Stopping the stink: Last phase of RWSA odor control project kicks off

Lonnie Wood, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s interim executive director, says components number four and five on the map are the “main culprits” for the stink. Courtesy of RWSA Lonnie Wood, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s interim executive director, says components number four and five on the map are the “main culprits” for the stink. Courtesy of RWSA

The smell of sewage has wafted through the east side of Charlottesville for decades, driving out some residents, nauseating the ones who have stayed and even leaching into the surgical suites at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, according to complaints by the hospital’s director at a Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority board meeting in 2014. But there’s good news: On July 15 the RWSA kicked off the final phase of a $9.33 million odor control project, which should finally stop the stink.

The odor comes from the RWSA’s wastewater treatment facility, Moores Creek Advanced Water Resource Recovery Facility, located near the Belmont-Carlton and Woolen Mills neighborhoods.

Though the first half of the treatment plant wasn’t built until the 1950s, signs of the smell can be traced back to the early 1900s. In the summer of 1916, the city’s main sewer pipe—then a straight pipe running from town into the Rivanna River—broke.

“Foul odors wafted across the mill village from the leak,” wrote Andrew Myers in The Charlottesville Woolen Mills: Working Life, Wartime and the Walkout of 1918. “The stench ended only with the arrival of the coldest winter in twenty years.”

The sewage smell has intermittently passed through town ever since.

In 2008, water engineering firm Hazen and Sawyer evaluated the issue and recommended a five-phase odor control project that would set the RWSA back almost $34 million. The authority stuck with a two-phase, long-term master plan it created in 2007, and the first phase of that was completed by mid-2012. In January 2014, RWSA was allotted $2 million from a capital improvement plan, and $9 million from the organization will initiate the final phase when construction begins next month.

“This project, as well as previous efforts starting in 2006, definitely had engineering, scientific, financial and community challenges to solve,” said Lonnie Wood, RWSA’s interim executive director, in a press release. “The [Albemarle County Service Authority,] city and county have worked well together to bring solutions to these odor problems for our neighbors through the RWSA.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Bill Emory, a former planning commissioner who purchased his Woolen Mills house in 1987 and who has lived in town since 1971. He adds that though the smell has always persisted, the RWSA has only worked diligently to eliminate the foul odors for the past decade or so. When residents would call on a regular basis in the mid-1970s, Emory says, “They would tell us smell was subjective.”

But the stench is real, and comes from the 10 million gallons of wastewater that RWSA treats each day at its facility. Last December, then-RWSA executive director Tom Frederick said it best: “We receive and have to treat what gets flushed from the toilets of 120,000 homes.”

The final phase of the project is on track to be completed by the end of 2017. Improvements include the installation of covers over key wastewater treatment systems and construction of a biological scrubber, which will vacuum the air above the systems to remove odor compounds. A sewage containment pipe and grit removal facilities will be installed, making it possible to eliminate the daily use of outdoor basins, such as post-digestion solids settling basins and the outdoor biosolids storage and handling area. RWSA will also purchase custom-covered trailers for transporting the biosolids.

Emory says it “feels good” that the project Frederick eventually got his board to approve is near completion, though the RWSA board, he says, has always been sensitive to the wants of ratepayers—most of whom do not want to pay increased rates to fund a project that doesn’t affect them.

“When you’re in Crozet and you flush the toilet, you don’t think about the smell it makes on the east side of Charlottesville,” Emory says.

But in light of the celebration, and quoting The Disagreeable Man at the July 15 kickoff, Albemarle County Supervisor Rick Randolph said, “The good are better made by ill, as odors crushed are sweeter still.”

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