This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
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Victoria Petro-Eschler moved to the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City in 2013. Buying a home, she said, came with a warning from her husband’s parents who already lived there: “We just want to tell you that there is a smell in here. It’s treated like a nuisance you live with just on the west side.
Petro-Eschler was undeterred. She moved in and quickly learned 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’s definitely a smell,” she said. “It depends on the direction of the wind and the source that is active at the time. Difficult to separate everything. There’s sewage treatment, there’s oil refineries, there’s [Salt Lake Valley] discharge to the west.
This fragrant cocktail, said Petro-Eschler, generates its fair share of complaints from voters.
“People who have lived here for a long time have complained. New residents complained,” she said. “It’s a persistent problem that we’ve lived with.”
But times are changing, at least for one of the long-time sources of smell. Salt Lake City Public Utilities’ 60-year-old water reclamation facility, which treats 35 million gallons of wastewater a day, is nearing the end of its life. After decades of periodic upgrades, the plant will be replaced by a new facility, currently under construction and scheduled to start up in early 2025.
The new plant is being built on the same site as the current facility, which will operate until the switchover. There, the wastewater is chemically treated, collected and eventually directed to the Great Salt Lake.
Water recovery, more added value
With a projected price tag of nearly $800 million, the new structure is being funded by sewer rates and a federal infrastructure loan. Modern treatment and equipment will ensure the facility meets higher water quality standards, said Laura Briefer, director of utilities, and can meet the capacity needs of the city’s runaway growth for 75 year. It is the largest public works project in the city, second only to the new Salt Lake City International Airport, in decades.
By the time the new factory makes its debut, designers expect its sickening contribution to be all but over – and a step towards solving the West Side’s long-standing fairness issues. Across the United States, whether it’s a catastrophic water supply cutoff in Jackson, Mississippi, or water polluted with toxic lead levels in Flint, Michigan, the financing and the provision of basic public services have become economic, environmental and community issues. Justice. Even the new Utah Inland Port Authority executive director has pledged greater engagement with westerners on air quality and other environmental concerns.
Project designers and engineers explored how they could leverage the top priority of wastewater treatment to add additional value to the community. Along with odor control, they plan for better public access to the site’s open spaces. Potential educational partnerships with nearby schools are being explored, as is adding community space for meetings and events.
Briefer committed early on to an installation that was “more than concrete, steel and glass”. It was expected to bring substantial health and education benefits to the region.
“We began deliberate public engagement in 2016, with community open houses, design discussions and listening to community advice,” she said. “We wanted to let people know about this really big project, but also, with their help, find out things we didn’t know or how we could improve. The community has identified odor reduction as a key need. It was therefore integrated into the design.
Other community-building efforts include the construction of a new wetland to support wildlife and birds – many of which use a migratory route to the Great Salt Lake, and regular tours of the facilities, which have taken a long break during COVID-19.
All of this delights Rose Park Community Council Chairman Kevin Parke. He and his family moved to the neighborhood in 1998, “for the people, the great people. This is the best neighborhood in town. We are still working to keep it that way.
Drying beds so long and smelly
The water reclamation facility lives in a mix of businesses and industries between Redwood Road to the west and Interstate 15 to the east, Rose Park Golf Course directly to the south, and oil refineries North. The origins of the treatment plant’s telltale stench can be traced back to 23 acres of “biosolids drying beds.” For decades, these massive beds were filled with treated solid waste, where it dried outside in the sun and was frequently turned – like a giant compost field – to aid in the dewatering process. Once the biosolids had dried sufficiently, they were collected by a company to use the waste as fertilizer for forage crops.
Drying and turning the beds allowed ammonia and other pungent chemical aromas to escape into the air and float into the community, said Michelle Barry, senior water treatment engineer at the city utilities and responsible for the design of the new facility. The dry matter could also contribute to poor air quality, she said, when winds stirred it up and carried particles through the area.
The drying beds were demolished from 2019 to 2021.
“Smells are already less frequent and less strong,” Barry said. International engineering firm AECOM is consulting on the project and has begun producing data measuring before and after odor production. AECOM established an odor baseline at seven nearby sites, including Rose Park Golf Course, Newman Elementary School, the Jordan River Parkway and two large residential areas. The company’s contract requires monitoring of odor data once the new plant is fully operational.
Modern wastewater treatment and recovery relies on a combination of natural and mechanical processes. In the future, a new mechanical dewatering building will isolate odors indoors, with a rigorous system designed to capture and treat foul air before venting it to the atmosphere.
The new facility will include covers over most channels or pools that produce odors, Barry said. “With a lid on top, we’re essentially generating a vacuum, so the negative pressure in the area sucks the odors up to a biofilter to reduce them significantly.”
Years ago, mechanical dewatering and odor reduction concepts were too expensive, Barry said. “Without a doubt, drying beds are the cheapest way to dry solids. It’s very effective. But as the city grows and develops around the sewage treatment plant, it becomes necessary to deal with odors more proactively and use our land more efficiently. It’s certainly profitable at this point.
“And it’s just the right thing to do.”
For his part, Petro-Eschler, a first-term board member, welcomes any decision by the industry to be a better neighbor.
“Knowing that utilities are 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 materialize because economic and environmental inequalities are so systemic and deeply rooted. It takes regular and constant commitment to change the quality of life. We’re waiting impatiently.”