No Cheese Balls Here

Arcata says Cypress Grove's wastewater violations are not (yet) that big a deal



Anyone who reads the tiny print in the back of newspapers -- the legal notices -- might have noticed the appearance last month of an apparently very grave affair: All of last year, Cypress Grove Chevre was in "significant noncompliance for discharge of oil and grease" into the city of Arcata's sewer lines.

Oh, no. Trouble again? Cypress Grove had already gone through considerable scrutiny and neighbor push-back last year when it tried to add a big goat dairy to its operation in the Arcata Bottom, on land it was set to acquire near its existing creamery on Q Street. (See "Goat Test," July 28, 2011.) Factory farming! Goat poop! Talk and meet-ups did not appease critics, so the company chucked the Arcata plan and instead set up the new farm in Dow's Prairie, in McKinleyville.

Now this: Apparently, in all four quarters of 2012, the creamery exceeded what are called "pre-treatment" standards for oil and grease in the wastewater flowing from its cheese-making factory into the city's sewer lines. It wasn't a question of what about the goat poop, this time, but what about that cheesy offal getting washed off the cheese-making equipment into the drains at the creamery.

On the phone shortly after the notice came out, however, neither Bob McCall, Cypress Grove's sales director, nor David Estes, the company's operations manager, sounded too concerned. Yes, the creamery has been in violation of the industrial discharge permit from the city -- chronic violation, said Estes, for at least a couple of years, now. But, he said, the company's expansion plan includes a new pre-treatment system with better grease interceptors -- wastewater collection tanks that trap grease as the water flows through. And the city seems content to let that serve as the fix when it goes online in about a year.

Although the cheese fats entering the water system with Cypress Grove's effluent has often exceeded the city's limit, McCall and Estes know of no instances in which that's caused a problem. The real issue, they said, is that the city's pre-treatment standard for fats, oil and grease is among the strictest in the land: 50 mg per liter of wastewater discharge (about two tablespoons of oil per five gallons of wastewater).

"It's extremely stringent compared to other municipalities," said McCall. "Los Angeles' standard is 600 mg per liter. [A city in] North Carolina -- 275; [a city in] Colorado -- 200 mg per liter."

He was citing a document from the State Water Resources Control Board noting a range of fats, oil and grease limits. Last year, said Estes, the amount of oil and grease in the creamery's effluent ranged from 68 mg per liter to, at the highest, 200 mg per liter. They're not saying it's right to exceed the city's standard like that. But the proof is in the impact. The problem with fats, oil and grease is they can solidify and clog the sewer lines. If that happens, the lines can back up and cause an overflow of sewage -- containing far worse things than just grease balls -- possibly into creeks and the bay.

Estes and McCall said the cheese waste from the creamery -- crumbles of stuff washed off the machines with soapy water at the end of the day -- doesn't tend to ball up in the sewer lines like, say, restaurant grease can. Perhaps, they suggested, that's also why the city is being lenient and only requiring the creamery to post a legal notice about its violations.

Last week, by phone, Mark Andre, environmental services director for the City of Arcata, and Erik Lust, the city's water and wastewater superintendent, confirmed much of what the creamery folks said. They even agreed that the city's fats, oil and grease limit is too strict. In fact, said Andre, the city is revamping its sewer use ordinance, and intends, among other things, to increase the fats, oil and grease standard.

"One thing to keep in mind," said Lust, "is even though it's been published in the paper that Cypress Grove has been a chronic violater of the standard, we haven't actually had any sewer blockages in their line. They're a good example of why the limit should be higher than 50. The standard we've been using is actually more restrictive than what would be considered normal."

A water treatment plant must meet standards established by the national Environmental Protection Agency for discharges from the plant -- in Arcata's case, the water treatment plant's permit governs discharges into the marsh (which is part of the system) and Humboldt Bay. It's up to each municipality, however, to set the standard for what's coming in to the water treatment plant by way of the city's sewer lines, said Andre.

"The cities can customize those standards," Andre said.

So, why is Arcata's standard 50 mg per liter for fats, oil and grease?

"It's kind of a soft target," said Lust, "because the conditions are different everywhere you go. For example, if you have a brand new sewer system that's all made of plastic, it's not as easy for grease to build up in that. So you can have a higher limit."

Arcata's aging sewer infrastructure has some lines that are 20 to 30 years old. And the city has had sewer line upsets in the past -- but none from cheesy wastewater from the creamery. Andre said the city has major upgrades planned for both its piping and collection system and for the treatment plant. These upgrades, Lust added, should also resolve issues with the city's water treatment plant that resulted in violations of the EPA permit for several years. The city recently was granted a new discharge permit, good for five years. Among the upgrades planned: changing from a chlorination system to ultraviolet, and moving the treatment plant's effluent discharge point from Butcher Slough to McDaniel Slough. And, said Andre, the use of marshes in the wildlife refuge for treatment has been codified in the permit, "with clear goals for them" laid out.

Meanwhile, said Lust, for industrial users discharging wastewater into the sewer lines, the city probably will change the fats, oil and grease standard from 50 mg per liter to 100 mg per liter.

"Even at 100, Cypress Grove might have an occasional violation," at least until its new pre-treatment system is up and running, cautioned Lust. "Cypress Grove understands they still need to do a better job pre-treatment-wise."

On a recent Friday morning out at the creamery, as the two resident outdoor black cats -- Mr. Mittens and Mr. Whiskers -- licked their cheese-fed chops in the semi-sun, McCall pointed out the broad green field north of the existing building. That's where the new building, about 24,000 square feet, would be. It is expected to accomodate about 10 years of production growth.

Some neighbors, actually, had fought this expansion, too -- they were worried about increased traffic, said McCall, and the loss of agricultural land, among other things. Critics and creamery officials reached a cease-fire last year, with the creamery agreeing to a number of things, including an agricultural easement and a commitment to ease traffic congestion.

Construction contracts -- including for that new pre-treatment system -- have yet to be firmed up, said Estes, but the company hopes to break ground this year.

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