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TOWN STILL STRUGGLING WITH FERTILIZER PELLET PROBLEMS

Ever buy something that doesn't work right, but the so-called experts can't seem to find out why?

That is the predicament Amherst finds itself in with an $8.3 million project that is supposed to be turning about 12 tons of sewage sludge a day into marketable fertilizer pellets.

The menu for the pellets requires fully digested sludge, but despite trouble-shooting by national and local experts, two big sludge "digesters" at the town's Tonawanda Creek sewage treatment plant are capable of fully digesting only about 40 percent of the sludge load.

The result is the other 60 percent is still being dumped in landfills, costing taxpayers about $60,000 a month.

"Something is preventing the digesters from operating the way the experts say they should," Assistant Town Engineer James I. Johnson said last week. It will probably take at least another six weeks of tests and experimentation before engineers are ready to recommend what should be done, he said.

The patience of some town officials is wearing thin.

Turning an expensive-to-dispose-of waste into a revenue source "was a good idea, everyone was in favor and the money was there," said Council Member Daniel J. Ward, town supervisor when the pellet project was in the planning stage a few years ago.

"But something obviously went very wrong. The town is losing money daily. We are being criticized, with apparent justification, by various citizens taxpayer groups. They are entitled to (know) what went wrong . . . and who was responsible," Ward said.

Ward, a lawyer, also said the town's legal recourse against the project consultant, Wendel, may be limited. He said that two weeks after he left office as supervisor, the Town Board in January 1994 approved a measure limiting the consultant's liability on the $8.3 million project to $1 million, "based on the uniqueness of the project."

The project has at least one positive -- it has produced enough fully digested sludge to manufacture a stockpile of 42 tons of marketable fertilizer pellets. In the old days, the sludge that made them would have been trucked to a landfill.

But officials fear future marketing efforts may be hindered by the bad publicity last year over a batch of test pellets that were returned by a fertilizer manufacturer because of their foul odor.

The test batch was made with sludge that wasn't fully digested and should never have been sold, engineers now admit.

Complicated and lengthy tests and experiments with plant equipment and digester technology have been under way for months. The work is being monitored by an internationally recognized authority in wastewater treatment who inspected the Amherst plant last winter.

One experiment involves four scale-model digesters mounted on a laboratory bench.

"I think they're making tremendous progress," said Town Attorney Phillip A. Thielman. "As we continue to eliminate possibilities, that's good -- progress is being made," Johnson concurred.

Still it would be nice, Johnson said, if Amherst engineers could call their counterparts in another plant for advice.

But even though the sludge-to-fertilizer technology is used elsewhere in the country, Amherst has been unable to identify a municipal sewage treatment operation with enough similarities in size, design and process for comparisons to be made.

"The plant operators are doing everything they can do, which suggests an external problem outside the digesters," Johnson said. "It may be something in the process, a problem with the sludge we're feeding them, maybe different (chemical) concentrations that affect the ability to digest our sludge . . . we're grasping at straws right now.

"Frankly, I'm looking for the bright light at the end of the tunnel when we can say we're done, we know what it is and what to do, but we're not there yet," the engineer said.

At a meeting with taxpayers in January, Anthony R. Canna, superintendent of the Amherst plant, said he doesn't think the two digesters have sufficient capacity and that more may be needed to do the job. Canna refused to comment last week so it isn't known if he still feels the same.

But Johnson said he doubts more digesters are the answer. "The (test) numbers don't support the claim that the digesters are too small," he said.

It cost about $250,000 to modify the two existing digesters for the pellet project, while buying two new digesters would cost about $3.5 million, Johnson said.

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