Staff seeks to relieve themselves of biosolids

Demand hasn’t been as high as anticipated for what Oak Harbor staff call “Poo-Cheetos.”

Demand hasn’t been as high as anticipated for what Oak Harbor staff call “Poo-Cheetos.”

Mick Monken, the city’s interim public works director, told city council members last week that he wanted to move forward with creating a “biosolids sustainability plan” that would offer several specific options for dealing with the nutrient-rich, dry material that comes from the city’s sewage treatment plant.

Last year the city paid $12,000 to a public relations consultant, EnviroIssues Inc., to create a biosolids marketing plan, but it hasn’t worked out. Monken said it was really more of “an approach” than a plan.

“It was proposed it could be marketed to a number of different entities like agriculture, garden clubs, recycling, hobby farms and that has not yet materialized,” he said.

Monken said the options in the plan may include continuing local pilot programs, hiring companies to haul the material away and in-house applications. Biosolids are being piled at the Harbor Heights park for use on the future playfields, and the public works facility is applying some to a lawn area as a trial project, he said.

The city’s Clean Water Facility is a state-of-the-art membrane bioreactor that produces 10 cubic yards of treated biosolids a week. The plant transforms sewage into a material the EPA considers “Exceptional Quality Class A biosolids,” the highest rate possible and safe enough to use on crops for human consumption.

“You could literally eat it by the handful,” Jack Robinson, lead operator at the sewage treatment plant, said in an interview. “It’s not going to hurt you.”

But it might give you bad breath.

Robinson said nurseries, gardeners and other vendors have taken loads of the biosolids here and there, but not enough to constitute a reliable way to dispose of the material. Part of the problem, he said, is that the biosolids have a rather strong odor fresh out of the giant dryer, which is the last step in the treatment process. The companies are worried that their neighbors may be bothered by the smell, he said

While officials in the past have said the dried biosolids would be relatively odor-free, Robinson said that was really a misunderstanding. It has a strong but unique smell, he said, which he likens to dog food.

In fact, Councilmember Joel Servatius said during last week’s workshop that he brought a bucketful for his garden and his Labrador retriever loved it. The odor went away after a few days, he added.

The biosolids are great fertilizer, Monken said, but generally need to be mixed with compost or tilled into the ground for application in public areas.

The city’s consultant dubbed the biosolids “Harbor Green,” but Robinson said nobody uses that name — which several people have said sounds like the name of a cannabis store. Staff members call it simply biosolids or Poo-Cheetos because the consistency of the dried stuff resembles the snack food, although he said it’s really more similar to Grape Nuts.

In January, Councilmember Jim Woessner criticized the marketing plan materials for its steep price tag, brevity and lack of specifics. Last week, he referenced the ongoing problem with the dryer and wondered whether it contributed to the odor of the dried material.

Robinson explained that the city has had trouble with the giant drying machine from the start. The city spent $4.5 million for a bad-smell-eliminating contraption for the plant, which is located on the edge of the city’s most popular park. The $14.5 million dryer, however, emitted an unanticipated amount of odor to the park, undermining the large investment.

The city worked with the manufacturer to resolve the problem, but there was a disagreement and the company eventually just pulled out of discussions, he said. The challenge with the dryer is to balance the fans so that the odorous air is sent to the odor-eliminating equipment without drawing heat from the dryer.

City staff has significantly improved the issue with adjustments over the three years since the plant came online, Robinson said, and will be working with a new company that has taken over the poop dryer business in the U.S.

The drying capability of the machine hasn’t been a problem, he indicated.

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