The stench of sewage wafting through the Woolen Mills neighborhood has sickened residents since the early 1900s. But after the completion of a 10-year and $10 million odor reduction project at the local wastewater treatment facility, project pioneers and neighbors came together to celebrate the fact that they can finally breathe easy again.
“I haven’t noticed the smell for a while now,” says longtime Woolen Mills resident and former city planning commissioner Bill Emory. “It’s a big deal.”
Emory got a shout-out from City Councilor Kathy Galvin, who doubles as a member of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority board, at the May 23 celebratory picnic in the city’s Riverside Park. They were just steps away from the wastewater treatment facility when she gave the longtime resident kudos for “sound[ing] the alarm” on the stench in 2008, and refusing to back down.
In a July 2016 interview with C-VILLE, however, Emory said that when residents called the RWSA to complain about the sewage stink in the mid-1970s, “They would tell us smell was subjective.”
Even RWSA’s director of engineering and maintenance, Jennifer Whitaker, admitted that the organization’s initial response to residents 30 and 40 years ago was that living near pollution was a fact of life. She alluded to a former unnamed utility employee who—a “long, long time ago”—famously made light of the stink by saying, “We’re not baking cookies here.”
That wasn’t the only stomach-turning illusion of food during remarks made at the picnic.
Galvin also commented on RWSA board chairman Mike Gaffney’s mention of the treatment facility’s “gravity thickeners” that condense the biosolids into a concentrated solids product.
“Mike, I can’t get the phrase ‘gravity thickeners’ out of my head,” she said. “It sounds like [they’re used to make] a powder milkshake, but then I think that through and I get really sick.”
The Moores Creek Advanced Water Resource Recovery Facility treats nearly 10 million gallons of wastewater each day, and while there are lots of technical terms to describe what went down during the project to stop the stink, Emory doesn’t mince words: They did it by “covering the cat box.”
Aside from installing those primary clarifier covers that put an end to open-air waste composting, the utility also installed air scrubber and grit removal facilities.
“It really is pretty amazing,” Emory said, while he and his dog waited near the Mouth Wide Open food truck that RWSA provided for their picnic celebration. He commended Gaffney’s leadership of the board during the “long, tortured” process of crushing the odors.
About 40 people ambled over to the truck to claim their buffalo chicken bites and pimento cheeseburgers as Whitaker hung back to exchange words with attendees who continued to approach her.
Surprisingly, her crew hasn’t received too much other feedback on the project, she said.
“It used to be something we spent lots of time responding to,” Whitaker said, and added that she feels as though the community has already accepted this stink-free reality as the new norm.
Laughing, she was sure to put a positive spin on the lack of public reaction: “We’re not hearing from people about how it’s not working.”