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Laguna Beach sewage smells should simmer down by summer, city officials say

Laguna Beach sewage smells should simmer down by summer, city officials say
Last week, the Laguna Beach City Council approved speeding up the installation of an odor control system at the Bluebird water treatment plant, as residents in Victoria Beach continue to complain about sewage smells in their neighborhood across town.

The Laguna Beach City Council has approved purchasing a new odor control system aimed at reducing the sewage smell emanating from the Glenneyre Dip sewer lift station.

It should reduce foul odors by summertime. Meanwhile, residents on the other side of town are still holding their noses against another long-time stink.

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Construction on the roughly $250,000 biological odor control system — called an IBOx — is expected to begin at the Bluebird South Orange County Wastewater Authority lift station in February, said Laguna’s director of water quality, David Shissler.

The system cleanses the gaseous air that — much to the dismay of nearby residents — regularly emanates from the sewage pump station and surrounding piping.

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“It's amazing how well it works. You really don’t smell anything,” Shissler said.

Early last year, the city installed the same system at the Laguna SOCWA lift station near the farmers’ market — across from the Laguna Playhouse on Broadway Street.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said in last week’s council meeting that before the system was installed, she would often call the city manager to complain about the smell.

“You used to go to the farmers’ market and you’d avoid a certain area,” she said. “That technology was amazing — I didn’t know it could be fixed. And so I’m confident if the same technology is going [in the Glenneyre Dip], we won’t have a problem.”

The odor control system uses a vacuum suction to draw the smelly gases from the lift station’s wastewater holding tank and from underground piping around the area, Shissler said.

The IBOx then carries the gas through a series of shelves, where bugs feed on the gas.

“By the time it gets to the end of that maze … all of that sulfite gas has been eaten by those bugs,” he said.

The last step of the system is “polishing,” where the air cleaned from the bugs then goes through a carbon filter, to catch any remaining gas.

The project for the Bluebird SOCWA station was approved in November 2017. Last week’s unanimous vote allowed the water department to purchase the equipment directly so that construction and installation can begin quickly, Shissler said.

With the Laguna SOCWA station odor control system as a guide, Shissler said the stink around the Glenneyre Dip should be gone about three months after the system is installed.

“In fairness to the people living around the lift station, we really are trying to take advantage of what we were able to do at the Laguna SOCWA station and have it work at this station and really try and reduce those odors,” City Manager John Pietig said at the council meeting.

But some residents living down South Coast Highway near Victoria Beach wish the city would do more to address sewage smell problems in other neighborhoods.

Dan Sugg, who lives near the corner of McAulay Place and Coast Highway, said he often catches a whiff of “rotten eggs” when he steps outside in the morning to pick up his newspaper. Like several of his neighbors, he said the smell is worse early in the morning, around 6, and dissipates within a couple hours.

Marsha Bianchi lives across McAulay from the Suggs. She has contacted the city several times over the years about the stench that she said “smells like sewage with a chemical overtone.”

“One time this summer it was so bad it actually woke me up,” Bianchi said. “I was dreaming about something disgusting, and I woke up, and it was the sewer smell. It’s unacceptable. These are really expensive homes, so we shouldn’t have to deal with this.”

Resident Gary Zoromski said that in the last year, the smell has drifted down to his house at the other end of McAulay Place, on the corner of Victoria Drive. He sometimes smells it in the alley behind his house or on a walk down to the beach.

“That’s why I was shocked they wanted to do the stupid underground lines on 133,” Zoromski said, referring to ballot Measure P that voters struck down in the November election. It would have raised sales taxes 1% to bury utility lines in Laguna Beach. “Like, the whole sewage system in Laguna is falling apart, and you want to spend $100 and some million on poles?”

Shissler said the problem is not related to either of Victoria Beach’s two small lift stations, but with the transmission main that runs nearly six miles down the center of Coast Highway, connecting wastewater from the Bluebird SOCWA lift station to the coastal treatment plant in Aliso Canyon.

Two million gallons of wastewater run through the pipeline’s 27-inch diameter every day, he said. At night, the flow slows to nearly a still, and the water becomes stagnant.

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“The odors start to build. In the morning, when everyone starts taking their showers and using dishwashers, you get a huge rush of water that has been sitting all night,” he said. “And you get this big slug of stinky water that’s coming through the system.”

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The gaseous smells around Victoria Beach rise from a pipe vault near the McAulay Place and South Coast Highway intersection that lets air out from the underground system, Shissler said.

The water quality team has installed two systems there that are intended to prevent the smells — a super oxygenation system to help regulate the flow during the day and a magnesium hydroxide system to settle the gas at night. As with the IBOx, there are also carbon filters placed near manhole covers to stop the gas from releasing above ground.

Roger Butow, a resident of Victoria Drive and founder of the local environmental activist organization Clean Water Now!, said the city is not living up to its promises to overhaul the sewage system.

He cited a federal court case that another nonprofit, California River Watch, filed against the city in the U.S. Central District Court in 2014 and he joined as a plaintiff in 2015. The lawsuit alleged that Laguna Beach had a history of sewage system overflows that damaged the ocean. The two parties settled in 2015, with the city agreeing to continue with the sewage rehabilitation plans outlined in its capital improvement plan and pay CRW’s attorney fees.

“The city vowed. They made a compact with their residents: ‘We’re going to fix this, it’s going to be OK,’” Butow said. “It took nearly three years after the litigation was settled for them to even commit to fixing Bluebird. Why did it take you three years to fix what you already knew was broken?”

Several neighbors around Victoria Beach complained that the citywide sewage system is too old.

“The treatment plants … aren’t up to snuff,” said Marcus Lewis, who grew up in the Victoria Beach neighborhood and now lives on McAulay Place. “They’ve been having a lot of backups and smells.”

Shissler said some of the oldest clay pipes were built in 1929, but a majority of them have been fitted with new plastic pipes, “so they’re basically a brand-new pipe within an old pipe.”

He said the city has been overhauling the system, and so far 18 of 95 miles of water pipes that the city maintains have been lined with plastic piping. In March 2020, he said, the city plans to gut out and rehabilitate one of the Victoria Beach lift stations, which he said might help with the smell.

“We’ve worked with them extensively, we’ve visited them at their homes, we’re in communication with them routinely,” Shissler said of the Victoria Beach residents. “We’re doing as much as can be done with current technologies.”

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