April 22, 2010 | General

Environmental Management System For Biosolids Composting

BioCycle April 2010, Vol. 51, No. 4, p. 21
Building public awareness and enhancing credibility were the motivating factors for New England Organics to pursue an EMS. Along the way, operational efficiencies and cost savings became apparent.
Melanie Solmos

NEW England Organics (NEO) has operated the region’s largest biosolids composting facility, the Hawk Ridge Compost Facility (HRCF), in Unity Plantation, Maine since 1990. HRCF recycles more than 50,000 cubic yards of biosolids for 29 municipalities in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and produces nearly 100,000 cubic yards of Earthlife compost annually. In January 2009, Hawk Ridge became the nation’s first privately operated biosolids management facility to become certified and admitted into the National Biosolids Partnership’s Environmental Management System (EMS) for biosolids program. In addition, it was the first compost facility to be certified separately from a wastewater treatment operation.
“Most of our customers operate small municipal treatment plants and can not afford the investment of money and staff time required to achieve EMS certification on their own,” says George Belmont, HRCF Facility Manager. “We felt it made sense for us, as their biosolids management partner, to attain certification and offer them the security and confidence that the EMS provides and they deserve.”
The impetus for New England Organics’ Hawk Ridge Compost Facility to seek certification from the National Biosolids Partnership (NBP) for its Biosolids EMS relates to dealing with the public. “It’s about the public – building public acceptance, enhancing credibility, and improving communication,” explains Jamie Ecker, NEO’s General Manager. There were other drivers, such as operational efficiency, differentiation in a competitive market, customer confidence, and cost savings, but Ecker is continually seeking opportunities to raise public awareness, and the biosolids EMS seemed to top the cake.
“This was an achievement in many ways,” he adds. “Of course, we are proud of gaining this designation for HRCF, but it is also important to note that up until 2006, the NBP did not have a way for privately operated facilities to gain certification. As the first company to apply, we found ourselves in constant collaboration with the partnership and we hope that other composting facilities will take advantage of the lessons we learned.”
The NBP is a nonprofit alliance of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and Water Environment Federation (WEF), with advisory support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The framework of NBP’s EMS program is structured around the operation of wastewater treatment facilities, both large and small, and promotes four Key Outcomes: Quality Management Practices to ensure consistent product quality; Relations with Interested Parties to establish and maintain credibility; Regulatory Compliance to meet or exceed compliance with regulatory requirements; and Environmental Performance in order to protect the environment for future generations.

As NEO embarked to achieve these outcomes, the team found themselves in the unique position of documenting a biosolids management system that did not follow the NBP’s Biosolids Value Chain created to clearly define a facility’s processes and isolate the Critical Control Points – places where facility operators have control or influence over the four Key Outcomes. For wastewater treatment facilities, the Biosolids Value Chain includes five categories: Wastewater Collection and Pretreatment; Wastewater Treatment and Solids Generation; Solids Stabilization, Conditioning and Handling; Biosolids Storage, Loading, and Transportation; and Biosolids End Use, Disposal or Beneficial Reuse.
For HRCF, the value chain had to be completely redefined. NEO initially drafted five new categories to fully characterize its process: Procurement, Transportation, Active Composting, Finished Compost Management and Product Sale and Distribution. However to fully address Environmental Performance, a sixth category, Facility and Site Management, was created. “We found ourselves at a point where we had delineated the biosolids management process, but we hadn’t addressed other aspects of the facility’s operation which have a critical effect on the environment,” explains Mary Waring, NEO’s Compliance Manager and EMS Coordinator. “This was too important to ignore, so we created a category for our site controls such as the management of our storm water detention ponds, our groundwater monitoring program, and the scrubber and biofilter that make up our odor control system.”

NEO’s EMS journey began in January 2007, when it signed a Letter of Understanding with NBP, committing to meet the national requirements for an excellent biosolids program, employ the Code of Good Practice, and develop and maintain an EMS. From there, NEO formed a team comprised of operations, product marketing, transportation and compliance staff. Members of the team attended periodic two-day training sessions and began to create the necessary documentation. The time commitment was significant, requiring a third of one person’s time for two years to coordinate NEO’s efforts, identify Critical Control Points, document management systems, write the manual and go through the audit process. In addition, many hours were spent by operational and sales staff to accurately capture and document their roles in the biosolids management system.
“It really wasn’t a matter of creating new systems for us, it was really about organizing and formally documenting what we were already doing,” says Waring, “As we went through all of the key EMS elements, we were able to identify standard operating procedures, communications efforts, training opportunities and emergency plans that could be improved. Seeking certification really motivated us to improve and enhance our systems at HRCF, and throughout the company.”
For example, adds Waring, NEO was taking the time and effort to conduct customer surveys and respond to individual comments or issues. What it didn’t have in place was a formal system to consistently seek stakeholder input, collate the information, and then plug it into their planning process where it could be incorporated into the company’s set of overall plans for improvement.
By May 2008, HRCF declared the EMS program operational. Internal auditing of the EMS took place in July 2008. With the assistance of Ned Beecher of the North East Biosolids and Residuals Association, and NEO employees Tom Pitts, Controller, and Jamie Ecker, General Manager, the internal audit team spent time reviewing the documentation, visited the compost facility to observe the operation, and finally interviewed employees, neighbors and transportation subcontractors. The resulting report contained a laundry list of minor nonconformances and opportunities for improvement.
The team took another six months to work through the findings using the EMS-designed Preventative and Corrective Action Plan. By January 2009, NEO was ready for its independent third party audit. At a cost of close to $10,000, NEO completed a grueling, but educational, three-day audit. Finding no major nonconformances, the auditor awarded certification to the Hawk Ridge Compost Facility.

According to Ecker, the pathway to EMS certification takes dedication and the complete support of management: “The culture of NEO has always been focused on continuous improvement and exceeding the standards. Having a third party enter our world to verify this fact has been invaluable. Our staff, skeptical at first that this was an exercise designed to expose weakness, found that it was really a pathway for support and recognition. Our customers, while generally satisfied with our service, saw a vendor going that extra mile to ensure that their biosolids were being handled in the most responsible way possible, and our neighbors who have endured the challenges that come with living adjacent to an industrial facility, know we are doing our very best to preserve their quality of life.”
He emphasizes that an EMS should not be viewed as a project, but a process that continues long after the certification plaque arrives. “One of the most helpful tools in the EMS is the requirement for goal setting,” Ecker notes. “It guides our entire company. As we create our Strategic Plan, we refer to the EMS and facility goals, ensuring that we are moving in a direction that not only produces a profit, but keeps us at the cutting edge of our industry.”
NEO frequently is asked if the EMS certification has improved its bottom line, and the answer is yes. As it tackles issues such as energy efficiency and subcontractor performance, the EMS procedures compel them to set goals, establish action plans, and ultimately save money. “Our EMS ensures that we say what we do, and then check to be sure we do what we say,” reiterates Waring, “ensuring that communication is maximized and everyone is on board.”
In the first year of operation under the EMS, NEO realized 10 percent savings on energy costs at HRCF. It also established a Memorandum of Understanding with its transportation subcontractors, explaining the NEO Biosolids Management Policy and requiring them to provide employee training on their role in the EMS, thus securing stronger partnerships. In addition, procedures are in place to establish the root causes of incidents affecting compliance, compost quality and customer service, and close the loop on communications and follow-up on each and every incident, no matter how minor. As for the Earthlife products coming out of HRCF, a disciplined focus on the compost quality assurance plan has staff evaluating progress quarterly and executing changes to ensure the products are the best that they can be.

Melanie Solmos is the President of Verde (, a consulting firm specializing in sales and marketing for organics treatment and management companies. Appreciation is expressed to Mary Waring of New England Organics for assistance with this article.

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