By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
Marsha Bianchi bought her home in the Victoria Drive neighborhood 10 years ago to enjoy the cooling ocean breeze on sweltering days.
However, an offensive rotten egg smell often creeps through her windows between the hours of 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., forcing her to keep her windows closed. Nobody informed her about the intermittent odor before she moved in, and it’s plagued her ever since.
It turns out that Bianchi’s home sits near a geographical rest stop for sewage pushed under Coast Highway toward the Coastal Treatment Plant. When the water pressure slows down in the early morning, the sewage is allowed to settle and sends foul odors percolating through manhole covers.
“It’s really an embarrassment,” Bianchi said. “In the summer, when you’re driving down Coast Highway with your car’s top down, all you can smell is sewage.”
Bianchi purchases scented candles and air diffusers to try to erase the smell from her home. She’s also been complaining to city staffers about the smell for years and they’ve even installed odor sniffing devices on her property in the past, but the results have proven inconclusive.
Laguna Beach has spent over $8 million on improving the city’s 85-year-old sewer system over the last three years, said David Shissler, director of water quality. Of that sum, it’s spent $300,000 on projects to handle complaints about smell throughout the system. In December, the City Council approved the purchase of an $89,000 Biological Odor Control System for a sewage lift station at Calliope and Glenneyre streets that pushes wastewater to the Coastal Treatment Plant in Aliso Canyon. This same system has already proved effective in combating the stink coming from another lift station that raised complaints from shoppers at the Farmers’ Market.
City staffers anticipate that the odor control system slated for installation at Calliope and Glenneyre should be able to start eating odors by this summer—the time of year that’s typically the smelliest due to the heat.
Shissler said plans to fix the problem are further complicated because residents have been using less water to take showers and flush their toilets since the drought began. This means the concentration of human waste in sewer lines is higher than it’s been in the past.
“We’re having to get much more creative about how we’re going to approach it,” Shissler said. “It’s going to involve a new technology that our expert has developed.”
In the coming weeks, city staffers will be testing a new device created in the last 18 months that will suck air out of the system to mimic conditions where wastewater is being moved at full capacity. Shissler said the city’s “very optimistic” that this new device will help curb the odor that’s been plaguing residents in the Victoria Drive neighborhood. The plan is to seek funding to fully implement this new device in the coming fiscal year.
Roger Butow, an environmental and regulatory compliance consultant, said Laguna Beach has not delivered on its promise to fix the hazardous problem. The City Council committed to spending $35 million over 10 years to improve the sewer system, but Butow said not enough of that money has been spent yet to seriously address the smell that’s impacting residents’ quality of life.
The hydrogen sulfide gas that builds up in sewer lines is flammable and is harmful to human lungs. Butow has recommended that the city invest in ozone generators, which typically cost upwards of $50,000, to help sterilize the water and reduce the levels of this dangerous gas.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest that the water moves expeditiously and efficiently to the water treatment plant,” Butow said. “At what point, after years and years, do you say these people aren’t fixing it, they’re buying time?”
Shissler said the gases found in sewer lines have been scientifically found to only occur under unnatural, extreme circumstances. He’s never seen it happen during his career and has only heard of it occurring in dense urban cities.
“Do I think we’ll ever have an explosive condition in the city? Absolutely not,” Shissler said. “For someone to raise that flag—that’s a person who doesn’t understand the wastewater system.”