Stephen Ellison

Smell of Fear in the Air, As San Mateo Proposes to Build Sewage Basin

Inside San Mateo’s Bay Meadows community, there is shock and disgust over a possible new neighbor: a 5-million-gallon sewage storage basin.

City Hall maintains there has been a misunderstanding about a $900 million Clean Water Program designed to protect public health.

“Oh my god, we’re talking about a sewage storage tank. I immediately was extremely upset,” Linda Shild-Jones said, after learning about the city’s proposal.

Bay Meadows, a development featuring $1 million-plus townhomes, borders Bay Meadows Park, one of five locations the city is looking to build a sewage storage basin. Other locations are near: Hillsdale Shopping Center, San Mateo County Event Center, Fiesta Meadows Park and Delaware Street.

More than 400 community members have signed an online petition demanding the city involve the community in the decision to build a sewage storage tank from going in down the street. This includes Schild-Jones, who fears the fumes will make her sick again.

“Nausea, vomiting, fatigue, brain fog – just the inability to even function,” Schild-Jones said, of her symptoms when she used to live downwind from a capped Palo Alto city dump.

However, city engineers say a dump and sewage tank cannot be practically compared. The tank will be sealed, buried underground and have odor filters. Community spaces such as parks and parking lots can be built on top.

“[Diluted sewage is] less concentrated. It’s less likely to have odor. It has positive odor control system, which includes a negative pressure, so it actually pulls the air in and pulls it through a treatment system before it’s discharged,” said Cathi Zammit, manager of the Clean Water Program, explaining fumes are more likely to come from open-air pipe systems currently running under streets.

The infrastructure upgrades are part of a state mandate to decrease sanitary sewer overflows. The sewage storage basin is expected to cost in the tens of millions, depending on the size and site.

Zammit says the tank will operate only during heavy rain storms to stop raw sewage from bubbling out of manholes, into streets and ultimately into the bay.

It’s a big health problem, according to Zammit, who says the city has had the most problems at 25th Avenue and Delaware. On dry days, she says the tank will be empty.

The proposal's intentions, however, seem to be little comfort to some first-time homeowners who think a sewage tank will tank their home values.

“It was almost alarming and shocking not to have really been reached out to,” Sean Emadzadeh said, who adds the postcard the city sent to residents inviting them to a Clean Water Program community meeting seemed too innocuous to involve a sewage basin.

His wife Dana says they would not have bought in Bay Meadows had they been aware of the plan.

“We’re talking about raw sewage waste. So I don’t reconcile that with a park full of children or school or any type of community space,” Dana Emadzadeh said.

Zammit says buried sewage overflow tanks have worked in areas such as Daly City and Seattle.

“Essentially it’s not used very often, so it’s not going to have long-term pressurized liquids sitting in it. So the chances for leakage are minimal,” Zammit said.

More than 100 community members are expected to attend San Mateo’s next City Council meeting on Tuesday to voice their concerns.

The city says there will be no final decisions until January 2017, and it is still considering alternatives. The five locations were chosen because of proximity to 25th Avenue and Delaware, the area with the most overflow issues.

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