Anaergia, Maui EKO open green waste dialogue

Meetings aimed at continuing green waste processing at landfill

Maui EKO Systems utility operator David Gamurot operates a front loader to move green waste turned to mulch Tuesday afternoon at the Central Maui Landfill. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photos

Anaergia Services plans to meet with Maui EKO Systems once a month about possibly continuing to process the county’s green waste at the Central Maui Landfill, while the energy company moves forward with its proposed renewable energy project at the Wailuku-Kahului Wastewater Reclamation Facility, officials from both companies said.

The project led by Anaergia’s Maui All Natural Alternative will produce electricity for the sewage treatment plant and use waste heat from the plant’s power-producing project to dry biosolids, or digested sewage sludge, produced by the plant.

Undried biosolids are an integral raw material for EKO to create its compost, and county officials confirmed during a community meeting last month that the new project would likely force the program to close.

Anaergia President Arun Sharma said Tuesday, however, that his company met with EKO last week to see if it could mitigate impacts.

“We have been pretty upfront that we will work with them as much as we can, and we have been communicating with them,” Sharma said. “The plan is to continue those discussions as we move forward. There are many possibilities and many combinations available and we’re still developing them. We’re going to need a lot of coordination and a lot of input from all the stakeholders to get to a solution that works.”

A morbark grinder machine processes green waste into mulch Tuesday afternoon.

EKO Plant Manager Ruben Fonseca said Monday that he has only met with the energy company a few times over the past several years, but he was encouraged that it has committed to meet regularly.

“They’re obviously concerned about putting us out of business, so they’re going to try to make an effort to fit this composting thing in somehow,” Fonseca said. “I don’t know a business model with green waste only, but as long as I can keep my guys with jobs I’m happy.”

The compost company with 20 workers has given residents a green waste dumping alternative and saved the county landfill space and disposal fees for nearly 23 years. It processes 24,000 tons of biosolids and close to 45,000 tons of green waste a year.

In 2016, the company diverted its millionth ton of waste, which was used to make its compost for sale to landscapers and farmers.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of landscapers that don’t know us on the island,” Fonseca said. “We sell our product statewide. A lot of folks on Oahu prefer our product because composting sludge has more nitrogen than doing just green waste.

“You can see the difference in the lawn and lot of people prefer that.”

Fonseca said sales have steadily increased over the years, and he is attracting more larger-sized customers with the rise of awareness in green waste recycling. Without the county’s sludge and contract, though, he would have to drastically shrink the company’s operations.

EKO’s sludge processing fee — charged to the county — increased from $90 to $103 per ton in 2016, after the county shortened its contract with the company from five to two years. Fonseca said the shorter contract time frame generated higher costs for EKO because the company was forced to lease equipment and hire mechanics to extend the life of its older equipment.

“Our maintenance cost went through the roof because of all of this,” he said.

Fonseca admitted that green waste can be combined with manure, crop residues and food waste to create compost — not just sludge. He said using the dried sludge from the new project would not make sense because he would have to add “a whole lot of water” back into it after it was dried out.

“Today the average water content on sludge is 85 percent,” he said. “All those years we saved the county the effort to dry sludge. That’s the beauty of composting.”

Maui County’s Department of Environmental Management does not have any concrete plans for its dried sludge yet, but it has expressed interest in treating it and using it as a fertilizer for parks, including the Waiehu Municipal Golf Course. The process of manufacturing the soil amendment at the treatment plant still needs to be studied further, but it would save the county money on fertilizer and avoid paying EKO its processing fee.

Fonseca said he was skeptical of rehydrating the sludge, believing it may return to its original appearance and smell.

“They’re going to end up having to throw way that product because I don’t think the parks can use that stuff,” he said.

Sharma said the issue with composting, though, is the presence of human waste in the sludge, which is a deterrent for many agricultural users. He reiterated that his company will collaborate with EKO on potential solutions as much as he can.

“Is composting the way we do it today the optimal solution? Maybe not,” he said. “Can it be improved? Probably. There’s many ways to improve on what exists out there and we will try to do that.”

Fonseca said that, regardless of what happens, his company would continue working “until the county doesn’t need us.” The company’s current contract with the county ends in June, but it will likely be extended until at least the end of 2019, he said.

“It’s too early. We still have to be over here two more years,” he said. “I don’t want to steer my guys out of here. It’s still my bread and butter.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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