Shit equity

Pub date June 4, 2008
WriterSarah Phelan


GREEN CITY At long last, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission appears to be moving forward with plans to address long overdue environmental justice issues (“It Flows Downhill,” 08/08/06) that are directly related to its sewage treatment plant in the city’s southeast sector.

At a May 27 SFPUC meeting, SFPUC staff recommended that the agency build a new digester facility in the southeast part of town and divert 12 percent of its sewage flow to the west side’s Oceanside plant, (which, incidentally, a current signature-gathering campaign hopes voters in November will rename the George W. Bush Sewage Treatment Plant).

For decades residents of Bayview–Hunters Point have endured foul smells, thanks to the close proximity to their homes of the Southeast treatment plant. The site treats 76 percent of the city’s sewage in facilities that are almost entirely outdoors. By contrast, facilities at the Oceanside plant, in a wealthier side of town, are mostly indoors and/or underground.

It’s an unequal division that has long had southeast residents claiming environmental racism. To make matters worse, the Southeast plant contains nine pancake-shaped digesters that could experience problems in an earthquake, with worrisome corrosion on the undersides of the digesters’ covers.

Cost estimates for a new digester facility range from $700 million to $1.3 billion. This variation depends on the location choice for the new digesters: if the agency builds new digesters on the south side of its existing Southeast plant, the agency is looking at the cheaper end of the scale.

But if the SFPUC follows another option to build a new facility on the back lot of Pier 94, a Port of San Francisco property, it would remove the plant from a residential neighborhood but be left facing a near doubling of the cost.

Replacing the digesters was a pet cause of former SFPUC General Manager Susan Leal, and continues to be a priority for District 10 supervisor Sophie Maxwell, so it’s likely to remain a key focus for former City Controller Ed Harrington, who took over as general manager of the agency after Mayor Gavin Newsom ousted Leal.

"You’ll see immediate work on the digesters," Harrington assured the commissioners. "The PUC is suggesting doing on an environmental impact report on both sites."

That report likely won’t be complete until 2010, when the agency leaders will have to choose an option. PUC project manager Jon Loiacono seems to be keenly aware of the thorny issues at play and told the commission that "staff would like to work with an advisory group and hire a consultant sensitive to community issues to find the best solution."

"It would almost certainly be less expensive to rebuild on the current site, but we don’t want anyone to make the digester decision based on cost," PUC spokesperson Tony Winniker told the Guardian.

"We really want it to be a public health and safety decision," PUC Citizens Advisory Committee chair Alex Lantsberg told the Guardian.

The digester replacement cost represents a significant chunk of the total estimated price tag of the PUC’s proposed sewer system master plan, which ranges from $3.8 billion to $4.4 billion. PUC staff is also outlining plans to send some of the waste westward in what the PUC currently calls "the Upper Alemany diversion."

The plan involves building a tunnel near Cayuga Creek, where runoff water tends to back up, and carrying it to the Oceanside plant. So, is this the return of the dreaded cross-town tunnel, an idea that had irate Bernal Heights residents waving plungers at City Hall three decades ago? PUC staff claim it is not.

"It’s a different concept, but similar," Loiacono said of the current plan.

"This reduces how much waste is treated in the Bayview and shifts it to a plant where there is excess capacity," Winniker explained, further noting that while the old cross-town tunnel would have run under Bernal Heights, this diversion will use city rights of way.

The project would improve drainage for the Cayuga and divert about 10 million gallons of sewage per day from the Southeast plant to the Oceanside plant, PUC spokesperson Tyron Jue told us. The alignment hasn’t been chosen yet, but Jue said, "we’re considering different routes, like Brotherhood Way or Ocean Avenue."

Whatever path the SFPUC pursues, the project won’t be cheap — economically or politically.