Council favors new dewatering system to produce Class A biosolids

By on June 26, 2019

Whether it’s called the Green Corridor, the Gasification Project or the Biochar Plan, it’s not happening in Ephrata anytime soon, according to information from Ephrata Borough Council.

It sounded like a good idea; the construction of an “Earthcare Biochar Gasification System,” a project that could turn manure into electricity, thereby helping the borough hold down electricity costs while contributing to a cleaner, greener environment, officials said.

In a way, it’s like the old story of turning straw into gold, only less pleasant.

The gasification system would also have been one answer to the borough’s sludge problem.

Currently, a sludge byproduct is being trucked to landfills from Ephrata’s wastewater plant because the sludge is not environmentally safe to apply to fields.

The transportation costs and the landfill fees are expensive, so the borough has been looking for alternative ways to get rid of the stuff.

In 2016, a consulting firm was hired to assess potential solutions to the sludge problem, resulting in a recommendation that waste water treatment Plant #1 be upgraded with a digestion and dewatering system that would also produce “Class A biosolids,” which can be applied to land.

But in 2018 the plan for the construction of the dewatering system was put on hold to investigate the potential of the “manure to energy gasification project,” advised by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But after months of study, the Municipal Enterprises Committee of Ephrata Borough Council decided not to pursue what’s being called the “biochar project,” for several reasons.

The Municipal Enterprises Committee is composed of council members Linda Martin, Thomas Reinhold, and Victor Richards.
Instead, the borough will go with the “proven” technology that had first been considered; construction of a thickener, digestion, and dewatering system to produce Class A biosolids for land applications.

The construction of the dewatering system comes with a $11.7 million price tag, but is being looked at as a reasonable long-term solution.

It is expected that the borough’s wastewater plant will save a substantial amount of money by foregoing landfill costs for sludge and transportation hauling costs.

Option Number Two for the borough was Earthcare’s gasification system, which has a “digester,” equipment that turns manure into power, with an end-product called biochar, an environmentally-conscious product that can be applied to fields.

The committee agreed that the plan had promise.

But as borough officials delved into the gasification system, it was found to be an “all that glitters” scenario. All gasifier projects that the borough researched were incapacitated, or not working for various reasons.

No digester/biochar plants are currently in operation in the Commonwealth, according to Mayor Ralph Mowen.

“There are no viable bio-char programs in Pennsylvania,” Mowen said.

Discussion also focused on what to do with the biochar that would be the end product of the system.

“There is a market for biochar,” maintained borough resident Jim Sandoe. “It’s not a product that’s hard to get rid of, and $328 million worth of biochar was sold last year.”

Mowen said he hasn’t seen information to corroborate those figures.

The committee found too many unanswered questions and not enough facts, suggesting that the “biochar” system may need to go back to the drawing board before becoming an effective way to turn waste material into power.

If the borough had pursued the biochar project, they could have been awarded $100,000 to go toward the project by the federal EPA, Martin said.
But she emphasized that the project did not seem viable, based on the facts the committee was given.

One big drawback is that the plants aren’t able to function when the temperatures drop, so electricity would not be created during wintertime.

“In the winter, when we really need it, it doesn’t work,” Mowen said. “It doesn’t work because of the cold temperatures, and it wouldn’t work for about half of the year.”

So many problems were found with the biochar project that the idea never got out of committee to be voted on, Council President Susan Rowe told borough residents who were asking about the plan.

Another factor in the committee’s decision is the immediate need to replace the dewatering equipment at waste water treatment plant No. One.

“The wastewater treatment plant was built in the 1930s, and in 2018 the “Green Corridor” project came up, but we can’t put it off any longer, we need to do something now,” said committee member Tom Reinhold.

Wastewater treatment plant #1 was built in 1938 and has had several upgrades through the years.

An upgrade done in 2014 to meet PA Department of Environmental Protection regulations to remove nitrogen and phosphorus is the improvement that left the plant with sludge as a byproduct.
The borough is on a timeline, needing to get rid of the sludge to keep in line with DEP regulations.

“We will be fined by the DEP if we don’t get rid of the sludge,” Martin said.

Not only is sludge not allowed to be put on land, it’s also expensive to dispose of, according to the borough’s Wastewater Manager Charles Nigrelli, in a letter he wrote to Borough Manager D. Robert Thompson in May.

Nigrelli also outlined foreseeable problems with the proposed Earthcare system.

The onsite gasifier/biochar project would need a “sizable footprint,” Nigrelli wrote, and a large storage area at waste water treatment plant #1.

The area would need to accommodate heavy trucks and traffic going in and out of the plant and personnel running the gasifier would need shelter during bad weather, plus restrooms and lunchrooms.

The Biochar Gasifier Project from Earthcare had not provided a detailed proposal or design, Nigrelli wrote, so he was unsure about the project’s specifications.
Nigrelli is quoted as saying the gasification system “may not be feasible for several years.”

Meanwhile, the borough’s wastewater Plant #1 has an immediate need for dewatering equipment, and the current system requires much maintenance due to occasional breakdowns, Nigrelli said in the letter.

The best solution for the borough is the $5 million construction of the thickener, digestion, and dewatering system that will produce the biosolids, Nigrelli advised.

Nigrelli added that the “Biochar Project” is a “great concept with potential in future years.”

Marylouise Sholly is a freelance feature writer for the Ephrata Review. She welcomes your comments and questions at weezsholly@verizon.net. 

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