Bordered by open pastures, railroad lines and single-lane roads, some residents nestled in South Victoria might soon have a new, albeit unwanted, neighbor.
These residents, organized as The Concerned Citizens for the Health and Safety of Victoria, stepped up to protect their community against the dark side of modern living – sewage treatment.
The issue concerns the city’s plan to build a $20 million, 4.4 million gallon sewage treatment plant on 78 acres between southwest Ben Jordan and Odem streets.
“Once they put that plant there, it’ll stay for 50 or 100 years,” said Henry Perez, a leader of the opposition group.
Battle lines drawn
Their plan is to stop the city from receiving a permit to build at that site.
But, the city is pushing back, saying the location is the most efficient and has the smallest impact.
The city and the citizens group are involved in a series of court hearings to determine the fate of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permit to build the plant.
In January, an administrative judge will decide the outcome. If approved, construction could begin in 18 months.
Perez said his efforts are for the sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament of Victoria, located less than a mile north of the proposed site, but already about a mile east of the 50-year-old plant at 1509 S. Willow St., which would be closed.
Sister Patrice Schorp recalled the three years the city dumped its sewage sludge in the dump outside their shared fence.
“We were unable to eat outside or open our windows,” she said. “We could never celebrate outside.”
Speaking with carefully chosen words, she said although it stopped, the sisters will not “put up with it again.”
The convent would be in direct line with the southeast winds of the proposed plant and could continue to be subjected for years with sewage odor, she said.
“Nobody is against the building of the plant, but it’s the place in which it is put,” Schorp said. “They should find a place farther away. Nobody should be exposed to that odor ever again.”
The issue in Victoria was set off in early 2005 when the city’s plant operated at 75 percent capacity for three months, triggering a rule that requires cities to begin planning for expansion.
The city hired Austin-based engineers Camper, Dresser and McKee to perform a study. From that, they calculated that the city needed to add capacity of 1.9 million gallons per day to meet the projected population growth.
Expanding that location was not an option, and because the regional plant is within a limited flood-protected area, its expansion is not an option either, said Victoria Public Works Director Lynn Short.
If the city expanded it, “it would be the absolute final expansion down there,” he said. “Then you’d be back at this location.”
In thinking long term, the city decided to build a 4.4 million gallon plant and close the 50-year-old plant at Willow Street, rated for 2.5 million gallons per day, he said.
In November 2010, the city started pursing a permit to build a plant. Engineers investigated nine locations across the city, looking at proximity to the Guadalupe River and the floodplain, room to expand, population density, proximity to the $500 per foot wastewater collection mains on Bottom Road and the regional wastewater plant on U.S. Highway 59.
Eventually, officials settled on the site off southwest Ben Jordan Street.
“The problem with most of those sites was they were in a floodplain, or not close enough to the large diameter sewer mains or the regional plant site,” Short said. As a result, construction at any other site could cost millions more to build.
The issue has become a controversial topic for the May 12 city council election.
Arguments hit on transparency in planning, fiscal responsibility and closing Willow Street’s plant.
The proposal affects council District 1, represented by Councilwoman Denise Rangel.
Rangel stood her ground and has defended her votes supporting the plan.
“The decision came down to being able to close a 50-plus-year-old plant,” she said. “We have new technology, we have the ability to make a better treatment plant.”
She said she wants the proposal to include provisions to reduce its impact through landscaping, air filters and odor control.
She also noted the buffer zone is double Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s 150-foot standard.
Her opponent, Emett Alvarez, wants the city and residents to work out a settlement.
“Relocate the plant where it’s isolated and there is no human habitat within one or two miles,” Alvarez said.
He argued that the site is not the best because it could affect senior citizens, the convent, the Victoria Boys & Girls Club and an elementary school.
“Let’s revisit the hard questions and see the data and analyses,” he said. “I wasn’t satisfied three years ago, and I’m still not.”
Meanwhile, Short has assured residents that technological improvements to wastewater treatment are “neighbor friendly.”
“The Willow Street plant is very, very old technology,” Short said.
As of May, the new plant is not designed, but the technology is outlined.
The headworks, the area where raw sewage comes into the plant, would be covered to minimize odor and the air would be cleaned before being released. Neither of that happens at the Willow Street Plant.
The process of treating wastewater will be different, too, Short said.
Despite some upgrades in 1997 to Willow Street’s plant, it is still considered by many to be “a dinosaur.”
Curtis Davis, the plant’s chief operator, said it “smells like money.”
Standing at the top the primary clarifier, stage 2 of the plant, he identified the processes.
“This still has quite a bit of solids in the water,” Davis said.
It settles to the bottom, and the water flows to a trickling filter – a 14-foot-deep bed of rock, teeming with waste-eating bacteria.
Davis described the process as “feeding the plant.”
“It’s archaic,” Davis said. “You don’t see too many of these around, but it was the top of the line in the 1950s.”
That plant also uses a mechanical process that whips the water around, introducing air to support microorganism life.
The new plant would use a milder process – fine bubble aeration which provides oxygen without the turbulence, Short said.
Sludge would be piped to and processed at the regional plant, then made into mulch.
Heart of Sugar Land
The system would be similar to a 1973 wastewater plant on nine acres in the heart of Sugar Land.
When that plant was built, the area was sparsely populated. Eventually, the highway grew, and a shopping mall, hospital and subdivision moved in, surrounding the plant from all sides.
In 1994, the plant installed a “bio scrubber,” its first air-cleaning technology. The scrubber is a pile of woodchips covered in microorganisms that eat the offensive gas from the oxygen.
Ken Gutowsky, contract operator and maintenance project manager at the North Wastewater Treatment Plant in Sugar Land, is realistic about expectations.
“You’ll always have an odor,” he said.
The stench occurs as waste decomposes in the line, and releases gas.
“It’s not offensive, it’s an earthy, musty smell,” he said. “It’s like fresh-tilled ground.”
‘It’s not a big deal’
Living within 2,000 feet of the proposed site, Richard Peña, 48, has a lax attitude toward the issue.
Laced with bathroom humor, his view is simple: It’s not a big deal.
Pointing to his stomach, he asked: Where do people think sewage comes from?
“The technology is different, the chemicals are different,” he said. “If they do it right, it’s not going to smell.”
Peña, who grew up in Kingsville near a sewage treatment facility, said he is certain the plant will not bother him or his family.
“People are scared, but what are they scared about? Just the smell,” he said. “It’s going to get built either way,” he said.