By Beau Hayhoe
Holt Journal staff writer
The Michigan Department of Environmental Qualityhas given the go-ahead to a portion of a Delhi Township project that would turn organic waste into biofuels.
The department approved a portion of the project that regulates the burning of the biosolids as fuel, Township Manager John Elsinga said.
A $5.1 million bond proposal that would finance part of the project is on the May 8 ballot.
The referendum comes after opponents of the project collected more than the required 1,700 signatures last July to force the vote.
Officials said last fall that the referendum drive may have generated enough public opposition to kill the project on the ballot.
If the next step in the project passes, about $2.9 million is slated to be covered through state grants, with township residents picking up the rest, Elsinga said.
Residents would pay for their portion of the project through a $1.20-per-month sewer rate increase, according to the township’s website.
Phase I of the project began in 2007 with the creation of a digestion process at the township’s wastewater treatment plant.
The process turns human waste into high-quality liquid sludge that can only be disposed on farmland.
Phase II of the project would develop a sludge dewatering and solar drying process, and preliminary plans call for the construction of two greenhouses, Elsinga said.
Elsinga said the departmental approval opens the door for other opportunities should the second phase of the project pass.
“It may be an industry game changer: that municipalities can and could and may want to think in terms of their sludge production as a … fuel,” Elsinga said.
With approval from the Department of Environmental Quality, the township can now explore the sale of its biofuels to Michigan State University, which would use the matter to fuel part of the on-campus T.B. Simon Power Plant, he said.
Robert Ellerhorst, utilities director at the power plant, said the plant has been in talks with Delhi Township, but has not finalized anything or agreed on a purchasing price for the material.
“If they build it we intend to try to pursue a permit to burn it,” he said. “We’ve had these conversations.”
The power plant could buy a ton a day from the township, Ellerhorst said.
If the project does pass, Elsinga said the township would finish an engineering design for the project, conduct bidding and hopefully finalize plans for construction by September.
Operations could start next spring and summer, he said.
Elsinga said he would not speculate on how the township might vote, but added he thinks the opposition is coming from a slim minority of community members who characterize the project as too costly.
Some township trustees opposed even putting the issue on the ballot, arguing that May elections have low voter turnout.
Trustee Derek Bajema said the referendum should not have been necessary.
He said residents are concerned with the proposed sewer rate increase, calling it “a pattern of rising costs.”
“I think there’s a whole host of reasons that certainly, now is not the right time to do this,” Bajema said. “I don’t like this idea of constantly being shamed into taking the next step (in terms of environmental sustainability).”