Warnings from a contracted wastewater operator about the city’s domestic sewer pond potentially overflowing onto Highway 156 due to lacking maintenance prompted Hollister council members Monday to allocate $1.8 million for removal of built-up sludge.
Council members agreed to remove about 2,000 tons of the sludge, while staff members had requested removing 5,400 tons for $4.6 million.
The proposal was for the Veolia Water, the contracted operator of the domestic wastewater pond, to hire third-party contractor Synagrow to remove that 5,400 tons of sludge from the domestic treatment plant. This came after the city paid $2.13 million in 2015 to have 1,400 tons of sludge removed from both of the city’s treatment ponds.
Instead of the proposal on the agenda, council members agreed to remove a portion of the built-up sludge due to the urgency of the matter while allowing the new council, coming on board next week, to decide on what to do beyond that.
Council members unanimously approved the amended resolution as suggested by Councilman Jim Gillio, who had his last meeting Monday before moving on to be the newly elected District 4 county supervisor.
Hollister public works head Mike Chambless and a representative from Veolia who spoke at Monday’s meeting expressed significant urgency about the removal despite the fact that city officials received the same estimate on a sludge removal back in July, or five months ago. The city also did not request competitive bids on the sludge removal since it’s being done through a third-party contractor.
The new council will be sworn in next week and will have their first regular meeting Dec. 17.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez requested the item be pulled from the consent agenda, where the city staff had listed it and where it would have been lumped in with other standard approvals.
“It’s one of these items that it’s going to take more time to go over it, and I think it’s something the new council should be involved with,” said Velazquez, who has pushed for alternative sludge treatment methods in the past such as a “floating islands” concept that focuses on use of organic bacteria to consume waste byproduct.
Velazquez expressed frustration at the timing of the $4.6 million consideration and that council members hadn’t been told about it until this latest meeting. The funds for the sludge removal come from wastewater user fees, or revenue from residents’ sewer bills.
“These are the kinds of things that are really starting to bother me,” he said. “I want this information ahead of time.”
But Velazquez ended up joining other council members in approving the partial removal of sludge, as there appeared to be consensus that at least some sludge needed to be removed in the short term in order to risk costly problems, like equipment breakdowns.
That vote came after Gillio and Councilwoman Mickie Luna asked about potential consequences of not removing some sludge, and the operator responded by noting it could end up costing about $20 million if a major spill occurred. Councilman Karson Klauer also asked how quickly the third-party contractor, Synagrow, could mobilize equipment and get started on the job, and the Veoilia rep said he would express the urgency.
City Manager Bill Avera in supporting a middle-ground approach noted how approving somewhere in the range of a $1.5 million sludge removal would buy the city about three to four years of time before it becomes extremely urgent again.
Two of the incoming council members also spoke on the matter during public comment.
Councilman-elect in District 4, Marty Richman, said the city must plan ahead with such matters and not wait before such problems become imminent.
“I do think an interim solution is the best answer and I would hope that in the future, when we try to tackle this, that we have comprehensive staff work that shows all the options and where we think it’s going to go year over year,” Richman said.
Councilman-elect Rolan Resendiz in District 2 said he was uncomfortable with the dollar amount for the removal and called out the Veolia plant operator who spoke during the meeting using a prop — buildup from the sewer pond he’d held during his discussion. Veolia was set to receive a 6.5 percent overhead fee for the sludge removal, although the overhead fee did not come up during Monday’s discussion.
Photo courtesy of the City of Hollister