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Amherst's expensive waste-to-fertilizer plant was supposed to make money. Instead, it's still costing the town money - and making some officials look foolish.

Those tiny brown pellets, no bigger than a thumb, sure are creating a furor.

And such an expensive one.

It was just three years ago when the Town of Amherst, viewing itself as a trailblazer, embarked on a plan to convert waste products into a profitable fertilizer.

But instead of saving money while showcasing the upscale suburb as environmentally conscious, this once-lofty project has proven to be an embarrassment -- and a costly one at that -- to Amherst.

In fact, the town last year spent more to process its sludge than it did before its $8.3 million fertilizer plant went into operation in 1996.

Things are working better as this year progresses, and some Town Hall officials are optimistic the plant will reach a break-even point by the end of 1999.

But the fertilizer plant continues operating at less than three-fourths its intended capacity, much of the town's sludge is still being landfilled, and fertilizer pellets the plant does produce -- which Amherst officials once bragged would sell for $50 a ton -- are being given away.

"We haven't fully developed the market," said town engineer Paul M. Bowers. "We have to prove ourselves."

This project has been, first and foremost, a financial disappointment.

But it is more than that.

It is, to say the least, a mystery that has become at once a political hot-potato and black eye on the town -- a drawn-out controversy marked by lawsuits and countersuits, internal squabbles, and personality disputes erupting in public.

It has also been a consultant's dream, with internationally known experts as well as little-known ones offering costly advice that is accepted by some town officials, rejected by others -- on why the plant won't work as planned.

To critics, it appears that this sprawling suburb is in over its head -- basically incapable of handling a project of such magnitude.

It is also a controversy that begs the question: If this were not a wealthy town -- with a large tax base and many well-heeled residents -- would the town government have been able to drag its problem out for so long?

"The sad part about this is that it's spinning more and more out of control," said Amherst Council Member William L. Kindel. "Meanwhile, the tax dollar meter is running the whole time."

This isn't the way it was supposed to happen.

With Amherst paying as much as $1.7 million annually at one point to landfill its 20,000 tons of sludge, the fertilizer pellet facility was initially -- and still could be -- a motherhood and apple pie project.

It was, after all, undertaken with the best of intentions -- to save money and help the environment by taking sludge that was traditionally landfilled, and converting it into pellets that could be sold as fertilizer.

But at some point early on, things began spinning out of control.

Fertilizer pellets initially manufactured by the plant smelled so bad that the people who bought them gave them back.

Sludge treated in huge vats -- called digesters -- began foaming up, making it impossible to properly treat the sludge so it could be made into pellets.

Some, like Mark E. Lang, engineering manager for the Sear-Brown Group, an independent consulting firm, which studied the Amherst plant, thinks it's a digester problem.

"The digesters are too small," Lang said.

In fact, the two digesters at the Amherst plant -- each 425,000 gallons and designed to handle up to 18 tons of sludge daily -- are smaller than the digesters in many other facilities.

A plant serving metropolitan Syracuse, for example, has three digesters, each 1.5 million gallons and expected to process up to 30 tons of sludge.

A facility in Salem, Ore., which has four digesters, each 1 million gallons and expected to handle 40 tons of sewage.

But Wendel Engineering, which designed the digesters, says the problem is in the way the plant has been operated.

"There is nothing wrong with the (digester) design," Wendel attorney James C. Moore said. "Something is happening at the plant. It appears to be focused around the operating staff, and the fact that for one reason or another they are not operating the plant the way it should be operated."

In fact, with help from a consultant as well as the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the town recently has increased the flow of sludge into the digesters by changing some operating parameters, including oxygen flow, acidity and alkalinity levels, and placement of the digester cover.

As a result, the plant can now handle between 8 1/2 and nine tons of sludge daily -- an approximately 35 percent improvement over last year. But that is still below the average 12 tons, and maximum 18 tons, a day the digesters are supposed to be able to handle.

So the town continues landfilling some sludge -- not turning it all into pellets as planned.

And the controversy continues, often taking on the air of theater more than a public policy dispute.

James I. Johnson, an assistant town engineer, had become obsessed with trying to solve the mystery of the foaming, concluding that it was likely due to operational errors. Eventually, his very presence so antagonized some plant employees that Johnson was forced to take a more low-key role in solving the problem.

Anthony R. Canna, the plant supervisor, at one point sued Amherst, arguing that town officials hurt his reputation by suggesting the plant staff was responsible for the plant's failings. The case was dismissed in court.

Wendel Engineering last year issued a statement saying the town seems to be trying everything except working with the people who designed the plant. Amherst subsequentely filed a $2.5 million lawsuit against Wendel, which countersued the town for $1 million.

And then there are the consultants. An internationally known microbiologist was flown in, and paid $8,400 plus expenses, to trouble shoot the plant. Town officials disagree with the man's conclusions.

Another consultant was paid $120,000 to get the plant running properly. The consultant, Micro-link of Elma, apparently made some progress but wanted hundreds of thousands of dollars more to continue.

Pellets to politics

At Town Hall, meanwhile, the pellet facility is a political issue.

Hardly a week goes by that one candidate or another isn't offering a position on the subject. That includes Kindel, a Republican, who thinks an outside firm should be hired to operate the plant.

"The problem is they (town officials running the plant) have had spurts of progress followed by spurts of failure," Kindel said. "It's been a repetitious process."

Supervisor Susan J. Grelick, a Democrat, said the plant is running better than ever.

"It seems like we are on the right track," Grelick said. "We are reducing costs."

When the project was first discussed in 1992, the town was paying some $1.7 million to landfill 20,000 tons of sludge. A few years later -- before the fertilizer pellet facility was built, landfill fees dropped countywide. In 1995, the same amount of sludge cost Amherst about $880,000 to landfill.

With the plant in operation, and dumping fees still at the 1995 level, Amherst spent $560,000 to landfill sludge in 1998. In addition, the town that year paid an extra $900,000 to operate and pay off its new fertilizer pellet plant.

This year, the landfill bill is dropping.

If things continue as they've been going in recent months, the town's 1999 landfill bill shouldn't exceed $330,000 and could be below $200,000 next year. But once again, that doesn't include the $900,000 to operate and pay off the fertilizer pellet plant.

Pellet sales were supposed to offset some of those costs by as much as $250,000 annually. But sales are minimal, and the town is basically giving them away in hopes of creating a market while not having to landfill those pellets.

The bottom line then is that in 1998, Amherst spent almost $600,000 more to handle its sludge than it did in 1995.

But, Bowers says these numbers can't be analyzed without adjusting for the fact that Amherst was under orders from the federal government to build some type of sludge stabilization facility. Minimally -- without pellet production -- such a facility would mean adding $440,000 annually in operations and debt service costs to the town's landfill bill, Bowers said.

Given that, Bowers said, the pellet plant is headed toward roughly a break-even point. Total cost was about $1.49 million in 1998, and would have been about $1.35 million in 1998 if the town had continued landfilling but built the less expensive processing facility required by federal law, he said.

Still, Bowers isn't convinced the town's pellet plant will ever meet the maximum 18 tons a day it was supposedly designed to handle.

He's suggesting the town consider an alternative drying method to process whatever sludge the digesters can't handle.

So far, the town has spent $20,000 to study the plan.

It could cost another $250,000 to implement the proposal.

Whether that will happen, only time will tell.

After all, such a move would require a level of agreement that Amherst officials have been unable to muster on the project since initially agreeing to build the pellet facility.

"That (using the driers) is admitting failure of an $8 million project," Kindel said.

"If we are doing well producing pellets, we won't have to do that," Grelick added.

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