A 2½-hour special meeting of the Community Services District Monday morning began with members of the audience of over a dozen people criticizing the CSD about odors on the South and discolored tap water on the North. CSD General Manager Ed Crouse was singled out for criticism by several speakers.
"If Ed Crouse was contacted in March about the odors, why wasn't action taken then?" Al Swan asked as part of a series of questions he directed at the board when the meeting started.
"Why did you tell me this water was safe to drink when you did not scientifically know for 48 hours?" Jeanie LeBlanc demanded of Crouse. "You're clearly not doing your job."
Neighbors Jeanie LeBlanc and Wilbur Haines were among those who spoke.
Referring to an item the meeting agenda listed as the "discipline/dismissal/release" of an employee, Wilbur Haines said, "What I would like to urge is that the solution to the stench problem is an urgent problem that does need to be dealt with precipitously. The question of a personnel action is not something which can or needs to or should be dealt with precipitously."
Following the public session, the board held a 40-minute closed meeting on the employee discipline, presumed to be directed at Crouse. The employee's identity was not disclosed, which is standard procedure in personnel matters.
Following the closed meeting, Director Dick Taylor reported to the public session that the board had taken no disciplinary action in the closed meeting.
Interviewed later, Taylor said, "There is no intent at the present time on the part of the board to have that same (disciplinary) proposal appear again in the agenda."
The meeting was called to address the requirements of the notice of violation the CSD received Friday from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The notice set Wednesday as the deadline for the CSD to submit a plan of action, schedule sludge removal and provide a plan for public outreach.
The notice of violation states "periodic sludge removal is an essential part of routine wastewater treatment facility maintenance, and has apparently been overlooked for too long at Rancho Murieta. … In addition, some of the complainants expressed concern that RMCSD is not responsive to their complaints."
During the board discussion, Director Bobbi Belton was applauded when she reacted to the reported sludge buildup in wastewater treatment plant ponds by commenting, "The one question I cannot answer for myself is how did this go on for 17 years? And if I can't answer it in a satisfactory way in my own mind, I don't know how the hell we can answer the community."
But the board decided to continue the special meeting to 8:30 a.m. Wednesday after being told the cause of the odors may not be excessive sludge build-up in the treatment ponds after all, and the regional board's directive for sludge removal needs to be reviewed.
Crouse told the board he believed that with new approaches to the problem they have turned the corner on the odor issue. "We don't think the sludge in and of itself is causing the odor," he said.
Crouse said the operations manual for the wastewater treatment plant addresses sludge removal for a different part of the treatment process, "but it is silent to the sludge removal on the aeration basin."
Although Crouse acknowledges that the industry norm for sludge removal is "two to four years or as needed" and the district's records show the last removal effort for the treatment ponds was made in 1990, he said further investigation has shown the sludge "wasn't as deep as we thought it was. We originally thought it was near the surface … There's on the order of five to six feet of water depth above the sludge blanket (which) averages four to six feet deep. That's generally within industry standards …"
Ed Crouse showed bottles that contained samples taken from the ponds.
To demonstrate, Crouse held up glass jars that Paul Siebensohn, acting director of field operations, provided. They contained "core samples" of water and sludge taken from treatment Ponds 1 and 2 on Saturday, Crouse said.; "We mixed it and it settled out. … Even though it isn't 10 feet, when it settles out, the ratio is the same."
The jars contained a layer of dark material covered by murky water. The water and sludge were about the same depth in Pond 2, which Crouse said was a function of increased operation of the aerators in Pond 1. "That stirs up and keeps the sludge in suspension. And that flows through to Pond 2," he said.
The change in thinking about the cause of the odor problem was apparent when Crouse responded to a director's suggestion that the lower the sludge level, the lower the odor potential, by saying preventing odors was "more of a function of the freshness of the water. … The more oxygen in the water, the more it allows the organisms that eat the fecal matter to survive."
The notice of violation requires the CSD to monitor the dissolved oxygen levels in the ponds three times a day.
Crouse said the district purchased solar mixers for the ponds in 2002 to save on energy costs by reducing reliance on aerators. "What we're finding is perhaps that wasn't the best thing to do. … In the first pond, what you really need is the continuing ramp-up to dissolve oxygen … Now we're running the aerators pretty close to 24/7 …" he said.
Experts the CSD consulted in the past week have endorsed raising the dissolved oxygen level in the ponds and that's emerged as the way to get the system back in balance, Crouse said. "On Saturday, we brought in a firm that adds microbes to the water and they, as part of their sludge digestion, create oxygen, so that raises oxygen naturally." He said the firm is scheduled to return Friday to check the progress of the pond.
Crouse said sludge that "creeps up" the sides of the ponds is being removed by septic tank pumpers hired by the district.
Director Jerry Pasek suggested contracting with a firm on a yearly basis to maintain the edges of the ponds.
Siebensohn said removing all the sludge from the ponds is not advisable because it contains micro-organisms that contribute to the treatment process.
He said staff is keeping daily records and furnishing weekly reports to the regional board about the situation.