You Ask: Ew, That Smell... at Johnson and Cleveland

Residents around Johnson Street and Cleveland Avenue wrote us earlier this summer asking us to investigate the cause of a noxious sewage smell in the area. Here's what we discovered.

In early August, we heard from a resident in west Albany who said her neighborhood had been plagued for weeks with the "constant, horrible smell of raw sewage," in addition to "an open, festering and broken main sewer line on Cleveland Street."

The smell, wrote Albany mom Jessica San Luis on Aug. 2, "has permeated our homes, our clothing and our lives. The only time when the smell isn't seeping into our homes is when someone in a utility truck comes by and dumps chemicals into the open hole. Then we have to live with burning in our eyes and throats."

San Luis, who is pregnant and also has an 8-year-old with asthma, along with another school-aged child, said she and her neighbors were concerned about the health of children in the area.

"We have gotten no help and virtually no response from the city or the utility company. No one has come to fix the line—they just cover it up and put a construction cone near it."

She said one of her neighbors had been trying to get an explanation about the problem from officials for weeks. 

The day after she wrote us, we reached out to city staffers, who immediately helped connect us with the East Bay Municipal Utility District to find out what was going on. 


EBMUD spokesman Charles Hardy explained on Aug. 3 that, two months prior, a large pipe that brings sewage into the EBMUD plant near the Bay Bridge had collapsed from age and use. 

The 30-inch pipe, called the Buchanan Street Interceptor, was 60-70 years old, and already had been scheduled to be rehabilitated this year (details below, and in the PDFs above, below the photographs). 

City engineering consultant Greg Jacobs said the entire city sewage system dumps into the East Bay MUD system at Cleveland Street; the pipe then makes a 90-degree turn to the south after the railroad tracks under the Buchanan Street overcrossing by the freeway. 

Hardy said that, when the pipe collapsed, East Bay MUD went out and put a cover and plastic sheeting over it, and began to make arrangements to have it fixed. In July, a contractor went to the site to scout the area to see what would be needed to repair the pipe, and prepare for the already-planned sewer rehabilitation project scheduled to last from mid-August through November. 

During the site visit, said Hardy, the contractor inadvertently "upset the plastic sheeting that was keeping the smell from escaping into the neighborhood." Hardy said the first time he heard about a neighborhood complaint regarding the smell was Aug. 3, the day Albany Patch spoke with him. 

Hardy said East Bay MUD sent out a team that day "to take care of the immediate problem of the smell by making sure the plastic sheeting is appropriately placed."

He said repairs to the pipe would begin in August and continue through November. 

Hardy also said neighbors would receive notification to make them aware of what was causing the odor, and that workplace and safety analysts would go out with instruments to determine the severity of the hydrogen sulfide smell. The team would determine whether there were any health implications from the smell, and how to monitor the problem going forward. 

Resident San Luis said, on Aug. 7, that "There's definitely an improvement in the smell although we can definitely still smell the sewage. Someone came around and passed out a flyer with a construction schedule today."

She said some residents were upset because the flyer made it seem as if the smell was a recent development, as opposed to something that had been affecting the neighborhood for weeks.  

"The smell has lessened some but it's definitely still there." San Luis added that she had reached out to EBMUD about what they had found in its air quality readings, but never heard back. 

According to an EMBUD flier from early August, "Several nearby residents alerted us to these odors and our crews were immediately dispatched to make temporary repairs and increase odor-preventing chemical addition into the sewer. As requested, we also directed our Environmental Health and Safety Specialist to measure odor levels; although odors were evident, there were no measurable hazards." 

In September, San Luis reported an added concern: "Unfortunately, the smell has not dissipated for the most part and we are now struggling with rats coming up from the sewer and into our yards and garages. I found one dead one in my backyard last week and saw a live one scuttle across the driveway earlier this week. Pretty yucky." 


In August, EBMUD released a second bulletin about the overall project to give residents an overview. 

  • The Buchanan Street Interceptor Rehabilitation Project will rehabilitate approximately 1,000 feet of sewers and eight manholes 
  • The work "will restore the structural integrity of the sewer system, extend its life, and ensure continued compliance with state and local regulations." 
  • At times "it will be necessary to mobilize some heavy equipment. The lanes on Cleveland Avenue may be blocked for through traffic occasionally." 
  • One section of Cleveland Avenue will be designated as “No Parking” throughout the road work 
  • Overnight work is planned from 9 p.m. Oct. 18 through 6 a.m. Oct. 19
  • Manhole and sewer replace was scheduled to start Aug. 13 and last through mid-October; reconstruction of the paved road will follow.

Residents with concerns can call EBMUD Program Manager Joe Wong at 510-986-7932, or Senior Community Affairs Officer Greg Chan at 510-287-0135. Other contacts include EBMUD Project Manager Pam Hopkins, 510-287-1326, and GSE Construction’s Project Manager, Mario Lozano, 925-447-0292. 

If there's something in this article you think should be corrected, or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at albany@patch.com.

Neil Ramos September 18, 2012 at 03:34 PM
I ask: Does this pipeline have anything to do with the intense mildew smell I get on San Pablo in the block just south of Solano? I keep meaning to ask the city. I've always assumed it was an underground creek, but I just looked up some maps and see nothing there.
lubov mazur September 18, 2012 at 04:06 PM
I have smelled this intermittently for more than forty years when I am on Cleveland Ave. I have never gotten an answer from anyone that made sense, from "It comes from Richmond" (sounds like a movie title) to "It's the high tide small" (give me a break, it's the low tide that gets stinky and this isn't a hydrogen sulfide smell). I knew people who sold and moved in the 80s' to get away from it and had their fingers crossed it wouldn't stink during visits from potential buyers. This is an ongoing problem in Albany. If EBMUD is saying it is recent they are not giving the entire picture.


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