Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Biosolids fail neighborhoods: forward to the past with Metro Water Services' water treatment

That old stink we were once subjected to in Salemtown has been on the rise again over the past few months. In spite of years of promises from Metro Water Services, there are mornings we walk out our front door or evenings we get home from work and we are hit by noxious odors from human waste sludge treated a few blocks away at Central Wastewater Treatment Plant. Now, it is not as bad as it was in 2005 and 2006, but that is little solace to neighbors who were told that the funk would end once the new biosolids facility went on line and their end product started selling like hotcakes.

Then last week WSMV journalist Demetria Kalodimos contacted me bearing the news that the biosolids facility had not been meeting standards it had told us it would in 2005. She asked me for an interview, which we did last Friday. Given that this community had received no information from MWS that anything was amiss, I believe I had as many questions for Ms. Kalodimos as she had for me.

I learned from this veteran journalist that not only had the biosolids facility not been fulfilling its purpose of generating less smelly biosolids since last May's flood (which might be understandable), but they had not been doing so since going on line [see update below for clarification of Ms. Kalodimos's point]. She told me everything she put into an April story that I had completely missed. The biosolids produced were rejected by the contracted buyer for failing to meet industry standards. Instead of selling those biosolids, Metro Water used private contractors to continue to truck them to landfills, and those trucks were usually dangerously overloaded. Biosolids drying tanks had overflowed near a greenway on several occasions. Biosolids facilities have a dubious reputation elsewhere of catching on fire during the drying process. The pellets produced may not be safe for fertilizer use even with market standards in place.

Perhaps the most disconcerting disclosure of all was that once again Metro was not converting dewatered sludge into biosolids, but instead it was sending it down conveyor belts as it had before [see update below for clarification of Ms. Kalodimos's point]. Then it was loading the sludge into large rigs and trucking it out to landfills. Those landfills, according to Ms. Kalodimos did not accept sludge shipments every day, which is why we could smell it on certain days more than others. That again was consistent with what we had experienced 6 years ago. Incidentally, when I raised the issue at the Salemtown Neighbors meeting last night, a number of other residents shared that they smelled noxious odors, too.

On Friday, I told Ms. Kalodimos during our interview that Metro Water Services officials informed us in 2005 that biosolid production would be replacing a system suitable to the 1950s. With due incredulity and proper frustration I asked her rhetorically whether the return of sludge hauling was a return of the wastewater plant to the 1950s. If Metro Water is moving backwards in their treatment of downtown sludge then the quality of life in every North End neighborhood is also regressing.

Also in 2005, I observed how long-time Salemtown residents responded to Metro Water's presentation with suspicion. They noted that promises made that measures would be taken to abate odors before the previous major plant renovation had not been realized. On Friday I noted that I understood that suspicion and sense of betrayal, particularly because Metro Water had failed in 2010 to inform its neighbors about its mistakes. While angered at the lack of MWS transparency during the biosolid bungling, I understand now why water officials were so defensive about public feedback and the idea of working with the community: they do not seem to want to be open and accountable to our community when the process goes pear-shaped.

I am thankful that WSMV seems to be properly investigating this problem. There was no press coverage of the actual roll out of the concept to the local community. City Paper reporter, Craig Boerner, who later went on to become an information officer at Vanderbilt did not report on the 2005 community meeting proceedings at all, choosing instead to write copy that looked a lot like regurgitated PR from Metro Water's own information officers. This blog contains the only public, published record that I have seen of that community meeting and the indications of the future problems Ms. Kalodimos is now investigating.

Maybe if more critical investigative work is pursued by local journalism, we will get some reform and a strategy consistent with quality of life issues within the water treatment process. In the meantime, those of us who live in neighborhoods proximate to Metro Water should start making our presence felt in the politics of water treatment, because it smells like we are back at the drawing board on odor control here.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Demetria Kalodimos e-mailed and asked me to clarify my interpretation of what she told me during our interview. I overstated a couple of points she made. Here are the points she intended to make:
My information is the pellets had not been SOLD since going on line, but they indeed have been produced. I have some of the finished product.
Also…the de-watering conveyer belt is said to be a temporary fix that might be corrected as of next week (they were to finish repairs this week) so we shall see. Still, it has been 5 months of portable de-watering that neighbors apparently were not prepared for.
I would encourage Metro Water information officers whom I know are reading this to contact me directly in the future about problems they have with my reportage of media reports. To MWS employees who have issue with information, I am responsible for what is written here.

1 comment:

  1. Mike,

    I went to the MetroCenter greenway last week [my favorite in Nashville] for a run, and had to leave because of the disgustingly strong odor blowing downstream from the treatment plant. It was horrible.