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Troubles mounting for sludge-to-fertilizer project

Amherst's program to turn sludge into fertilizer may be under new management, but it continues to suffer from old wounds, town officials said last week.

On Friday, Micro-Link, the company hired to run the town's sewage treatment, including the troubled pellet project, served Amherst with a notice of claim for $71,000 -- the first step in the process of suing the town, Town Attorney E. Thomas Jones said.

"We take the position that the town is not liable for the claim," Jones said.

State auditors who studied the pellet project last year reported that the town overpaid Micro-Link and its principal, Thomas Watkins, by as much as $600,000 and should take steps to recover the money.

Watkins, who has been at Town Board meetings recently to complain about the town's refusal to pay him, was hired in 2000 to replace former Waste Water Treatment Plant Superintendent Anthony Canna, who criticized the pellet project, saying it was poorly designed.

Jones has called for an executive session Monday with Town Board members to give them a confidential briefing on Watkins' claims.

The threat of legal action is not the only worry for town officials. While few town officials want to say so publicly, the controversial pellet project is still bedeviled by persistent odor and fire safety problems.

State auditors advised the town to get out of the business of selling pellets, saying the tendency for the pellets to burst into flames if they are not stored and handled carefully make the enterprise a bad deal for taxpayers.

Auditors said one successful legal claim against the town could wipe out any financial advantages of selling the pellets.

Despite the problems, and a history of poor sales, Amherst officials continue to hope for a turnaround.

Supervisor Satish B. Mohan has expressed his support. Earlier this year, Mohan said the town will net $168,000 per year if it continues to sell the pellets to Nutrients Plus, an East Coast fertilizer manufacturer.

Mohan also said he would take another look at cost figures for the program and the town would buy liability insurance before selling pellets to any vendor. But Jones, who has studied the insurance costs, said they nearly equal what the town was charging for the pellets.

And Mohan said Friday he has not yet reviewed the pellet project.

Supporters of the pellet project say the town still saves money on disposal fees because the pellets are much lighter than sludge, which the town also sends to a landfill.

Former Town Engineer Paul M. Bowers estimated the revenues at $120,000 a year when he recommended the pellet project to town officials a decade ago.


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