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Sewage sludge the subject at Chamber of Commerce luncheon

Process pitched could virtually eliminate part of solid waste problem

Posted: July 13, 2012 - 12:07am

It may not have made for the most appetizing lunchtime discussion, but a presentation by Lammergeier CleanTech’s Jonathan Kamler on an option for sewage sludge disposal got attendees’ attention at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce’s Moose Lodge luncheon Thursday.

Kamler said one unit, ideally located at the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Facility, could eliminate Juneau’s sludge, an industry term for human waste and other toxic material that is separated from wastewater during treatment. It uses supercritical water — a form of water under extreme pressure and heat conditions that has properties of both liquid and gas — to “destroy” sludge.

“We bring in the sludge, pressurize it, cook it and separate what’s left,” said Kamler, describing the intended process for the system. “That’s it. After only 60 seconds, the sludge is completely destroyed. We can vent the gases and discharge the sterilized water.”

Kamler said heat from the reaction in the form of steam could be harnessed as electricity, making the disposal unit self-powering and leaving enough electricity left over to feed some back onto Juneau’s power grid.

Using this system, which would rely on AquaCritox technology from Irish firm SCFI Group (Super Critical Fluids International) greenhouse gas emissions would be lower than if the sludge were composted, incinerated or dumped in a landfill and Juneau’s annual volume of solid sewer waste would plunge, according to Kamler’s presentation.

“We can reduce the solids from 700 shipping containers per year to just one,” Kamler said, referring to the containers now used to ship sewage sludge out of Juneau for disposal in Oregon. “In my book, that’s an easy choice. All you have left (from the disposal process) is sterile water and a powdery ash-like material … with considerable market value, plus marketable gas.”

But the method outlined by Kamler would come at a cost.

The price tag for a system large enough to process and dispose of Juneau’s sludge would be roughly $13 million to $14 million, Kamler said. Lammergeier’s corporate partners, which include SCFI, Parsons Corp. and Rockwell Automation, are willing to absorb some of the cost, he added, leaving an estimated $8 million to $9 million for the City and Borough of Juneau to pay.

Wayne Stevens, president and CEO of United Way of Southeast Alaska, asked why Kamler’s estimate was so much lower than the figure of nearly $20 million named last year.

“That was based on the fact that Juneau wanted to be able to shut down the system at night, so we had to actually basically double-size the system to accommodate that, because you have to play catch-up,” Kamler replied. “These systems are actually designed to run 24/7.”

Kamler said that Juneau taking a chance on this new disposal system would fit in with a series of “firsts” in the city’s history.

“It’s interesting that we get that argument, ‘Oh, it’s new, so we’re not interested,’” said Kamler. “You know, the bridge to Douglas was the first ever of its kind. The Salmon Creek dam was the first ever of its kind. The mine out the road here, first of its kind. There’s a whole number of firsts for Juneau.”

But the “first” on Stevens’ mind after the presentation was an advancement Kamler admitted had been a disappointment for the community: the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Facility, infamous for flooding nearby homes with sewage in 1999.

“In any project, people are always going to find ways to go, ‘Oh, well, that’s new, and we don’t want to test it out,’” said Stevens. “But conversely, you go out and look at the Mendenhall plant, and that was supposed to be the newest, best thing since sliced bread.”

Stevens did add, though, that he believes the system Kamler described is an option worth pursuing.

“It’s an interesting concept, and if it worked, it’d be way cool,” Stevens said.

Hayden Garrison, owner of promotional company Creative Source, asked Kamler what would happen if the sludge disposal system broke down.

“All the equipment is pretty much off-the-shelf stuff right out of the oil and gas industry,” Kamler answered. He said that it should be easy to replace broken equipment, with replacements arriving within days from Houston or Anchorage. But if the unit were knocked out of commission for longer, he added, “Juneau has a sludge storage capacity of about three to four months. You can hide it a lot of places.”

Garrison said afterward that Kamler’s answer had satisfied him. He said he would probably be for the disposal method.

“If we’re going to be the guinea pig, and we get a good deal on it, you know, I think it’s got good potential,” Garrison said.

Public Works Director Kirk Duncan was not at the luncheon, but he said he has heard Kamler’s presentation multiple times before.

“It’s pretty theoretical. I think that it’s got tremendous potential. But I think we’ve got to be, you know, cautious about how we approach this,” said Duncan. “I don’t want to be contrarian at all, but I do want to be cautious.”

Duncan said he would like to see more precise cost estimates from Lammergeier as the CBJ considers how to dispose of its sewage sludge.

“We’ve heard a really good sales pitch,” Duncan said. “And now it’s time to really crunch some numbers.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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