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Graton residents oppose plan to import Occidental wastewater

The West County hamlet of Graton has revived a plan to treat 30 truckloads of wastewater a week from neighboring Occidental, rekindling protests from residents that throttled the project last year.

The proposed wastewater depot at the north end of town — scheduled for consideration by the Graton Community Services District board Monday night — would be on a 1,400-square foot sliver of bare land on Green Valley Road, just across Highway 116 from the location that prompted last year’s furor.

It’s the latest chapter in a two-decade effort to find a taker for Occidental’s 17,000-gallon-a-day wastewater output, a legacy that prompted Jose Ortiz, the district’s general manager, to declare last year: “I expect that I’m going to have the same kind of resistance anywhere I go.”

Little has changed since outrage from residents of a 53-unit mobile home park prompted the district to drop plans for a wastewater receiving station about 500 feet east of the site now under consideration.

“It’s insane. This does not belong in a residential area,” said Sarah Johnson, whose Green Valley Road home abuts the depot site. “This is our retirement home and they’re going to destroy our life.”

Johnson, who has retained an attorney and submitted an eight-page letter to the district, is part of an informal coalition that has sent the district petitions with about 176 signatures opposing the project.

The district’s 69-page consultant’s report on the project — which found no “potentially significant” impact on air quality, noise, traffic and 18 other factors — is inadequate, she said.

Johnson faulted the report for describing the wastewater transfer as a “closed system” that would not expose untreated sewage to the air, while also acknowledging that “the possibility of a spill or leak cannot be discounted.”

“There will be spillage, it’s inevitable,” said Jacob Harris, whose rental property on Hicks Road also adjoins the site on county-owned right of way.

“It will smell, it will be noisy and it will decrease the value of my property,” said Harris, who posted a 4-by-8-foot protest sign at the site.

Harris said his tenant’s children play in a yard on the other side of a fence from the site, which is a county bus stop.

The proposed project consists of a 70-foot-long and 20-foot-wide concrete pullout with control panels and pipes to receive the wastewater from 4,200-gallon tanker trucks bringing an average of 30 loads a week from Occidental on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Because there is no trucking on weekends, Ortiz said there would likely be 10 trips on Mondays and five on each of the other four days.

John Blasco, a Ross Road resident, said in an email the project would turn Ross and Green Valley roads into a “wastewater highway,” with noise and vibration from heavy trucks having “an adverse impact on the quality of life” for himself and his neighbors.

The saga dates back to 1997, when state regulators ordered the Occidental County Sanitation District to quit discharging treated wastewater into Dutch Bill Creek, a Russian River tributary and coho salmon spawning stream.

A series of alternatives over two decades either met with public opposition or fell short financially, and in 2018 Sonoma Water, which operates the Occidental treatment system, began trucking the effluent 18 miles through Graton to another county-operated treatment plant at the airport.

Plans to haul the wastewater to Guerneville and to a Ross Road lift station near Graton were thwarted by neighborhood protests and the most recent plan, putting the depot at a gas station on Highway 116, was abandoned in March 2020.

Ortiz said the district settled on the Green Valley Road site in January after evaluating several alternatives, including locations in Graton’s limited commercial and industrial areas that proved unsuitable.

“The only place we can make a connection is in a residential area,” he said.

The independent Graton district, which operates an underutilized treatment plant off Ross Lane north of the town, is eager to earn about $120,000 a year from treating Occidental’s effluent, a cash flow that could stave off a rate increase in the next five to six years.

Graton serves about 400 customers, mostly residences, while Occidental, which no longer operates a treatment plant, has about 100 customers, including two large restaurants that pay six-figure annual fees for sewage service.

Ortiz said the district has “zero tolerance” for spills at the depot, but acknowledged they can happen, most likely due to “human error.”

Wastewater will drip from the trucks as operators detach the transfer hose, he said. The trucks will carry 50 gallons of potable water to wash it down a drain on the concrete pad connected to a sewer main and the pad will be power washed once a month.

“There’s not going to be a smell there,” he said.

The Green Valley Road sewer main can handle the gravity flow of wastewater which will not be pumped under pressure from the trucks, Ortiz said.

Trucking to Graton will occur only during dry weather and when wet weather dramatically increases wastewater volume the trucking operation will revert to the airport plant, he said.

Johnson said she was troubled by reports that the coronavirus has been detected in wastewater, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there is no information to date that anyone has become sick with COVID-19 because of exposure to treated or untreated wastewater.

Mike Thompson, assistant general manager of Sonoma Water, has been involved in Graton’s failed efforts to receive the imported wastewater.

“There just is no good place to do it,” he said, noting that heavy trucks cannot access Graton’s plant.

A pipeline from Occidental to Graton is the only permanent solution, he said, and the county has just agreed to pay $156,000 for a feasibility study of a pipeline in hopes some funding can come from President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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