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NSSD officials seek new Zion sludge plant operator

North Shore Sanitary District's ZiSludge Recycling Facility Green Bay Road 9th Street. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media

North Shore Sanitary District's Zion Sludge Recycling Facility at Green Bay Road and 9th Street. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 26, 2014 6:10AM

GURNEE — Trustees of the North Shore Sanitary District met in a rare special session Wednesday to evaluate alternative operating arrangements for their dysfunctional Zion Sludge Recycling Facility (SRF) that was designed years ago to convert treated sewage waste into a potential commercial product.

The plant is now partially closed because of toxic mercury and arsenic contamination and faced with environmental landfill restrictions in disposing of its sludge.

During the one-hour session, the Board discussed two different directions the state’s second largest sanitary district could pursue when engineering consultant Donohue Associates, of Sheboygan, Wisc., terminates its five-year SRF operating contract with the District on March 25, 2014.

The District could continue operations with its own staff managing the $50 million sludge disposal plant, or it could be outsourced to another company. Trustees seemed to lean toward having an outside company assume the plant’s management responsibility rather than take the risk and employee expense of operating it themselves.

The Board has already received two commercial proposals. Both call for about nine employees to operate the SRF at roughly the same annual cost as Donohue’s cost of $1.6 million. However, some trustees pointed out that costs for services within the two proposals are shaky. Staff was asked to clarify and negotiate proposal variances with each company.

“We (the Board) expect staff to have a recommendation for us at our regular Jan. 15 monthly meeting,” Board President Stephen Drew said.

The Zion SRF has had a rocky existence since it was created about a decade ago. NSSD elected trustees and key management staff at the time had great hopes that such a facility could be the answer to growing criticism from environmentalists who opposed disposing of waste (and sometimes odorous) sludge in local landfills.

In response, District staff proposed and the trustees approved major expenditures to purchase new equipment and construct a building near Zion’s Trumpet Industrial Park that would convert treated sludge into a granulate that could be sold commercially for road repairs, fuel pellets, or fertilizer.

The process involved trucking the sludge from three sanitary treatment plants in Highland Park, Waukegan and Gurnee to the new Zion plant; heating the sludge to melting temperatures to produce a granulate; and then using a dryer to evaporate water content from the granulate. The process, which was being used in Germany at the time, was supposedly efficient and profitable.

But many production problems occurred at the Zion plant over the ensuing years. Environmental groups caused a ruckus over the melter, calling it nothing more than an incinerator that would create local pollution and cause other problems.

The criticism proved valid in 2009 when mercury and arsenic dust spewed from the melter in Area D of the plant. It was immediately shut down and the toxic area sealed off from plant personnel. The melter has since been scrapped and the closed area is currently being de-contaminated by a specialized environmental contractor.

Disposal of the District’s sludge still remains a problem. Former landfill cells on the District’s property have been topped with clay and permanently closed. Nearby private landfills, with limited extra space, are reluctant to accept the smelly sludge. So most of the waste is being trucked to southern Wisconsin since there are few open landfills here. Meanwhile EPA diligently continues to tighten landfill and other environmental regulations.

“We are going to have problems finding places that will accept our sludge five or ten years down the road. We can’t count on landfills anymore,” NSSD General Manager Brian Dorn told the trustees Wednesday.

But what is the alternative? Can the District really count on processing their sludge granulate into a viable commercial product? The possibilities seem murky at best. With more than $50 million already invested in the process over the years, and few results to show for it, will taxpayers continue to financially support the effort? Time will tell.

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