In 2009 the Townships of Georgian Bluffs and Chatsworth announced their plans to build a biodigester with the purpose of processing septic waste, producing electricity as part of the project and at the same time ending the questionable practice of spreading untreated septic waste on farmland. The Ministry of the Environment (MOE) had promised to do their part by providing legislation eliminating spreading of waste on farmland, but this legislation was never enacted. As a result the biodigester has been operating with too little septic input. For that reason, as well as various other unfortunate situations, the biodigester – although an excellent idea by itself – has been running at a loss. The townships are attempting to improve the financial situation somewhat by enacting a by-law that would compel residents to have their septic haulers take your septic waste to the bio-digester, at extra cost to the residents.
The following article, written by Edith Galloway, IVDAARA President, provides an overview of the history of the project as well as a discussion of various aspects of this project. This report also received input from residents of Georgian Bluffs living in the vicinity of the biodigester. Thank you to the Johnson, Lemmen and Taylor families. In addition, thank you to Chatsworth resident Mr. Falk who provided analytical research and public awareness through letters to the Owen Sound SUn Times.
Please note that the next meeting of the Biodigester Joint Board (BJB) was expected to take place on Friday, November 22, but this date has been canceled. We will post new information here when it becomes available.
The Biodigester Project: The Financial Footprint
The Georgian Bluffs/Chatsworth Joint Biodigester project has ignored the taxpayers’ septic waste for the past three years. It opted instead to process waste from nearby municipalities, local industries and organics from a private company north of Toronto. Why is it now that our septage demands the attention of a township by-law, drawn up by a Kitchener-Waterloo law firm, which will legislate that our waste must be hauled to the biodigester with a tipping fee added to the pumping charge?
In 2001, the Ontario government announced legislation would phase out the spreading of septage and sewage sludge within five years. No legislation or regulations were forthcoming.
By 2007 it was clear that there would be no such legislation in Ontario. Instead, the direction taken by the province on this issue was to improve treatment, testing, classification of waste, approvals and monitoring so that the widespread practice of spreading bio-solids on agricultural fields could be continued.
This means that by the time Georgian Bluffs and Chatsworth commissioned the design of the biodigester in 2009, legislation to stop human septic waste being spread on agricultural fields was long gone from the horizon.
Press Release Owen Sound Sun Times: October 1, 2009
Press Release Owen Sound Sun Times: November 5, 2010
2010, August 10: Biodigester Steering Committee Minutes
The press release of November 5, 2010 seemed to imply septic tank sludge from Georgian Bluffs residential septic tanks was being loaded into the biodigester. However, the minutes of that initial meeting indicate that a municipality in a nearby county paid $5 per cubic metre for disposal of sludge but the project (Georgian Bluffs and Chatsworth) paid the trucking cost of $12.40 per cubic metre.
2011, July 22: Biodigester Steering Committee Minutes
MOE Septage Disposal Task Force meeting on June 28, 2011, was set up to look into untreated septage being spread on land. The Ministry of the Environment, it was reported, would not be banning the spreading of septage on fields as a provincial mandate. They will be looking to municipalities to come up with a plan of their own which will be supported by the province.
It is important to note, that although MOE ten years earlier discussed banning the spreading of septage on fields, it opted to develop stronger rules. As of November 2013, septic sludge from residential septic systems in Georgian Bluffs, Chatsworth and elsewhere in the province continues to be spread by haulers on fields under strictly monitored MOE issued permits!
At the public meeting held October 1, 2009, concern about the impact on the neighbourhood was responded to by officials stating very clearly, that this facility was only to be used by Georgian Bluffs and Chatsworth. The Biodigester’s mandate now seems to include waste from “elsewhere in the province “.
2013, January 26: Report by Georgian Bluffs’ C.A.O. to Biodigester Joint Committee
“The primary reason that the biodigester was constructed was to process the septic waste from residential, commercial, institutional and industrial properties in the Townships of Georgian Bluffs, Chatsworth and elsewhere in the Province but without the expected prohibition of the spreading of raw sewage waste on approved farmland, the quantities of septic waste have been significantly less than those used to develop the business plan for the financial sustainability of the biodigester facility.”
2013, September: Draft Septic Waste Disposal By-Law Timetable and Work plan
With a draft by-law in hand, a timetable and work plan was drawn up by township staff and the consulting engineer. The schedule showed that further testing of the Biodigester needed to be undertaken as the system had not been previously tested for the quantity of waste an enforced by-law would supply, even though it has been operating for almost three years.
A public meeting, posted with 21 days notice would be necessary with this by-law since a new ratepayer fee for service would be necessary to process septic waste at the Biodigester. The dates have passed in the revised timetable. Delays occurred due to the consulting engineer changing firms. Equipment has failed and the system has been down eight weeks as of the first week of November resulting in the inability to receive the sludge to conduct the test.
Funding and Operating Costs
With costs escalating from the initial $2.5 million to over $4.0 million, funding became a story in itself. At start up, $1.67 million was provided by Federal/Provincial funds through Building Canada Fund and each municipality borrowed $1.2 million.
A proposal in 2013 for a three phase power expansion at a cost of $2,050,000 would bring the project cost up to $6,050,000 and increase Georgian Bluffs’ capital debt to $2,205,000.
Within six months of operation it was clear that more capital was required for on-site storage for the digestate. Cost proposals were considered in the range of $200,000 to $500,000. Problems have continued since then, each one contributing to the need for new/different facilities and equipment.
The Biodigester 2009 design shows an annual operating cost about $212,000 per year. According to the recent Audit Report by BDO, the operating costs for the first year (only 11 months of operation) were more than $450,000. The Audit Report shows operating costs of about $645,000 in 2012.
The Biodigester Joint Management Board (BJB) seems to think that the financial and operating problems will be solved if only the province will provide up to $2.5 million more to “increase the capacity of the system from 100 kilowatts to 340 kilowatts of power generation in order to increase the viability and operational costs of the facility”. (This is a quote from a draft letter to the Minister of the Environment that was tabled at the last BJB Meeting November 1, 2013).
According to Section 14(1) of the EPA, “… a person shall not discharge a contaminant or cause or permit the discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment, if the discharge causes or may cause an adverse effect”. A contaminant is defined as “any solid, liquid, gas, odour, heat, sound, vibration, radiation or combination of any of them resulting directly or indirectly from human activities that causes or may cause an adverse effect”.
Odour has been a constant concern both by the operator and engineer within the project and unfortunately by the neighbouring residents. Certain products, such as abattoir waste were avoided. Chapman’s waste was not only disruptive to the processing but also contributed to odour complaints.
In order to examine the record of complaints, a Freedom of Information request must be submitted to the Ministry of the Environment. The November 1 minutes indicate a report that various odour complaints have been received throughout the month of September 2013, both by the township and MOE. “All necessary documentation is being collected to ensure that all complaints/monitoring is being addressed in a timely manner to rectify this issue as soon as possible.”
One neighbor provided this item. “On the odour portion, I would suggest a reference to how bad it was for the neighbours in 2012. So bad that it drove people indoors on evenings and weekends. It was bad at one point this year and there was concern we would have a repeat but, and I can only speak for our location, it hasn’t been near as bad as last. I have a feeling the prevailing winds may have given us a bit of a break.”
This comment appeared in township correspondence: “And you know what really bothers me? Night after night when my family and neighbours suffered through that awful smell, no one from the township or Joint Committee once called to say we’re sorry”
While bio-energy power facilities may work in such single source waste operations as dairy and swine operations, there is a record of an extremely high risk associated with repair work in these types of facilities due to the confined spaces and the oxygen deficient atmospheres.
As this facility has been failing prematurely in several areas and requiring work in areas, which are considered, confined spaces, should this not be a serious concern?
Thereby the question was posed at the November 1, 2013 BJB Meeting. As there are no references at the Biodigester Joint Board to policies or procedures, required by law (the Occupational Health and Safety Act and O.Reg. 632/05 – Confined Space regulations) what policies and protection apparatus are in place for haulers in the dumping and cleanup of delivered septic waste? Are haulers not being placed in untenable positions in cleanup?
While the Biodigester experiment may have been undertaken in good faith with the best intentions, it is clear that the project over time has failed to meet any material benchmark, whether development timeline, operational efficacy or financial performance. Will further investment of time and money achieve what has become a very indefinable objective? Perhaps the proper course of action would be to wind down this initiative now.