Proposed SFPUC project to address foul sewage smell in Bayview-Hunters Point

The foul smells of the Southeast Treatment Plant could eventually be a nuisance of the past for Bayview-Hunters Point residents, under a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission project geared toward improving how and where the facility processes sewage.

The 750 Phelps St. plant treats 80 percent of The City’s sewage and stormwater runoff. It’s The City’s largest plant, and was constructed in 1952 when odor control wasn’t a major concern. For decades, the plant’s 10 digesters — vessels that use heat, chemical and biological reactions to process solid-waste sewage into organic materials called biosolids — have sat at the intersection of Jerrold Avenue and Phelps Street, 30 feet from residences.

Edward Hatter has lived on Jerrold Avenue a block away from the plant for a quarter-century. He particularly dreads hot-weather days because a strong stench can escape from the digesters, which have floating covers instead of fixed ones. “All of that sewage in the baking sun gives off a horrific odor. It’s almost an eye-watering odor,” said Hatter, 54. “And it’s actually gotten worse.”

SFPUC officials, however, hope to eliminate the smelly problem Hatter and other residents have complained about for years.

The SFPUC plan, which is in the early design phase, will replace the 10 outdated digesters, which process solids of a 6 percent concentration, with six digesters engineered to process solids of a 14 percent concentration, meaning more efficient treatment.

Besides utilizing the new technology by Norwegian company Cambi, used across Europe and in Washington, D.C., commission officials plan to place the new digesters at least 800 feet from where the old digesters sit, even farther away from the nearest residence to appease neighbors. The new location, adjacent to Caltrain tracks, currently holds a maintenance yard for city vehicles that will need to be relocated.

“It’s not only science and engineering that dictate it, it’s also being a good neighbor,” George Engel, superintendent of the wastewater enterprise for the SFPUC, said of the placement. “We’re going to be here for the long-term.”

The new state-of-the-art technology includes encapsulated digesters to prevent odors from escaping and a system that can produce energy to be used on-site at the plant, minimizing electricity costs, said Karen Kubick, the commission’s wastewater program capital director. In addition, the treated biosolids are expected to be high-quality enough for landscaping use, whereas current products are sold to farmers in Solano, Sonoma and Merced counties for land cover and other nonedible crop uses.

Supervisor Malia Cohen grew up in the neighborhood and represents District 10, which covers Bayview-Hunters Point. Cohen said she intends to ensure the new digesters are “tastefully done so we have a piece of city asset that is not foreign and looking out of place in the residential neighborhood.”

The commission will introduce the project to the Bayview Citizens Advisory Committee at a public meeting April 15 at the Bayview Branch Library, 5075 Third St. It will go through environmental review this summer and construction for the proposed $1.3 billion project, part of phase one of the Sewer System Improvement Program, is not expected to be completed until 2022.

Recommendations for the project were made over the past year and a half by the Southeast Task Force, a collective of residents and businesses formed in 2010, and a similar body, the Southeast Working Group. Hatter, a member of the working group for the past year, said he was “eager” to see the project moving forward, but found how long it will take “depressing.”

Diane Gray, 54, executive director of 100% College Prep Institute three blocks away from the plant, agreed the upgrades are “definitely” necessary.

“When I hear how old [the digesters] are and other places have made these types of upgrades, we have to do it as soon as we can,” she said. “And it behooves the SFPUC to be totally transparent about what the neighborhood’s expectations are.”

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