Guelph Waste Management Coalition Inc

Rob O’Flanagan, Mercury staff - December 19, 2011

GUELPH — The bugs are getting cold.

As city officials and the designers of Guelph’s new Organic Waste Processing Facility work to fix the operational bugs at the plant, the tiny organisms that make the system work are now at a real risk of being frozen into dormancy.

If that happens, officials said Monday, the plant will have to start from scratch.

That was the word of warning during a three-hour meeting of the public liaison committee struck to oversee mitigation of the odour problems that plagued the early startup phase of the facility.

About 20 people attended the meeting, including members of the Maple Reinders Group Ltd. design team, several city waste management officials, three ministry officials, composting experts and members of the public.

Ken Spira, president of the community action group Guelph Waste Management Coalition and a member of the public liaison committee, stressed throughout the meeting that any action plan must ensure above all else that residents near the plant will not have to deal with odours again.

“We need assurances that we won’t be dealing with ongoing odours,” he said. “We don’t want to have to worry about that ever again.”

Ministry, city and Maple Reinders officials made assurances that odour-free operation is the goal, but that goal can’t be reached until the plant is running at normal levels and the measures of an action plan are tested. And that will have to happen soon or the biofilters in the plant could freeze up.

Theo Van Wely, president of Aim Environmental Group, the Maple Reinders partner running the facility, said there is now an urgency to start receiving organic material — so-called source separated organics.

The city halted shipments of green bag waste to the facility after several odour complaints were received in November. But Van Wely explained that a continuous flow of materials keeps heat levels throughout the composting process at optimal levels. Temperatures are starting to drop as the biological activity in the existing compost material slows down.

Some yard waste material is being added in an effort to maintain heat, he said, but the temperature of the material inside the facility needs to be much higher or organic activity will chill to a halt. If there is a sudden drop in temperatures outside concurrent with the drop in temperatures inside, the result could be a freezing of the plant’s filters.

Such an outcome would render the plant inoperable, and processes would have to essentially start from scratch, likely at a prohibitive cost.

Van Wely said the plant is at “a critical stage.” Current mitigation measures to maintain the heat could be stretched out for another week, but anything beyond that could be very risky.

Members of the public liaison committee agreed that taking in moderate amounts of source separated organics to maintain heat levels was a reasonable step to take.

After hammering out the many details of a draft action plan aimed at getting the plant back into active composting, Janet Laird, Guelph’s director of planning, building, engineering and environment, indicated that officials will be working through the holiday period to address all of the questions and concerns of the public liaison committee and ministry.

Amendments to the draft action plan will be made throughout the week in response to suggestions from Monday night’s meeting, and a date of Jan. 3 was set for receiving final questions on the action plan. Van Wely indicated leaving things until mid-January might be too late.

Maple Reinders and its partners have carried out extensive inspections and enhancements of the plant’s systems. While the source of the odour emissions has not been definitively pinpointed, both the company and the ministry believe that faulty, inaccurate ammonia sensors, and uneven air distribution within the facility, are to blame.

Bill Bardwick, director of the west central region of the Ministry of the Environment, was confident those were the two key issues behind the odour problem.

Dusko Grambozov, project manager for Maple Reinders, said there is no way of knowing how the plant will operate until it is fully operational. He said about 95 per cent of the modifications the company wanted to do in the startup phase have been done, and efforts are being made to find reliable ammonia sensors on the global market.