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Man's compost pile turns into heap of trouble

Posted: September 8, 2013 - 12:07am

KODIAK — Forester Peter Olsen knows the rules.

One he overlooked has given new ammunition to opponents of the city’s plans to compost sewage sludge at the Kodiak Island Borough landfill.

Olsen is head of Quayanna Development Corporation, the contractor hired by the city to run its composting operation. This summer, Olsen brought his work home with him, trucking about 20 cubic yards of compost to his Bell’s Flats home.

He spread the compost on his lawn and used it to grow spruce seedlings.

According to the rules governing the composting operation, that’s illegal.

“It’s on the level of pouring out old water. It’s not very serious,” said Lori Aldrich of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, who monitors Kodiak’s landfill and composting operation.

While neither Aldrich nor Olsen believes the compost brought harmful chemicals, heavy metals or pathogens to Bell’s Flats, Olsen broke the rules. “It is a serious violation in that he did violate the letter of the approval as well as land-spreading biosolids,” Aldrich said.

According to the DEC license for Kodiak’s composting operation, the “Class B” compost produced by the operation must be kept at the landfill. Only “Class A” compost, which undergoes more rigorous testing, can be used in public spaces. The city intends to produce Class A compost and is producing compost to Class A standards, but neither it nor Quayanna has applied for a Class A permit.

Olsen reported his mistake to the DEC in mid-August, and the DEC responded by issuing an official “Notice of Violation” that threatens fines or jail if Olsen is found to have acted criminally negligent.

Those outcomes are unlikely to happen, Aldrich said. Olsen reported his mistake and has complied with DEC’s instructions since. He’s taken samples from his lawn and a nearby creek, returned the remaining compost, and paid for the samples to be tested for pathogens and heavy metals. The results of that testing are expected later this month.

“We believe in this stuff, and I think the testing, when that passes the muster, it’ll actually be OK,” Olsen said. “To have the scrutiny and pass it is not a bad thing from my perspective.”

From the perspective of composting opponents, Olsen’s actions are a travesty. Marilyn Guilmet, who lives in Middle Bay, has repeatedly said at public meetings that composting is not the answer. At a pair of recent borough meetings, she brought pictures of Olsen’s property that show “dangerous” use of compost, she said.

Guilmet and other anti-composters have asked the city to consider incinerating its sewage sludge instead of composting it. According to the city’s estimates, incineration will cost sewer-users six times as much as composting.

The city and borough are scheduled to discuss composting at a Sept. 11 joint work session. Olsen will be in the audience as well. “I’ll go and take my tomatoes on the 11th, I’m sure,” he said.

Results of Olsen’s sampling are not expected before the joint work session, but Aldrich will be awaiting the results.

If the tests show no elevated levels of salmonella or heavy metals, “We’ll allow him to keep it as long as he shows he’s not impacting the creek,” Aldrich said.

If the tests show problems, Olsen could be required to push the composted soil back from the nearby creek, add additional soil to dilute the contaminants, or remove the mixed soil entirely.

Olsen brought the compost home to prove that it can be used safely. “We wanted to be able to do a demonstration project,” he said.

The spruce seedlings he planted are growing tall, and the lawn he planted is filling in. “I believe in the stuff, and I think once people get used to it, they will too,” he said.

As for Olsen, he said the violation is a “lesson learned,” and he doesn’t forsee any further problems if his partnership with the city continues. “As far as we know, we’re complying with what we’re supposed to do, but if there’s other things we’re required to do, we’ll ask the questions,” he said.

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