By Beau Hayhoe
Holt Journal staff writer
DELHI TOWNSHIP — The pungent smell of Delhi Township’s wastewater treatment plant spreads into the countryside.
The scent of treated liquid waste is unpleasant to some. But across the past decade, township officials have began looking past what the product smells like to what it could be used for in the future.
Officials began exploring the process of upgrading the township’s wastewater treatment processes in 2003, said Delhi Township Director of Public Services Sandra Diorka.
The township’s efforts led to the creation of a digestion process that turns human waste into high-quality liquid sludge for disposal on farmland.
With phase I complete, Delhi officials want to do more with the byproducts of the township’s toilets.
The project’s second phase would develop a sludge dewatering and solar drying process. This would allow the liquid waste to be converted into biosolids and sold as an alternative fuel, a move potentially leading to profits for the township.
Officials estimate the cost of phase II at about $5.5 million, with about $2.9 million expected to be covered by state grants. Citizens would pay a $1.20-per month sewer rate increase to cover the rest.
The issue has proved to be far messier than what residents flush down the drain.
A group that characterized the project as too costly gathered thousands of signatures last summer to force a vote on the issue.
Now, residents will go to the polls May 8 to vote on a $5.1 million bond proposal that would finance part of the project.
With a major question hanging in the balance, residents and officials are reflecting on the potential benefits of the project, as well as costs.
Public health implications
The township’s decision to pursue alternative water treatment methods stems from a desire to protect residents, Diorka said.
Using higher-quality treatment processes produces a byproduct that’s less chemically dangerous, she said.
Phase II would turn a product that can only be applied on land into a material that is safe to touch.
“That would pave the way to actually having a product that we can sell,” she said.
The township is in discussions with Michigan State University about the possibility of selling the product to meet some of the university’s alternative energy benchmarks.
Robert Ellerhorst, director of utilities at the on-campus T.B. Simon Power Plant, said the two sides have discussed the university buying about a ton a day from the township to boost the MSU plant’s use of alternative fuels.
Township Manager John Elsinga said turning the product into fuel makes sense.
“We think that that’s the highest and best environmental solution,” he said.
Transforming the liquid sludge into an alternative fuel would help the township cut on costs, Diorka said, in addition to bringing in money.
Currently, the liquid sludge is taken away in one or two truck tanker loads of about 10,000 gallons daily, for a total of about 100 truckloads a year, Diorka said.
Turning the sludge into biofuels would require only about seven truckloads of liquid sludge every year, cutting fuel costs by about 90 percent, she said.
At the heart of the matter itself are the actual plans for the liquid waste.
The sludge drying and dewatering process is filled with several steps, Diorka said.
First, treated organic waste would flow from the current digestion system into a room where polymers would be added to the liquid.
Polymers cause the material to clump and become partially solid, Diorka said.
The material would then be pushed through a series of long tubes filled with blades that force water out through holes in the the tube.
The resulting product, which has a consistency similar to Play-Doh, would then be carted to two greenhouses, where it would dry in the sun before being hauled away and potentially used as fuel.
But the decision to support the sludge dryer comes down to more than what the final product looks like, officials and residents said.
Before the project can move forward, the issue must be approved by residents.
A petition circulated last summer gathered more than the required 1,700 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The petitions were gathered by residents who say the project was too costly.
The matter drew further contention when township trustees tussled with the actual date of the election.
Some trustees argued that a May 8 vote would do no good, as May elections have historically had low voter turnouts.
Trustee Derek Bajema, who voted against a May special election, said that nearly all residents are against the project.
“(I’m) hearing — people say, ‘we don’t need to do this’,” he said. “I think people say enough is enough.”
Bajema said residents feel the township needs to “get back to basics,” such as making sure toilets flush, before moving on to more complicated projects.
Trustee DiAnne Warfield said residents will vote if they feel the issue is critical, regardless of the date, but added she remains unsure how they might vote.
Warfield voted in favor of a May election.
“I don’t really have any idea how the community is going to respond,” she said. “There’s a lot of negative stuff out there — I don’t know if that’s a vocal minority.”
Holt resident Michael Huberts said he plans to vote for the project.
“It is a good direction to go for the township,” he said. “It’s obviously always a positive aspect to be able to get rid of a liability. With the sludge dryer, (the liquid sludge) will be an asset.”
Residents who oppose the project paint the upcoming vote as a “David and Goliath” battle between citizens and local government.
Holt resident Joan Fabiano, who was an organizer of last summer’s petition drive, said the group is not opposed to sustainability measures such as the sludge dryer, but is arguing against costs.
“We’re already green,” she said. “We’re just opposed to fiscal irresponsibility. We felt that this amount of money is something citizens should have a say in.”
Voting on the sludge dryer comes down the knowledge of residents, Elsinga said, adding that the slight sewer rate increase has not dissuaded some residents from supporting the project.
Elsinga said he’s “optimistic” the May 8 vote will swing in the project’s favor.
Until then, officials and residents will continue to arguet.
“At the end of the day, we create two assets,” Elsinga said of the project’s potential. “We think we move the envelope toward (a) quality of life issue. We think that it really just resolves a lot of issues for the public health.