BioCycle May 2007, Vol. 48, No. 5, p. 35
Dorchester County, Maryland agreed to a remediation plan that involved composting the 140,000 tons of unprocessed feedstocks stored on site. An aggressive strategy has resulted in a successful clean-up, with hopes to operate once again as a commercial facility.
IN ANCIENT mythology, the phoenix is a mythical sacred firebird. Said to live for 500 or 1461 years (depending on the source), the phoenix is a bird with beautiful gold and red plumage. At the end of its lifecycle the phoenix builds itself a nest of cinnamon twigs that it then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix arises.
Lonnie Heflin’s new company, Bay Organics, LLC is much like that mythical phoenix; arising anew from the ashes of a failed composting facility in Dorchester County on the Maryland Eastern Shore (also known as the Delmarva Peninsula). Heflin, a former Director of Marketing for now-defunct New Earth Services, Inc., has, since February 2006, been a remediation contractor to the county. Heflin’s mission is to clean up some 140,000 tons of unprocessed feedstocks left behind at New Earth Services’ composting facility by completing the composting process and moving the resulting product to market. Since he began in 2006, Heflin has sold over $1.2 million worth of compost and compost-amended horticultural products to offset the estimated $3 million site remediation and cleanup cost.
The story begins over 12 years ago, when Pat Condon, then the President of New Earth Services (NES), opened a composting facility in 1995 on land leased from Dorchester County adjacent to the county’s landfill near Hurlock, Maryland. Dorchester County, like much of the Delmarva Peninsula, is heavily dependent on the poultry and seafood industries (and associated agriculture-oriented businesses that support those industries), and drains directly into the Chesapeake Bay, which has significant water quality issues. Originally intended as a lower cost, more viable method for processing the 3,000 tons of crab chum generated each year by county crabbers, the county also wanted to provide a more cost-effective avenue for waste recycling than landfilling at its own facility.
Condon operated on a 30-acre parcel leased from the county, taking in crabmeat processing (crab chum), poultry hatchery and rendering wastes, poultry mortalities, and poultry by-products that could not be rendered. These materials were composted in large windrows turned with an excavator. NES also took in off-spec diaper wipes from a personal products manufacturer. This stream, which included the plastic containers and shrink film as well as the fabric wipes, became an ongoing solid waste problem for NES. Due to the lack of an effective product marketing and sales program, NES began to experience significant accumulations of wastes on site. To remedy this problem, Heflin was hired in 2002 to develop and implement a compost sales program.
CHALLENGES BEGIN WITH STORAGE PONDS
Problems began for NES in 2001 when it began taking semisolid residuals from a nearby food processing plant. The wet waste was contained by berms – essentially the outer wall of the storage “pond.” As liquid levels dropped, NES would fill these areas with sawdust, horse manure, tub-ground wood, etc. to serve as an absorbent. When the “semi-solids” became predominantly “solids” NES would deconstruct the berms and add this material to the steadily accumulating “in process” inventory. More “berms” were built as more semisolids were accepted.
Odors generated from the site were the result of large volumes of material being allowed to sit for months or years without turning. New deliveries of putrescible materials such as poultry mortalities, and clam and hatchery by-products were handled by blending with tub-ground wood and being pushed up into continually expanding stockpiles. These materials were only moved into “excavator sized” windrows when sales demand required the need to make product. The real odors came when these stockpiles were moved into windrows for turning, combined with more putrescible materials being delivered daily.
In 2005, reacting to anonymous complaints about water pollution arising from the storage ponds as well as off-site odors, WBAL – TV (Baltimore, MD) news reporter John Sherman began an exposé on what was going on at the NES site. WBAL aired 11 stories about the composting facility between August and October 2005. Sherman was able to bring significant political and regulatory pressure against Condon, and the facility was finally shut down at the end of 2005.
NES filed bankruptcy on December 12, 2005. Dorchester County entered into a closure plan with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to clean up the site, remove all pond contents to a nearby wastewater treatment plant and regrade to remove the ponds, and remove all solid waste on site by July 1, 2007. “The news reports made the regulators look like they weren’t doing their jobs, so they brought the hammer down and all the wheels fell off,” says Bob Tenanty, the County’s Director of Public Works. “To their credit, MDE worked with us, worked with the County, to develop a cost-effective solution.” Tenanty noted that this site cleanup will likely cost the county less than $1 million, compared to original estimates of multiple millions to haul off and landfill 140,000 tons of waste and haul hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater to a nearby treatment plant.
Enter Heflin. The son of a mulch and soils businessman in Virginia, Heflin had spent much of his career following his father’s footsteps, as well as running a yard waste and horse manure composting facility in northern Virginia. After joining NES in 2002, Heflin had greatly increased product sales and had just secured a major increase in orders from a horticultural products company when the NES facility closed. Heflin was able to convince Bob Tenanty that the strengths of Heflin’s market shouldn’t be ignored and that converting these stockpiled wastes to compost and selling the product could offset the costs of site cleanup. “I really didn’t want to put that material in my landfill and lose that airspace,” Tenanty says. “Besides, I knew Mr. Heflin could probably market that product, if it were properly made.”
CLEANUP AND PRODUCT MARKETING
In February 2006, Dorchester County entered into a contract with Bay Organics and established an operational budget. The contract provided the county with authority and control of the site, and allowed Bay Organics to process and market as much of the material left on site as possible. In return, the county received proceeds from the sale of products to offset clean-up costs. Heflin and the County have worked together to eliminate the stockpile of wastes from 140,000 tons in the past year, and the last amount is now aerobically composting in windrows.
Materials have been processed in large windrows turned by an excavator, as that was the only turning equipment on-site when Heflin started operations in 2006. “The only reason we have ‘excavator sized’ windrows is due to the limited compost pad area,” says Heflin. “It was part of the closure plan to get all material in active composting and using excavator-sized rows was the only answer at the time.” Windrows also are turned with a Backhus 16.55 turner acquired in April 2006. “Our process now involves getting material from the larger windrows into windrows that can be turned by the Backhus,” he adds. “The larger windrows are turned with an excavator based on equipment available and the status of other site improvement projects that require the use of the excavator. Turner-sized windrows are turned based on temperature and site conditions.”
Total processing time is 22 weeks to product maturity (as measured with a Solvita™ test kit). “We screen when windrows show stable, or very close to it by Solvita results,” Heflin notes. “We shoot for a 6 on the scale, but if the material still has a faint odor of ammonia, we may go ahead and screen if we have enough finished product in inventory to give this final ammonia a chance to blow off.”
Monitoring the compost manufacturing process is an important quality assurance program. Monitoring consists of tracking pile temperatures, oxygen contents and moisture levels to ensure an optimum environment for microbial decomposition. To document the composting process, Bay Organics uses Windrow Manager™ software from Green Mountain Technologies. This system uses a wireless temperature/moisture probe that records windrow conditions in a Pocket PC data logger. This data is downloaded to the office PC. Windrow Manager software allows Bay Organics to document the composting process and record windrow conditions as required to meet PFRP (Process for the Further Reduction of Pathogens) and Vector Attraction Reduction. Bay Organics tracks the composting process for each windrow (each windrow has a batch record with multiple data sets depending on materials being processed) and to ensure temperature (at two depths in the windrow) and oxygen level are recorded and can be printed as log or graph indicating temperatures and/or oxygen levels. Moisture content is calculated by taking composite samples from a windrow and weighing the samples as taken and after drying in a microwave oven.
A Powerscreen 1800 trommel outfitted with a 3/8-inch screen is used to prepare compost for market. “Some of our product is screened as soon as the temperatures stay around 100°F, regardless of Solvita test result,” he explains. “This material is blended with coir fiber and pine bark for inclusion in the products we create for Master Nursery Garden Centers (MNGC). Past experience has proven that pine bark reacts with our finished product, even when both test as stable. Now, we purchase pine bark as green as we can get it, and try to screen our organic material while it is still somewhat active. This material is blended with the pine bark and coir fiber and formed into a windrow to complete the reaction. After turning twice a week for three to four weeks, we have a fully stable mixture that will not react when blended with peat moss so it can be bagged and stored without any reaction that might create odors.”
Most of the production is sold in bulk, but a significant quantity is bagged, using a South-Tech manual bagging system capable of processing 4,000 40-lb bags/8-hour shift. The main product lines are Chesapeake Blue (composted crab chum), Chesapeake Green (composted poultry residuals), HI-CAL (composted hatchery waste) and products that are contract bagged for MNGC. MNGC is the nation’s largest independent garden center cooperative with approximately 800 members nationwide.
Heflin eyes the future with some unease. “I’ve got orders for products I’m going to have trouble filling in 2008 if I can’t get new compost production going again,” he notes. “I see tremendous opportunity to build a facility that can be a model for similar operations around the country, but we need to get operations going again.” To do that, he must continue to build trust and convince Dorchester County’s Landfill Advisory Board (as well as the County Council and the Maryland Department of the Environment) that Bay Organics will not be a repetition of the mistakes made by NES. “I have met with them [the Landfill Advisory Council] two times, and appear to be on the way to securing their support, but they have many questions and are moving cautiously because they say NES made all of the same claims I am making,” he adds. “I understand their concerns because of the problems, which is why we are completely transparent. I want the citizens of Dorchester County to understand there is nothing wrong with the composting process when it is managed properly.”
Dorchester County is no stranger to difficulties caused by failed private contractor arrangements. “The County had a bad experience with a private rubble fill in the 1990s,” Tenanty says. “That private fill took in waste from beyond the County and from out-of-state, and within three years, had created a mountain 80-feet high. The Council doesn’t want the County to become a dumping ground for waste.”
The County seems supportive of Heflin’s plans, although they are cautious. Tenanty notes that the county’s recycling rate has dropped sharply since the composting facility ceased taking in new material. The county notes on its website: “As part of the County Solid Waste Plan, it will be necessary to evaluate whether continued operation as an agricultural composting facility is feasible to address the need for handling the large quantity of crab chum and poultry waste generated in Dorchester County. The opportunity to recycle this material in an efficient and environmentally friendly way will allow the County to support the local fishery and agricultural communities while preserving valuable landfill space and exceeding state recycling goals for the County.”
Craig Coker is a Principal in the firm of Coker Composting & Consulting in Roanoke, Virginia, who specializes in providing technical and managerial support to the composting industry in the areas of planning, permitting, design, operations and compost sales and marketing.