Garden City Compost, the city’s newest utility, opens to the public for the summer drop-off season on Saturday, after a week of soft opening to meet demand.

Why isn’t it open year-round like EKO Compost was?

“Some people may recall EKO being open to the general public through the winter months, but actually that wasn’t the case,” Public Works Director John Wilson wrote in a March 15 email. “Some years ago the gate to the compost facility was vandalized and left unprepared … the gate was left open 24/7.

“These are but a few of EKO’s poor practices that we are correcting.”

Those corrections include actually taking fees for trucks and trailers full of waste, halting the bagging operation, preventing trash from making its way in to the center and most important: fighting the unrelenting compost stench.

All that costs money, though. Up to $2.75 million was budgeted for first-year improvements (including the purchase of EKO’s site and assets), while $4.2 million is budgeted for year two.

The money’s gone toward a new tub grinder that chews up yard and tree debris, a mixer, brush grinder, two front-end loaders and two 40 horsepower aeration blowers.

Tuesday, Starr Sullivan, the city’s wastewater superintendent now in charge of the next-door composting operation, summed up exactly how much of the EKO’s equipment had to be replaced.

“Everything,” he laughed.

“The management of EKO Compost just didn’t put any resources into it the last few years,” he continued. “The equipment we bought was just junk.”

That meant the city stopped compost delivery, after fleet manager Scot Colwell deemed its trucks unsafe to drive.

It also won’t bag compost anymore, at least for awhile. Sullivan characterized their bagging operation as “not much more than two guys and a shovel.”

TOM BAUER, Missoulian
Starr Sullivan, the city's wastewater superintendent, holds a handful of compost made at the operation. The city will continue bulk sales of the compost, but will no longer bag it as EKO did.

Instead, he wants to clear the 17 acres or so of backed up green waste –everything from tree branches to grass clippings – that covers the back part of the lot, left unprocessed by EKO since 2010 after its grinder had mechanical issues.

“We probably have a two- or three-year amount here,” he said, pointing to the massive heap of brush bordering one end of the muddy lot, being slowly chipped away at by a grinder while front-end loaders sifted materials from pile to pile.

The city put about $30,000 into fixing the grinder, Sullivan said, and a second is on its way; a Morbark 1200XL tub grinder that cost over $600,000.

They’ll use both to work on clearing the brush pile and downsize the operation’s sprawling, haphazard 30-acre lot into a compact, organized system.

Google Maps screengrab
An aerial view of the city's wastewater treatment plant (along the river) and composting operation (to the left). The 17 or so acres of unprocessed green waste can be seen in the upper left hand corner. 

The city’s improvements, which include concrete pads for each type of waste and a radial dumping system with conveyor belts for the wastewater biosolids, will cover less than two acres.

Sullivan hoped it would all be built out in three to five years, leaving the remaining ground as city open space.

That three-year estimate doesn’t count the waste dropped off every day by tree companies and contractors, Sullivan said, nor the yard debris that will pour in the next eight months they’re open to the public.

The center’s operating hours have become a point of consternation with the Missoula City Council, over concerns that they won’t be enough to meet demand.

“We’re already on a pretty tight budget,” Wilson told the council in December. “It costs to have a person – we need to have somebody there all the time separating what they bring in.”

“I agree,” Ward 4 representative John DiBari replied. “But that’s what we signed up for and it’s a service that we provide. I think we just have to figure out how to make it as open and available as possible.”

Public Works settled on a Tuesday-Sunday schedule, open until 6 p.m. for green waste drop-off. Demand prompted Sullivan to hold a soft opening this week and he said next year Garden City Compost most likely will open a month earlier, on March 1. 

“We’ve got a tremendous amount of people dropping off green waste,” he said. “When we first started I thought I was going to have to be pounding the pavement. I haven’t had to leave my desk.”

courtesy Starr Sullivan
A graphic shows the planned Phase I layout improvements for Garden City Compost. Orderly concrete pads will hold different green waste products with aeration tubes down the middle. 

Another issue has come from EKO’s foot-dragging on updating its website, which still lists old hours and contact info for the operation, confusing some of Ward 1 Heidi West’s constituents enough for her to ask Sullivan about it during a recent City Council meeting.

The city does have its own webpage for Garden City Compost, with its own phone number, but a Google search for composting in Missoula still brings up EKO’s site as the top hit.

“We’ve approached EKO Compost several times to remove that website,” Sullivan told West. “I guess EKO Compost has been a little uncooperative …we’ve been trying to talk to them to no avail.”

Perhaps the biggest concern regarding EKO Compost is the infamous stench that has permeated the Westside Reserve Street neighborhood for years.

In 2009, a county-mandated study determined both EKO and the wastewater treatment plant were at fault and both were ordered to improve their odor-eliminating technology.

Sullivan said his plant put about $1 million into a state-of-the-art aeration system, while EKO added a 2-horsepower air pump to its lines.

The minimum recommended power for such a pump is 40 horsepower, Sullivan said.

“We knocked down our odors by 90 percent. But EKO did nothing,” he said as he walked past two new 40-horsepower aerator blowers on pallets in the parking lot, to be installed soon.

After the city bought EKO Compost, Sullivan and other city employees toured nearby composting centers to see how they solved the stinking scourge.

Coeur D’Alene's compost facility, which is owned by the city, sits in the very middle of town. Sullivan said that plant has a 24-hour odor watchman, who is on call to take objections from citizens on matters aromatic.

“That’s going to take some time, but we want to fix that,” Sullivan said. “We want to be a good neighbor.”

TOM BAUER, Missoulian
The city will install two new 40-horsepower aerator blowers at the composting operation to help eliminate odors. Previously, the operation had only one 2-horsepower air pump, which superintendent Sullivan said was inadequate.

Five years ago, the city bought the ground under EKO Compost for $1.5 million, to ensure it remained a composting facility.

It’s in the best interest of the city to compost the water treatment plant’s biosolid waste instead of dumping it, as is the case in many other cities, Sullivan said.

The convenience of the next-door property can’t be overlooked, either – a conveyor belt juts out from a treatment plant building over the fence dividing the two operations, dropping biosolid waste into a nice pile on the other side.

By the time Missoula bought EKO Compost last fall, Sullivan said its fees had increased to about $450,000 a year, just to run the conveyor over the fence.

The city kept the same fee structure as EKO, and charges the same amount for bulk compost ($26 per yard).

“We’re hoping to cover our costs,” he said. “And if we make a little money, that’s OK, too.”

But the focus is on turning compost into an efficient operation in Missoula, without the odor, garbage – Sullivan said they’ve found couches, mattresses and even a car transmission in the green waste pile – and inconsistent quality.

As Sullivan put it, “Turning this sow’s ear into a silk purse."

Driving out of the compost yard, Sullivan glanced out his car window and said:

“So if you think about it, that Christmas tree you brought down here last year – you’re probably putting on your petunias.”

Given the compost recipe (3:1 green waste to wastewater biosolids), some Christmas dinner might be shredded up there with your Christmas tree as well.

The composting center is open to the general public April 1 to Nov. 30 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday for green waste drop-off. Bulk compost can be bought Tuesday-Saturday. 

The open times may shift as Public Works figures out the best availability. Hours can be found at ci.missoula.mt.us/2089/Garden-City-Compost.

Contractors, tree companies and other professional services can call 552-6619 to work out drop-off times outside regular hours.

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