Missoula taxpayers may soon own the facility that converts their human sewage sludge into compost.
The City Council’s Public Works Committee voted unanimously last week to authorize spending $1.24 million to purchase EKO Compost, a biosolids recycling facility, from a private owner. The asset purchase agreement will still have to be approved by the full city council.
Part of the city’s motivation for acquiring the business is so the city can properly mitigate the foul stench that occurs every so often, mainly in winter, when the compost piles aren’t adequately aerated. That will come as welcome news to anyone who endured the few days of intolerable odors that broke out this past January.
John Wilson, the city’s public work director, said the issue of controlling the odor isn’t related to technology being used at the facility on North Reserve.
“It’s a question of containing air and treating air after it comes out of the composting operation,” he said. “A lot of the odor issues are related to poor aeration. When they go to break open those piles for curing and screening, that’s what causes it. If it’s adequately aerated, a lot of those odoriferous materials would be minimized."
Wilson said that if the facility is operated properly, it shouldn’t stink any more than a regular composting plant.
"It should be a musty – but not unpleasant – odor that rapidly dissipates,” he said.
EKO Compost is currently owned by Tom Pawlish, who lives in Hawaii. Wilson said Pawlish has been extremely cooperative and wants to sell the business and retire. The city currently pays the company more than $500,000 a year in tipping fees to get rid of sewage, but that contract ended in June. EKO pays the city $45,000 a year to lease the city-owned land it operates on, but that contract ends in August.
Wilson and city chief administrative officer Dale Bickell are optimistic that the city could pay for the purchase of the company and buy some new equipment without having to ask taxpayers to approve a bond. That’s because the city would save the tipping fees and would bring in revenue by selling the compost.
“We may be able to cover all these costs with the savings in not having to pay tipping fees from the wastewater budget and the net revenue of green waste,” Wilson said. “But it depends on final cost estimates. If we need additional revenue we can talk about a bond.”
Wilson estimates that selling compost to state agencies that do reclamation work and bagging it for consumers could generate $880,000 a year. EKO currently bids on state projects that require compost, and sells its bagged product at local stores like Home Depot.
“We see every reason to be optimistic about doing it with available revenue,” Wilson said.
The city would be responsible for more than $500,000 per year in operating costs and more than $300,000 per year in costs associated with acquiring bulking agents, materials that are used in the composting process. EKO Compost also processes yard waste and leftovers from landscape companies.
The company started in 1977 and has processed over a half a million tons of sewage from the city. The city is now looking at long-term solutions for managing sewage waste, and has commissioned a consulting engineer to determine the feasibility of updating the infrastructure of the facility, which would be phase 2.
“With the net income from the operations each year, we expect to be able to acquire the system and make potentially phase 2 improvements based on revenues and not have to support it with the whole wastewater utility,” Bickell said.
Paul Montgomery, with Anderson Montgomery Consulting Engineers, said that for phase 2, the city could build a facility specially designed for composting large quantities of waste for a cost of roughly $6.4 million, but there would have to be a lot of due diligence before that happens.
If the city were to purchase EKO, it would be operated within the Wastewater Division.
He said there are numerous reasons why the city would want to purchase the facility, including mitigating the odors and saving on the tipping fees.
“There have been a series of newspaper articles and TV pieces about the odor issues out there,” he said. “Right now, the city has absolutely no control over the odor issues that exist. Being able to control the operations and provide adequate aeration will address the odor issues.”
Montgomery added that the city has spent over $1 million on mitigating odors at the wastewater treatment plant, so now there’s a lot of finger-pointing when the stench pops up.
"We want to design and operate a composting facility to ensure compliance is achieved," he said.
The goal, he concluded, is to structure a "good neighbor" facility that minimizes odor, noise and dust.
"We want to address some of those issues that currently exist at the existing operation," he said.