Farewell to that familiar sewer smell in this SLC neighborhood — ’It’s the right thing to do’

City commits to a cleaner, greener wastewater treatment plant in Rose Park

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A clarifier works to remove solids from liquids at Salt Lake City Public Utilities' water reclamation facility on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022.

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Victoria Petro-Eschler moved to Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood in 2013. Shopping for a home, she said, came with a heads-up from her husband’s relatives already living there: “We just want to tell you there’s a smell here. It’s treated like a nuisance you just live with on the west side.”

Petro-Eschler was undeterred. She moved in and quickly grew to love the community. In 2021, Petro-Eschler was elected to represent Salt Lake City Council District 1, which includes Rose Park and other northwest neighborhoods..

“There is definitely an odor,” she said. “It’s prevalent depending on the wind direction and just which source is active at the time. It’s hard to separate it all out. There’s sewage treatment, there’s the oil refineries, there’s the [Salt Lake Valley] landfill out west.”

This odiferous cocktail, Petro-Eschler said, generates its share of constituent complaints.

“People who have lived here a long time have complained. Newer residents have complained,” she said. “It’s a persistent problem we’ve lived with.”

But times are changing — at least for one of the long-standing odor sources. Salt Lake City Public Utilities’ 60-year-old water reclamation facility, which treats 35 million gallons of wastewater daily, is nearing the end of its life. After decades of periodic upgrades, the plant will be replaced with a new facility, now under construction and scheduled to start up in early 2025.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jose Rubalcaba, operations manager at Salt Lake City Public Utilities' water reclamation facility on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022. A new facility will replace the 60-year-old plant in 2025.

The new plant is being built on the same site as the current facility, which will operate right up until the changeover. There, wastewater is chemically treated, reclaimed and eventually makes its way to the Great Salt Lake.

Water reclamation, plus value added

With a projected price tag of nearly $800 million, the new structure is being financed through sewer rates and a federal infrastructure loan. Modern treatment and equipment will ensure the facility meets more stringent water quality standards, said Public Utilities Director Laura Briefer, and can address capacity needs of the city’s galloping growth for up to 75 years. It is the city’s largest public works project, second only to the new Salt Lake City International Airport, in decades.

By the time the new plant debuts, designers expect its smelly contribution to be all but over — and one step toward addressing longtime equity issues on the west side. Across the United States, whether it’s a catastrophic shutdown of the water supply in Jackson, Miss., or water polluted by toxic lead levels in Flint, Mich., the funding and delivery of fundamental utility services have become matters of economic, environmental and community justice. Even the new Utah Inland Port Authority executive director has committed to greater engagement with west-siders on air quality and other environmental concerns.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Project designers and engineers explored how they might piggyback on the top priority of wastewater treatment to add extra value to the community. Along with odor control, they are planning for greater public access to open space on the site. Potential educational partnerships with neighboring schools are on the drawing board — as is the addition of a community space for meetings and events.

Briefer committed early on to a facility that was “more than concrete, steel and glass.” It had to bring substantial health and educational benefits to the area.

“We started deliberate public engagement in 2016, with community open houses, design discussions and listening to community councils,” she said. “We wanted to inform people of this very large project, but also, with their help, uncover things we didn’t know, or how we could improve. The community identified odor reduction as a key need. So it’s been incorporated into the design.”

Other community-building efforts include construction of a new wetland to support wildlife and birds — many of which fly a migratory route to the Great Salt Lake, and regular facility tours, which took a long hiatus during COVID-19.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

All of which thrills Rose Park Community Council Chair Kevin Parke. He and his family moved to the neighborhood in 1998, “for the people, the great people. It’s the best neighborhood in the city. We’re always working to keep it that way.”

So long, smelly drying beds

The water reclamation facility lives within a mashup of business and industry between Redwood Road to the west and Interstate 15 to the east, the Rose Park Golf Course directly south and oil refineries to the north. The origins of the telltale treatment plant stench can be tracked to 23 acres of artfully termed “biosolids drying beds.” For decades, these massive beds were filled with treated solid waste, where it dried outdoors under the sun and was frequently turned — like a giant composting field — to facilitate the dewatering process. Once the biosolids had dried adequately, they were picked up by a company to use the waste as fertilizer for feed crops.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A clarifier at work treating wastewater at Salt Lake City Public Utilities' water reclamation facility on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022.

The drying and turning of the beds allowed for ammonia and other pungent chemical aromas to escape into the air and float through the community, said Michelle Barry, senior water treatment engineer with the city’s Public Utilities and design manager of the new facility. The dry matter also could contribute to poor air quality, she said, when winds stirred it up and carried particulates across the area.

The drying beds were demolished from 2019 to 2021.

“The odors are already less frequent and less strong,” Barry said. International engineering firm AECOM is a consultant on the project and has begun to produce data measuring the before-and-after odor output. AECOM established an odor baseline at seven nearby sites, including the Rose Park Golf Course, Newman Elementary, the Jordan River Parkway and two large residential areas. The firm’s contract requires follow-up odor data once the new plant is fully functioning.

Modern wastewater treatment and reclamation rely on a mix of natural and mechanical processes. Going forward, a new mechanical dewatering building will isolate odors indoors, with a rigorous system designed to capture and treat foul-smelling air before releasing it into the atmosphere.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new dewatering building under construction at Salt Lake City Public Utilities' water reclamation facility on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022.

The new facility will include covers over most of the channels or basins that produce odors, Barry said. “With a lid on top, we essentially generate a vacuum so negative pressure in the area sucks the odors to a biofilter to dramatically decrease them.”

Years ago, the mechanical dewatering and odor reduction concepts were too expensive, Barry said. “No question, drying beds are the cheapest way to dry solids. It’s very effective. But as the city grows and develops around the treatment plant, it’s become necessary to treat odors more proactively and to use our land more efficiently. It’s definitely cost effective at this point.

“And it’s just the right thing to do.”

For her part, first-term council member Petro-Eschler welcomes any move from industry to be a better neighbor.

“Knowing that Public Utilities is addressing these issues is the kind of good faith effort we need on the west side,” she said. “It can take years for these efforts to take hold because the economic and environmental inequities are so systemic and deeply ingrained. It takes regular and steady commitment to change quality of life. We look forward to it.”

Holly Mullen worked for Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities from 2017 to June 2022.