a lengthy and technical explanation of how floating islands work, he concluded, “Based upon science, this cannot possibly work.”
This comment primed Mayor Velazquez’ ire.
“Here’s the problem,” he began. “Years ago, we started talking about ways to solve this problem. This idea (floating islands) wouldn’t accomplish the goals, as you pointed out. What would accomplish it, according to others, was if we removed the sludge, this problem would go away. I remember this conversation because I wasn’t very happy about it.”
He said of the conversation that he foretold the problem would not be solved only to be proven right two years later, and the “problem came back with a vengeance.”
“All the experts who told us what was going to solve this problem were absolutely wrong and were nowhere to be found when the problem hit us in the summer,” Velazquez said. “Now, we’re hearing ‘because of this proposal we have another idea, we could look at subsurface aerators.’
“I want to know why that wasn’t brought up back then. What I’m seeing today is ‘another fix.’ And what I’m predicting is another problem. Maybe not this summer because we had a lot of rain. We will have the same problem over and over again because we refuse to look at different ways to handle this problem.”
The ‘fixes,' the mayor said, might have been OK 20 or 30 years ago when people accepted them, but with new subdivisions being built next to the treatment facility he said he wanted to know when the odor comes back, who can the city go to for help.
Bracewell tried to explain, from his perspective, the problem—small tomatoes.
“Unless you remove the tomatoes, you cannot remove the smell,” he said matter-of-factly. “All you can do is pump oxygen into the water to keep it from going septic and creating foul odors.”
Velazquez responded heatedly: “It wasn’t the smell of tomatoes that was making people sick in their homes. It smelled like a sewer. I drove out there at midnight and I felt bad for all those residents because it was horrible. For us to just say, ‘well that didn’t work,’ and for us to spend $1 million to pull out sludge that would solve the problem, and now we’re hearing something else the might solve the problem, I just want to know who to blame when this goes bad again.”
Rubcic asked, to no avail, that the council refrain from asking more questions until after other speakers could present their information. The council wasn’t having it.
“It’s a little late,” Councilman Karson Klauer spoke up. “A statement been made and is just going to sit out there without anybody being able to say anything back?”
When the floating islands topic came up two years ago, no expert said it would work, Klauer noted. He said he still has not heard anyone say it would actually work.
“We removed the sludge and that actually fixed that issue,” he recalled. “That has not been an issue again. I don’t think there’s been an issue with the smell like there was two years ago. We spent $2 million on it and 10 feet of sludge was taken out.”
He said he believed the problem was caused by sludge that was exposed and asked if any is now exposed. Rubcic said there wasn’t and that the problem last year was because San Benito Foods was processing “limited-use tomatoes,” or thin-skinned tomatoes that were difficult to process in the industrial waste water treatment ponds.
“One of the things we’ve talked about with San Benito Foods is if they are going to be getting limited-use tomatoes they will notify us well in advance to give us enough opportunity to get the plant running to accept the waste,” Rubcic said. He went on to explain that subsurface aerators were probably the best solution at the present time. “We’re still evaluating what we can do to improve the ponds. San Benito Foods already injects enzymes at the plant at the beginning of the season, as well as at the ponds.”
Rubcic told the council he would be lying if he promised there would be absolutely no odors.
“Things happen,” he said, “like last year, we weren’t prepared for the limited-use tomatoes that came in. Now we are.”
The new subsurface aerators were supposed to be installed in 2017, but there has been issues in finding funding, so Rubcic said he anticipated they would not be installed until 2018. Councilman Ray Friend asked that even after the subsurface aerators are installed would the city still be using “bugs” (enzymes).
“My concern is we dug that sludge out and we now have a 20-foot (he meant “year”) cushion if we don’t use these bugs to get that oxygen into that water in five years, we’re going to have sludge to the surface, like we had before,” he said.
Rubcic assured him that San Benito Foods would still inject the bugs.
“This gives us a 20-year cushion,” he said, “and we’re currently working on a new discharge permit with San Benito Foods where they’re being asked to pay for future sludge removal in a certain amount of dollars that will add up in 10 years where we will have a fund where we’ll be able to remove more sludge.”
By the end of presentations from another expert and a San Benito Foods representative, Velazquez expressed his continued frustration.
“It’s been three years talking about these things,” he said. “The idea of the subsurface aerators has caught people’s attention, but we haven’t done it. Now we’re in May, and we’re talking about not doing it because of some dollar issues. At the end of the day, your company (San Benito Foods) has to be paying for this. They should have paid for it three years ago, so maybe we wouldn’t have this problem. The idea of ‘we have a plan,’ I’m not going to buy it anymore. We sat here at this table with your company and a few others, and the city, talking about making sure this would not happen again. The public’s frustrated. I’m frustrated. And I don’t want to keep going through this over and over. I’m not going to support continuing what we’re doing here.”