Bellingham officials mulling the future of the aging Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant are considering a plan that might lead to higher sewer rates and include selling the plant's end product, “biosolids,” for garden and industrial fertilizer.
The Fairhaven treatment plant desperately needs upgrades. With older facilities and long-considered, expensive alternatives, the waste management operation is stuck buying replacement parts off eBay while Bellingham’s city council discusses a possible succession plan: anaerobic digesters.
Currently, the facilities process all of the sewage waste in Bellingham, turning the sewage into dewatered sludge before incinerating it in massive ovens. Rather than burning the sludge, the anaerobic digester breaks it down into nutrient-rich “biosolids,” which the city could sell to a third party to turn it into fertilizer for use in personal gardens and industrial agriculture sites.
The microbes also capture methane, a greenhouse gas, keeping further pollution out of the atmosphere.
While the proposal, discussed by the city council during Monday morning’s Committee of the Whole session, sounds like an environmentally conscious solution, council members have a lot of concerns.
“We don’t actually know what the value of the end products will be, and we don’t actually know what the cost will be, and we don’t actually know yet what the climate impacts will be,” said councilmember Michael Lilliquist.
The Post Point Wastewater Treatment Facility desperately needs an update, but Bellingham City Council is still exploring replacement options. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
To fund the project, the city is looking at spending at least $275 million for upgrades, and individual consumers should expect to pay significantly more on their bills.
“We do know that the rate impacts would be substantial,” said Bellingham’s public works director Eric Johnston.
According to Johnston’s presentation, consumers should expect to see a rate increase of at least $35.
The end product, the biosolid fertilizer, presents additional concerns, too.
“Our concern is that you have all these other substances in the material, contaminants of emerging concern,” explained Kirsten McDade, the pollution prevention specialist at RE Sources, a local environmental nonprofit.
“We have anything from pharmaceuticals that have gone through our bodies, cleaning products… our hospitals discharge their waste, and we have industrial users and stormwater.”
One of the greatest concerns comes from PFAS, Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, manufactured chemicals that come from everyday products.
Public acceptance of the biosolid fertilizer has dropped considerably in recent years, in part due to the presence of PFAS, meaning there may not be a market for the fertilizer.
“From a climate perspective, from a greenhouse gas perspective, the anaerobic digesters are definitely superior to the incinerators,” McDade said. “In land application of this material, though, you’re just putting those contaminants back into the environment, rather than sequestering them or destroying them on site.”
Continuing to operate the current incinerators, though, also presents a risk. McDade says the existing incinerators at Post Point have been “kind of band-aided together” while the council tries to find a solution, and they’ve grown old without an estimated retirement date.
The council will continue to discuss the anaerobic digesters and alternatives at its upcoming April 25 meeting, but is still considering options.
Council president Hannah Stone expressed doubts about the proposal.
“I think about the cost, and to me, it doesn’t make sense to throw good money at a bad solution right now,” she said before the council broke for lunch Monday.