Woolen Mills residents say stench persists at sewage treatment plant

Wastewater department manager Gary Phillips explains how covering the outer ring of
the treatment plant’s equalization basins will eliminate most of the smells being carried to Woolen Mills. Photo: Christian Hommel Wastewater department manager Gary Phillips explains how covering the outer ring of the treatment plant’s equalization basins will eliminate most of the smells being carried to Woolen Mills. Photo: Christian Hommel

The unmistakable stench of sewage is impossible to miss on the way up Moore’s Creek Lane toward the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s administrative building. It’s bad enough with the windows up, and the smell hits like a ton of bricks as soon as the door opens.

The Moore’s Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, located next to the RWSA’s office, is less than a mile from the historic Woolen Mills neighborhood, and residents have complained for years about the unrelenting odor. The authority has taken a series of measures to fix the problem, from reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous released into the river to only operating certain machinery during the day to prevent nighttime smells, and more odor-reducing plans are in the making. Officials are hopeful that this could be the last stinky summer for the Woolen Mills neighborhood, but some residents, who claim their lives have been disrupted by the smell for too long, say they’ll believe it when they see it—or smell it.

“I don’t know where to go anymore,” said Woolen Mills resident Steve Riggs, who makes regular calls to the RWSA to complain about the smell that he says is ruining Charlottesville. “We don’t use our air conditioning; we use our windows. And we should be able to breathe.”

Riggs has no desire to move out of the neighborhood, but said he often has to travel up Route 20 to stay with his father in Key West when the smell is especially bad.

Karl Ackerman, who’s also lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, said the long-running issue has been a result of three problems: a human waste composting yard, the pumping station near the park, and the wastewater treatment plant. The composting yard closed years ago, and he said the smells from the pumping station have become more manageable, especially now that the authority is constructing an underground tunnel connecting the station to the plant.

“But we’re still left with the treatment plant,” Ackerman said. “We’ve always known that there are better and worse times of the year, and sometimes it’s just terrible. A world-class city needs a world-class treatment plant.”

The RWSA is in the process of implementing a long-term master plan that was created in 2007, and recently allotted $2 million for the sole purpose of odor management. Authority Director Tom Frederick said the original master plan, which aimed to eliminate the air pollution entirely, would have cost about $33 million, so the RWSA has instead pinpointed specific problem areas and is rolling out new efforts in phases, which he hopes will save money and eliminate up to 95 percent of the stink.

“We’ll get a big gain for a lot less money,” Frederick said. “Once you start getting above 95 and trying to reach 100 percent, you start paying astronomically more for a very small gain.”

Wastewater department manager Gary Phillips, who works amid the odors every day, said he gets calls at all hours of the night as residents are woken up by the stench wafting through their open windows, and spends a lot of his time standing and sniffing in residents’ yards, attempting to identify the cause of the smell and come up with a solution.

“We know that we stink,” Phillips said as he led a tour through the treatment plant. “But I’ve put a lot of effort into odor control and making changes so that we can stop that trend.”

Phillips said he encourages concerned neighbors to take a deep breath of fresh air, and then come by the facility for a walkthrough to see and smell for themselves where exactly the smells are coming from. The 1950s-era plant was built with economy in mind, not odor control, and the construction neglected to enclose some of the most odor-inducing structures and processes.

“This project, when they constructed it, cost too much money, so what did they do? They did value engineering, and left the walls out,” Phillips said, adding that simply building walls around certain machinery or covering grated floors with mats could eliminate some of the most putrid smells, ranging from ammonia to hydrogen sulfide.

The plant is like a buffet of odors that can be identified from different areas, most of which Phillips said don’t leave the premises. The multi-million gallon pool of raw, untreated sewage, surprisingly, offers one of the least offensive smells on the property, and is not what nearby residents are getting whiffs of during the night. What’s most often reaching their nostrils is the result of about four million gallons of waste going through the primary clarifiers, or equalization basins.

The influent sewage water passes through the clarifiers, where sludge settles to the bottom and grease rises to the top to be skimmed off. The greenish-clear water flows over the edge into a drainage ring around the circular basin, and Phillips said the constant movement of the water is what causes the smell. It’s not pleasant.

“When the wind’s just right, I would even go as far as to say it’s unpleasant,” Phillips said, laughing and gesturing at the basin.

Part of the $2 million dollars allocated to the authority in July, which Phillips said was as a direct result of a recent influx of complaints from neighbors, will go toward covering the outer ring of the equalization basins.

“The hardest part is over; we’ve got the money now,” said Phillips, who hopes the project will be completed within two years. “We’re going to cover up some pretty stinky processes.”

Phillips and Frederick have high hopes that the $2 million will be enough remove the noticeable stink that Woolen Mills residents have been enduring for longer than a decade, and they both encourage neighbors to keep in touch throughout the process.

“If people believe that the expenditures the authority’s made to date are not sufficient, they have an opportunity as part of the democratic process to talk with board members and express those concerns directly,” Frederick said. “The RWSA is always interested in what our community and its citizens want.”