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Down the toilet (three-part series)

A three-part Waterloo Chronicle series examining Waterloo Region's plan to build a $60-million biosolids heat-drying facility.

Part one: Down the toiletTheā€ˆRegion of Waterloo is planning to build a $60-million biosolids heat-drying facility, but Cambridge-based Lystek says it has a cheaper, safer and easier option, like this organic materials recovery centre in Southgate Township. Photo courtesy of Lystek.

James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published Jan. 30, 2013

In thousands of bathrooms across the region each day, we flush our toilets without so much as a second thought about where the waste goes or how it is managed.

Some early cultures applied waste to the soil for fertility or dumped it into nearby rivers, and by the 1850s the Thames River in London, England was so polluted the House of Parliament drenched the drapes in chloride of lime to help cover the stench.

Modern plumbing may have taken a lot of the worry out of our waste, but the Region of Waterloo must treat and dispose tons of the material every year — and the denser cities become, the more difficult it is to do so sustainably.

In 2011, the Region of Waterloo updated its biosolids master plan to establish a strategy to manage waste at the region’s 13 wastewater treatment plants over the next 30 years.

Biosolids are the material left over when water is removed from municipal sewage and the sludge is treated. The region is updating its master plan in response to recent growth in the region, regulatory changes, climate change and the adoption of the region’s new environmental sustainability strategy.

Currently, the region either applies its treated waste to fields or trucks it to a landfill in Sarnia.

The master plan calls for the region to build a centralized heat-drying facility to dry biosolids from wastewater treatment plants in Kitchener, Galt, Waterloo and Preston. The dryer would convert biosolids into a pellet high in nitrogen that could be applied to agricultural lands or incinerated to create energy.

The only question now is where to build it.

Two sites have been proposed — the Cambridge dump on Savage Drive and the regional landfill on Erb Street in Waterloo. The $60-million facility would handle about 90 per cent of the region’s biosolids, with a target of processing about 185 tons per day by 2041, and occupy about four hectares of land.

The City of Waterloo is well acquainted with the smells associated with the landfill and residents are wary of more of the same should the biosolids drying plant be built nearby.

Since 1999, the region has received more than 1,000 odour complaints, including 72 in 2010, 66 in 2011 and 74 by the end of October 2012.

“I have yet to see any technology that says there is no potential odour,” said Ward 1 Coun. Scott Witmer. The landfill is located within his ward.

“I don’t want to smell (the landfill) any more than I already do.”

But what if Waterloo’s waste could either be treated right at the wastewater treatment plants or continue to be trucked out of the region altogether?

A Cambridge-based biosolids waste treatment company, founded at the University of Waterloo in 2000, says it has a safer, cleaner and cheaper solution to the region’s waste problem.

Using a combination of low heat — about 70 degrees Celsius —and by altering the pH of waste, Lystek International Inc. uses a large mixer to treat biosolids by killing pathogens and turning the waste into liquid fertilizer that can be spread on farm fields.

The fertilizer produced by the company is recognized by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, said company spokesman Kevin Litwiller, and the liquid fertilizer cuts down on the amount of dust produced by spreading the dried, pelletized product.

The technology will also cost a fraction of what the region wants to build. Litwiller said existing wastewater treatment plants can be modified to use Lystek’s technology on-site, and the machinery and parts are easier to repair or replace.

The plant would have a smaller footprint (600 to 2,000 square feet) than the heat-drying plant, and only cost a couple million dollars to build.

It’s also scalable, Litwiller said, meaning it can handle the region’s predicted biosolid production now and in the future.

Similar projects have already been completed in Guelph, St. Marys and Centre Wellington Township and the company has also been contracted to manage biosolids generated in the cities of Toronto, Peterborough and Ottawa.

Another option would be to truck the waste out of the region to the company’s processing facility in Dundalk, about 100 kilometres north of Waterloo.

The company charges a tipping fee of between $90 and $125 per ton of material, and sells thefinished product to local farmers.

Lystek says its method is also safer than pelletized drying facilities. In 2011, a minor explosion at a plant in Ashbridges Bay in Toronto caused extensive damage and in 2003 a five-alarm fire gutted the same facility.

An explosion during routine maintenance at a Florida biosolids heat-drying plant in January last year sent one worker to hospital and a plant in Quincy, Mass., had six fires over a two-year span in the early 1990s.

Liquid biosolid treatment has its critics as well. Lystek’s Dundalk plant faced a blockade last year of residents worried about increased truck traffic, odour, the proximity of the plant to a local floodplain and nearby wetlands, as well as the proximity of its biosolid lagoons to homes and schools.

Litwiller said the facility and the material it produces has full government compliance.

City Coun. Mark Whaley, a member of the Waterloo landfill liaison committee, said the region needs to strike a balance between citizen concerns about odours and increased truck traffic, and the region’s need to start handling its own waste in a sustainable way.

He said it is a complicated issue with many factors to take into consideration, which is why the region completed its master plan in 2011 and is holding numerous information meetings on the topic.

The next liaison meeting is scheduled for Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Waste Management Centre in Waterloo, 925 Erb St. W.

“There used to be a time when cities were built on rivers and used them as dumps. We live in a more responsible time now,” Whaley said.

“I think it’s irresponsible to punt the problem down the road.”


Part two: Flushing it outThe Region of Waterloo is spending about $120 million to upgrade the Waterloo wastewater treatment plant and is investigating options to deal with the biosolids generated. James Jackson photo.

James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published Feb. 6, 2013

After finishing your business in the bathroom, the region’s work has just begun — and the numbers are staggering.

In 2012, more than 15 million cubic metres of wastewater was treated at the Waterloo wastewater treatment plant alone, producing 13,000 tonnes of biosolid material — or about a third of the region’s total.

To put those numbers in context, the City of Waterloo produces enough wastewater every day to fill about 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools — or roughly 42,000 cubic metres.

Even with new conservation methods such as low-flow toilets, as the population continues to grow those numbers will only increase. The City of Waterloo has seen a 7.9 per cent increase in wastewater treatment over the past decade, meaning the region is under pressure to find a sustainable method of disposing of all that waste.

In 2008, the region began to make changes to how it manages biosolids, including transporting biosolids to a landfill in Sarnia whenever land application wasn’t possible, and an update to the biosolids master plan was also initiated.

Historically, biosolids — that is, the material left over when water is removed from municipal sewage and the sludge is treated — were either applied to agricultural fields or stored at the transfer station at the Kitchener wastewater treatment plant on Manitou Drive whenever land application wasn’t practical.

The biosolids were also stored in lagoons at the New Hamburg and Ayr treatment plants.

In 2011, the region completed the master plan update and one of the recommendations was to build a centralized heat-drying facility to convert biosolids from four wastewater treatment plants into a pellet high in nitrogen that could be applied to agricultural lands, incinerated to create energy or trucked to Sarnia.

The region initially targeted 11 possible sites for the facility, but has since narrowed it to two — the Cambridge dump and the Waterloo landfill — and engineers are eyeing a 2016 construction date and the four-hectare facility would cost upwards of $60 million.

City Coun. Mark Whaley, a member of the Waterloo landfill liaison committee, said the region has done its due diligence in determining what technology is best for this region and for sustainably disposing of biosolids residents produce.

“I don’t think they can afford to use up their (public) goodwill on the landfill,” he said. “We’ve got to get it right from the outset.”

Staff reviewed about eight proposals from companies across Canada and the United States specializing in biosolid treatment, including one from the Cambridge-based company Lystek.

Lystek claims it can help the region deal with its biosolids problem with a technique that is cheaper, cleaner and safer using patented liquid biosolids technology.

The company would either truck the waste to its processing plant in Dundalk, about 100 kilometres north of Waterloo, or add on its technology to existing wastewater treatment plants.

The region, however, has opted to go with the drying facility for several reasons.

One is the increased flexibility the pelletized product provides. Once the pellets are produced, they can either be blended with fertilizer for fields, continue to be trucked to Sarnia or incinerated to produce energy.

“Lystek uses a land application process, but we wanted several different types (of disposal methods),” said Jorge Cavalcante, water services manager of engineering and planning with the region.

“(Heat-drying) has multiple potential options for disposal.”

The second major concern the region has is the potential impact Lystek’s plan would have on greenhouse gas emissions. About seven or eight trucks will be needed every day to transport the biosolids from the wastewater treatment plants to the heat-dryer.

The distance the trucks travel within the region will be a fraction of the distance needed to transport the waste to Dundalk.

“It’s a much shorter driving distance and that distance is important when talking about greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kaoru Yajima, regional water services senior project engineer.

Once the material is dried it will also require fewer trucks to transport the pellets to a landfill or to be used as fertilizer — about one or two, according to the region.

The region also cannot simply add the technology on to existing wastewater treatment plants because of limited space — engineers must plan ahead for future expansion and upgrades that will be necessary, Cavalcante said.

“They were built a long time ago and the space is now contained by roads or other development,” he said. “There’s not a lot of room for expansion.”

Heat-drying facilities have been prone to fires and explosions in the past and Yajima said the region is taking every precaution to ensure it builds the safest facility it can.

In 2011, a minor explosion at a plant in Ashbridges Bay in Toronto caused extensive damage and in 2003 the same facility was gutted during a five-alarm fire. Similar problems have occurred at facilities across Canada and the United States.

Yajima said the plant the region wants to build is fundamentally different than the one in Toronto. A vacuum will remove the dangerous dust from the processing plant and the drying process will use lower temperatures. The plant’s circulation pumps will also use water instead of hot oil.

The pellets will be treated with a dust-inhibiting coating and processed at a constant rate to ensure even drying. It should also reduce the possibility of odours.

Yajima said the more the material is handled, the less evenly it dries and the more dust and smell it creates.

“There will be a lot more checks and balances as the material goes through the drying process,” Yajima said.


Part three: Not in my backyardOne of the potential sites for the biosolids facility is the Waterloo Region landfill. Photo courtesy the Region of Waterloo.

James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published Feb. 13, 2013

Ask a regional councillor from the city of Waterloo or Cambridge what their opinion is of the region’s proposed biosolids heat-drying facility and you’ll likely get the same answer.

“I love it – just don’t put it in my city.”

Staff have narrowed the list of potential sites for the plant down to two locations — the Waterloo Region landfill on Erb Street in the City of Waterloo and the Cambridge dump on Savage Drive — with their final recommendation expected in the coming months.

Some might say it’s just a case of councillors looking out for their constituents and for the region’s best interest. Others would argue it’s a classic case of NIMBYism — short for “Not In My Back Yard.”

NIMBY is not a new term — its usage dates back to at least the 1980s — and it is often tied to people opposed to new developments they believe are too close to their homes, schools, businesses or parks.

So-called NIMBYs are sometimes even in favour of the technology in question, so long as it’s built nowhere near them. With it’s proposed biosolids drying facility, Waterloo Region appears poised to become home to a NIMBY project of its own.

“I like the project,” said Cambridge regional councillor Claudette Millar. “(But) I am in favour of it being located in Waterloo.”

Millar said it makes sense to put the facility in Waterloo, since it will be closer to the two cities — Waterloo and Kitchener — predicted to contribute the most material to the plant during its lifespan.

By 2031, the region is expected to be home to nearly 730,000 people, with about 25 per cent of that population (177,000 people) located in Cambridge. Waterloo is expected to reach 150,000 people by 2031 and Kitchener will be nearly 305,000.

The region also anticipates a 46 per cent increase in the production of biosolids, or dewatered poop, over the next 30 years.

“I also understand the greatest amount of goods — lets call it goods — can reach Waterloo via rural routes, (but) in Cambridge, it would have to come right through the city, which includes residential areas,” Millar added.

“That’s a very big difference.”

Waterloo’s mayor, however, sees the situation a little differently.

“I think it’s good technology and I’m supportive of it moving forward,” said Brenda Halloran, also a member of regional council, “but not in Waterloo.”

Halloran is worried about the impact the increased truck traffic would have on the steadily encroaching homes and businesses in the neighbourhoods that surround the existing dump.

The debate of Waterloo vs. Cambridge comes down to more than simply NIMBY arguments, Halloran said. The decision has to be made not on a city-by-city basis, but by deciding what is best for anyone who might be living or working around the site.

She believes the facts point to Cambridge as the best spot for the heat dryer.

The region estimates a maximum of five to seven trucks would come into the facility daily to offload waste during peak operation several years down the road and about two trucks would be needed to transport the dried material away from the facility.

Halloran said the Cambridge site is in a more industrialized part of the city than its counterpart in Waterloo and is more removed from residential homes that might be impacted by potentials smells or noise. The Cambridge dump is closed but still receives some minor material, like yard waste.

She also said the dump in Cambridge is closer to the 401, making transportation of the dried material out of the region, either to the dump in Sarnia or to be mixed with fertilizer for land application, easier with fewer carbon emissions.

“What makes more sense, trucks in an urban setting or in a more commercial area?” she asked.

“All things being equal, I prefer it not being at the Waterloo landfill,” echoed Coun. Jane Mitchell, who also represents Waterloo on regional council.

In 2011, the region completed its biosolids master plan update and one of the recommendations was to build a centralized heat-drying facility to convert biosolids from four wastewater treatment plants into a pellet high in nitrogen that could be applied to agricultural lands, incinerated to create energy or trucked to a landfill in Sarnia.

Staff had several so-called “must-meet” criteria when they were looking for potential sites for the plant, including sufficient space (about four hectares) on region-owned land to build an access road, odour-control mitigation, storage and buffer zones.

The plant also must be located near a source of waste heat to help power the operation. Supplemental power for the dryer would be supplied by natural gas.

A total of 11 sites were considered, including the airport, the wastewater treatment plants in Kitchener, Waterloo, Ayr, Galt and New Hamburg, the Heidelberg operations yard and the Crosshill waste transfer station. Most were rejected for not having a suitable source of waste energy available to help power the plant and the Ministry of Environment says the municipality is largely responsible for determining the location of the facility through land-use planning and zoning bylaws.

One regional councillor from outside the Tri-Cities, who experienced a similar debate in his town, said NIMBYism is inherent in almost any major municipal project.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a skate park or something like (the biosolids plant),” said councillor Todd Cowan, mayor of Woolwich Township. For years he has been fighting with the provincial government to relocate a biogas facility from near Elmira’s downtown to a less residential area.

Many of the complaints from residents that have come through his office are the same as those surrounding the biosolids plant in Waterloo —– truck traffic, potential odours and noise.

The region is set to vote on the location of the plant in the coming months, with a public information session planned for either April or May. In June, staff anticipate filing an environmental study report for the preferred site and opening a 30-day public review period.

With the deadline for the decision coming up quick, Cowan said it’s important to get the location right the first time.

“It’s got to be in the best interest of everyone,” Cowan said. “The merits of what’s the best location will decide.”

For more information on the region’s biosolids master plan, visit www.regionofwaterloo.ca/en/aboutTheEnvironment/biosolidsmasterplan.asp.

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