Sewer smell is back in Portales this summer

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

A strong sewer smell is once again wafting across the city of Portales from the south this summer. Mayor Orlando Ortega said residents are letting city officials know they’re not happy with the odors emanating from the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

“Here in the past few weeks I’ve been getting complaints daily by phone calls and e-mails,” Ortega said.

City officials say the fix for the problem has been in the works for the last three months, but work at the treatment plant will continue for another three months.

“It’s unbearable for them (residents), it’s totally unacceptable,” Portales City Manager Debi Lee said.

A big part of correcting the problem is a new ordinance to be considered Aug. 15 that deals with industrial discharges into the system, officials said. They claim that discharges, mainly from Abengoa Bioenergy Corp., often put nitrogen levels in the system out of balance, which leads to the odors.

Chris Standlee, executive vice president with Abengoa of St. Louis, said his company is one of the city’s largest customers for wastewater treatment, but the plant is not in violation of any permit or law. He said his company pays the city a rate based on the quantity and quality of the wastewater sent into the system. He also said Abengoa officials have participated in discussions with city officials on how to reduce the company’s wastewater load.

“We have always been cooperative with both the city and the state, and will continue to work with them towards a reasonable resolution of any issue,” Standlee said.

Abengoa’s plant, which makes fuel-grade ethanol from grain, recently expanded, doubling its operating capacity and resulting in more wastewater, according to Standlee.

Every five years the city has to re-certify its wastewater treatment facility with the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division. When that certification process came up last fall, state officials came back with a list of problems and dates by which they should be corrected. That list included sludge removal, more aeration and keeping nitrogen at state- allowed levels. The city has spent $500,000 on upgrades at the plant since last fall, according to Lee.

City officials say the sludge removal is ahead of schedule, and the addition of new aerators is on schedule with state expectations. On Aug. 15, city councilors are expected to consider new ordinances aimed at reducing suspended solids coming from industrial users.

Tom Howell, public works director for Portales, said WBI Inc., a Texas company, is doing work at the plant removing sludge from the lagoons. Howell said three new aerators have been added at the plant to bring the total to six. The new aerators have twice the horsepower of the original 15-horsepower aerators, allowing them to circulate more wastewater, keeping the solids suspended instead of allowing them to settle to the bottom, creating sludge that eventually has to be removed.

Lee said the sludge is being hauled to the city’s Blackwater well field, east of Portales, where it is being applied as fertilizer to the soil.

Lee said the plant is designed to go seven to 12 years before sludge removal is required. According to Howell, it has been about 10 years since that was last done.

While sludge is a problem in operating the plant, the high levels of nitrogen actually cause the smell, according to Howell.

Monitoring equipment is in place at major industrial users Abengoa and Southwest Canners that allow the city to test for solids and pH levels (the measure of acidity in a solution), but the existing ordinances don’t give the city the teeth to keep industrial discharges from overwhelming the system, according to city officials.

“The old ordinance wasn’t very specific on what could be put in there,” Ortega said. “We definitely needed to update that.”

Lee said the new ordinance, if approved, will require companies to apply for a permit to discharge into the system. During the permit period, which could run from one to five years, companies are responsible for staying within the permitted discharge parameters and informing the city of any changes or plant expansions that might affect the wastewater going into the system. It would also provide for fines of $1,000 per day for violators and give the city the option of shutting the violator off.

While the ordinance would take effect a week later, if it passes in August, Lee said there still may be room for compromise, even though industrial users have been duly informed of the potential new ordinance.
“Our intent is to work with these industries if they submit a plan that is acceptable,” Lee said.

Standlee said Abengoa has added a system to help control the pH and quality of the water sent the city.

“We are currently working with in-house and outside engineering companies to identify options to improve our discharge stream,” Standlee said. “My guess is compliance with the proposed ordinance is going to come at a significant cost.”

Ortega, like Lee, extended an olive branch to industrial users but remained firm on correcting the problem.

“We want to be business-friendly but industry has to respect our citizens,” Ortega said.

Tony Parra contributed to this report.