Ithaca Excited About Biosolids Resources!
by Ned Beecher, November 2014
Jim Goodreau and Dan Ramer are excited about what they create with wastewater. And they’ll get you excited about it too.
Jim joined NEBRA in 2012 and convinced his organization – the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility – to step up for an organization level membership in 2013.
In September 2014, I called Jim to see if I could stop by – in part to break up a long drive from a meeting in Burlington, ON. But mostly it’s just that I like to visit NEBRA members to see first hand what they’re doing.
Jim is tall, soft-spoken, with a steady smile. Dan is more outgoing, and he quickly took the lead on the tour, striding up the stairs to the top of the two million-gallon anaerobic digesters. “This is where you get the best view of the whole plant,” he said. Close to the north, Cayuga Lake stretched out of site into haze. Houses and active commercial areas spread out not far from the facility fenceline. Cornell University is on the hillside to the east, and the city stretches to the south, the land rising to Ithaca College. “They all drain to here,” said Dan Ramer.
For decades, the Cornell Waste Management Institute (CWMI) pleaded the case for caution when it comes to biosolids use on soils. Professor Donald Lisk argued against it in the 1980s and 1990s. Since the 1990s, the skepticism of Cornell soil scientist Murray McBride and former CWMI director Ellen Harrison has challenged land application and forced those in the biosolids management profession to sharpen research and understanding of biosolids management. Today, with more research and experience, CWMI's arguments have faded somewhat. And, at Cornell, some faculty are showing more acceptance.
Locally, the Ithaca Area WWTF has argued for putting biosolids to use, and their arguments have strengthened in the past few years. With a focus on putting wastewater resources to work, the plant has completed most of a suite of planned upgrades costing $8 million:
- fixed covers on the digesters (2012)
- a 30,000 cubic ft. gas storage bubble (improving on former gas storage that was under floating digester covers, 2012)
- energy efficient linear motion mixers on the digesters (2012)
- 4 65 KW microturbines (replacing 2 100 KW engine generators, 2012)
- reliable biogas flow meters (2013)
- two high-efficiency boilers
- ceramic fine bubble diffusers in the secondaries
- energy-efficient lighting, weather-sealing
- solar panels
A new, more efficient back-up flare will be installed soon. And the current belt filter press dewatering will be replaced by two inclined screw presses. The plant now produces about half the electricity it requires.
And just completed when I was there was a slick new 2-bay, trucked-in waste (septage, FOG) receiving building with quick connect hoses and two muffin monster grinders and large underground storage tank. On the north side is a food scraps area where trucks can tip their contents into an in-ground muffin monster and storage tank. Outside waste – FOG, septage, and animal waste from Cornell University labs - has been fed into the Ithaca digesters for a long time. But now, the University, which has composted on campus for some time, has started piloting delivery of food scraps to the treatment plant. Dan Ramer says that, with the new receiving facility, they will be going after more outside waste and plan to charge a very competitive tipping fee of 3 – 5 cents per gallon.
The fast pace of improvements is possible because of a utility Board “that gets it,” said Dan Ramer. “The new septage receiving will probably generate about $300,000 per year in revenue from tipping fees and increased gas production,” said Dan. “It cost $3 million, but they can see it will pay us back. And it might last 50 years… We’ve seen so many benefits of co-digestion and renewable energy production. We haven’t done all the calculations yet, but our energy costs are going down, which helps keep the comptroller happy.”
When I visited, the Ithaca staff’s laser-sharp focus on energy had also led them to investigate chemically-enhanced primary solids removal. The idea is simple: capture more solids in the primary process and you get more biogas in the digesters and use less energy in secondary treatment. A 15-foot Clear Cove pilot system was achieving up to 70% solids removal, including capturing some of the influent soluble solids.
And what happens to Ithaca’s final biosolids product? For now, it is landfilled by Casella at a cost of $300,000 per year. As a recent Ithaca Voice article notes, one reason for disposal stems from local concerns about trace chemicals - microconstituents in biosolids. Dan Ramer, quoted in the article, notes that this is not a sustainable practice. It is because of concerns of this sort that NEBRA has been closely tracking research on microconstituents in biosolids (see the resources on the left side of nebiosolids.org for the recent information and/or contact the NEBRA office).
But there is a plan for one farm to take about 100 tons of the Class B biosolids soon, as a trial, even though the Board is still skittish about land application.
Dan Ramer and Jim Goodreau have been focused on education, reaching out to the Board and more and more stakeholders, presenting at conferences, getting press coverage, their excitement spilling over. They see this facility as a key part of the community, providing key services. They’re planning a display at the science education center across the street. The facility has given land to the local farmers’ market and a lakeside trail system where they plan to put in educational posters about the WWTF. “And, at the farmers’ market site, we hope to put in a clear pipe that shows some of the effluent coming out the plant - showing exactly why we are here,” says Dan Ramer.
For more details, see the Ithaca Voice overview of the treatment facility's operations. And check out the Ithaca WWTF website (where, at the bottom of the page, Dan Ramer will tell you whole treatment story in 5 sweet videos).