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Not on my land! 

Property owners say no to Rio Dell’s treated wastewater and sludge

Photos by Yulia Weeks

Until recently, county residents living just outside of Rio Dell’s city limits didn’t think there was any reason to worry about the machinations of Rio Dell’s public works department.

But now, because of tightening regulation of the city’s sewage system, some property owners in the bucolic Metropolitan Road area — nestled between the Eel River and Highway 101 just north of town — are worried that treated effluent and sewage sludge from Rio Dell’s proposed new wastewater treatment facility might one day end up on their pastures.

The consequences, according to them, would be deleterious and irrevocable.

“This is a neighborhood of people who have invested their lives in keeping this land flourishing with wildlife and keeping it pristine, and also supporting the organic dairies that supply milk to people, including the population of Rio Dell,” said long-time Metropolitan resident Roseann Potter last Saturday. The area has two dairies — one grazes organic milk cows.

“If you look at the zoning you’d think it was just a bunch of cows,” Roland Potter said, echoing his wife, “but this is a neighborhood that watches out for each other.”

Roland Potter is a formidable man and a Vietnam veteran. With his thinning hair pulled back into a small ponytail, you’d never guess he makes his living as a Certified Public Accountant. Roseann, a nurse, is intensely energetic, and when the two of them get worked up about something they resemble a pinball machine with multiple balls in play.

In 2006, when the Potters were contacted by the city of Rio Dell and informed of a proposal to use their fields for the city’s sewage disposal, Roland Potter was less than copacetic.

“I told them that it would be a cold day in the nether regions when that would happen,” he said. In hindsight, he admits he could have handled things differently. “I should have gone over and reasonably listened to everything they had to say,” he said. “But I don’t think anything they could have said would have convinced me that their sewage proposal proposition was anything but detrimental to our property and our drinking water and our property values.”

In the past, Rio Dell’s sewage system hasn’t exactly inspired confidence. The city is presently discharging treated effluent into percolation ponds along the Eel River. But the Regional Water Quality Control Board has said that must stop. It issued a cease and desist order that gives Rio Dell until 2009 to find another way to get rid of its liquid waste.

Now the city has published a draft of its options for dealing with the problem. In a document dated this month, the Eureka engineering firm Winzler & Kelly analyzes four alternatives for Rio Dell sewage disposal. The most favorable plan, according to the report, is to purchase or lease up to 250 acres of agricultural land near Metropolitan Road. That plan would involve reuse of wastewater through irrigation, application of biosolids (the sludge left over after wastewater is treated) and the construction of a storage pond on the former site of the Eel River Sawmills, a brownfield located across the highway.

That’s the plan that has Metropolitan Road concerned. But James Hale, Rio Dell Public Works Director, feels the Potters’ fears are unfounded. “We have really clean sewage,” he said on Monday. “I wish that these people [the land owners] would come in and talk to me because I’m a genuine person and I could alleviate some of their fears.”

Hale said Rio Dell would like to build a tertiary water treatment system, which means that the treated wastewater would be clean enough to drink. But that, Hale admitted, is a very-best-case scenario. The city’s environmental impact report proposes wastewater cleaned up to a standard known as “Disinfected Secondary-23,” which is not drinkable and can’t be used to irrigate areas with unrestricted access, like public parks.

According to California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the oldest and biggest organic certifying bodies in the state of California, Disinfected Secondary-23 recycled water also can’t be used on organic dairy farms they certify, which could prove problematic for the organic dairyman who leases pasture in the area.

But John Short, at the Regional Water Board in Santa Rosa, said Monday that “Most of the recycled water in California is of this level [Disinfected Secondary-23].” He also said there are many misconceptions about the quality of treated wastewater and the application of biosolids to agricultural lands.

Which begs the question: Are the Potters exaggerating a bit about the environmental impact of treated wastewater and its byproducts? After all, doesn’t using recycled water help alleviate California’s drought? And don’t they sell fertilizers made with biosolids at nurseries all around the country?

Steve McHaney of Winzler & Kelly, the firm that authored Rio Dell’s environmental impact report, certainly thinks so. “I’m personally more concerned about our food supply,” he said last Friday. “But biosolids put on pastureland get people very excited.” Besides, he added, “Biosolids are mostly organic material.”

Excluding, of course, the cocktail of pharmaceuticals they may contain, plus arsenic, lead, mercury and seven other metals the EPA regulates, not including the hundreds of other chemicals they don’t. Caroline Snyder, president of Citizens for Sludge-Free Land, and an adamant critic of sewage sludge — re-branded as “biosolids” in the early 1990s to make it more palatable to the public — said last week that the trouble with sludge is that it’s so unpredictable: What people pour down their drain isn’t regulated well enough. “We have to make it clear that this is not a long-term solution for agriculture,” she said.

Despite the proposal’s controversy, Rio Dell city officials say they’ve found a neighborhood landowner willing to work with them.

Rio Dell’s mayor, Bud Leonard, said Monday that the city has reached an oral agreement with Robert Mozzetti, whose property on Metropolitan Road lies nearest the city. But the Potters and their neighbors aren’t out of the woods. Mozzetti, who could not be reached for comment, hasn’t yet signed a contract with the city. Plus, it’s difficult to say anything for certain about the future of the project, according to Hale: “It’s so complicated, it’s hard to speculate,” he said.

Regardless of whose property is eventually used by Rio Dell, the Potters still worry that the city — with its less-than-pristine record of sewage management — will put the entire area’s ground water supplies at risk, as well as potentially endanger the health of residents there by irrigating the fields with treated effluent.

Last Saturday, the weather was overcast as the Potters walked past a swathe of certified-organic pastureland. Roland Potter pointed out that high summer winds — Rio Dell proposes irrigating annually between May and October — might spread effluent beyond the prescribed area.

Also, the application of biosolids proposed for five acres of land would preclude that spot from being certified organic, and may affect groundwater supplies and local wildlife, the Potters worry. Moreover, the Metropolitan area is located smack in the middle of a 100-year flood plain — one more reason why the Potters don’t want potentially toxic substances on or near their fields.

“As a neighborhood,” Potter said, “we don’t have any confidence whatsoever.”

There will be a public hearing about the Rio Dell sewage problem and the draft environmental impact report on Tuesday, Nov. 6, at 5:30 p.m. at Rio Dell City Hall.

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Japhet Weeks

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