Potential sludge now stirring for city-county cost sharing on waste-to-energy feasibility study

At Thursday’s regular meeting for the board of the Monroe County solid waste management district (MCSWMD), county commissioners Penny Githens and Julie Thomas raised concerns about the way that a waste-to-energy feasibility study has been approached so far.

An agreement to share the study’s $129,220 cost between MCSWMD and the city of Bloomington utilities (CBU) was adopted in the first part of 2022.

The study is being done by Energy Power Partners, and is supposed to be complete by the end of January or sometime in February, based on discussion at Thursday’s meeting.

EPP’s work is supposed to cover scenarios involving the generation of biogas by using anaerobic digestion of primary sludge from the Blucher Poole wastewater treatment plan, adding FOG (fats, oil and grease) and food waste as feedstock from various large waste generators, and the workability of private-sector partnerships for construction, operations and maintenance—among other possibilities.

But at Thursday’s meeting, Githens read aloud a statement that sketches out a number of objections, including the fact that the focus of the study has shifted from CBU’s Blucher Poole wastewater treatment plant to the Dillman Road facility.

Responding to an emailed question from The B Square, CBU director Vic Kelson wrote: “The study looked first at the Blucher Poole plant, and they found that the Dillman plant has some factors that make it a better choice.”

Kelson added, “This was based on a much more comprehensive analysis than the in-house cost-benefit analysis that we completed a few years ago.”

The in-house study considered what it would take to convert the Dillman Road wastewater treatment facility to an approach where “primary sludge” is first created as a part of the treatment process. Currently the process used at the Dillman Road plant goes straight to aeration, without a step where primary sludge can settle out.

It’s that primary sludge that is suitable as feedstock for an anaerobic waste-to-energy facility.

In mid-January 2020, Kelson presented the results of the in-house study to the Bloomington city council. At that time, the cost to convert the Dillman Road to a primary sludge type facility was pegged by Kelson at $30-35 million. The annual debt service for that would be about $2 million a year, Kelson said.

Balanced against that cost would be savings from the fuel that a biogas facility might be able to produce. At the time, Kelson concluded that operations savings alone couldn’t pay for a project like that at Dillman Road.

Responding to a B Square request on Friday for a copy of the outside consultant’s interim study materials, Kelson wrote, “I’m afraid that I can’t share the interim materials from the feasibility study.”

The lack of information shared from Energy Power Partners and CBU to MCSWMD on the project was a big part of the complaint that Githens voiced at Thursday’s meeting.

Githens said that when the cost-sharing agreement had been adopted, monthly updates had been promised, but they had not happened. She pointed to a meeting that had taken place in late fall last year, to which no members of the MCSWMD board had been invited.

About the lack of inclusion in the meeting, executive director of the MCSWMD, Tom McGlasson, told board members on Thursday: “I’m not gonna put it all on a consultant or CBU.” He added, “I apologize—it is possible that I was remiss in extending invitations.”

A substantive concern that both Githens and Thomas raised was the idea that Energy Power Partners had expanded the geographic scope of biodigester feedstock sources  from 50 miles to 75 miles. About the distances that the feedstock material would need to be transported, Thomas said, “It certainly doesn’t seem to fit at all with meeting any of the environmental needs of our community.”

The city council’s appointee to the board is Isabel Piedmont-Smith, who pointed out that the whole point of the study is to explore the feasibility of various options. If some options were not feasible—like a biodigester at Blucher Poole plant—then that was what the study was supposed to find out, she said.

Piedmont-Smith got confirmation that Energy Power Partners has not yet been paid anything for their work.

The county council’s new appointment to the board is Geoff McKim, who replaced councilor Cheryl Munson to start this year. On Thursday, McKim was tapped by his colleagues as chair of the group.

So McKim was looking for some clear path forward on the study, which is supposed to have a report delivered in the coming weeks.

McKim suggested two tracks. The first track is to have McGlasson work with the county’s legal counsel to confirm whether the scope of the work done by Energy Power Partners work is consistent with the contract and the memorandum of understanding between CBU and MCSWMD. The second track is to get answers to the substantive questions that Githens posed in her statement, including the one about the geographic range for feedstock.

With a consensus on that basic path, the board’s discussion of the topic wrapped up.

All property owners in Monroe County, including those in the city of Bloomington, pay a 2.12 cent property tax to support the Monroe County solid waste district.

The district’s work includes: managing waste and recycling drop-off facilities throughout the county; providing household hazardous waste collection; and tracking and reporting waste and recycling volumes to IDEM, among other activities.