At a work session Monday night, the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly worked for about an hour to answer the age-old question: What happens after you flush?
It’s a question that has troubled city officials for some time.
Currently, the city ships its biosolids — the solid byproduct of the wastewater-treatment process — via barge to Seattle. The containers of sludgy waste are then loaded onto a train to Oregon, where they are dumped in a landfill. This has been the status quo ever since the incinerator that burned the biosolids locally crapped out, so to speak, five years ago.
“At the end of the day it’s a pretty tenuous thing that we do, and I don’t think anybody in that chain really wants our business,” Rorie Watt, director of public works and engineering, said at a Utility Advisory Board meeting in November.
After wrestling with the issue for months, the members of the UAB forwarded a recommendation to the Assembly, which it heard in January. The recommendation gave the Assembly a choice: It could either buy a $16 million dryer that will turn the biosolids into a product to be used in Juneau, or it could outsource the problem to members of the private sector looking to construct a monofill. A monofill is a single-use landfill used only for biosolids.
With a 6–1 vote, the Assembly decided to go with the dryer, which was what city staff recommended.
The decision was not an easy one, and both solutions had benefits and drawbacks. The monofill — the brainchild of Spike Bicknell and Chris Gerondale working as Juneau Monofill Company — would come with no upfront cost, while the dryer came with a high initial cost. On the other hand, the dryer “is very inexpensive to run,” Watt told the Assembly, and it has a smaller carbon footprint.
Most importantly, a dryer would be less expensive than monofilling in the long run, according to staff estimates. Twenty years from now, Watt estimated that the city will have saved a little more than $1 million dollars by choosing the dryer over the monofill. Juneau Monofill Company’s estimates differed, showing the monofill coming out ahead in the 20-year-timeline, but the dryer still came on top looking ahead 25 and 30 years.
“The longer the horizon, the worse monofilling and shipping look,” Watt said. “The longer the horizon, the better the dryer is. This is because the dryer has a 20-year life, but once that 20 years is up, you will rehab it and run it for another 20 years.”
The monofill has a fairly restricted life span. JMC estimated that it could be used for up to 30 years, but it will inevitably reach its limit at which point the city would likely have to invest in a dryer or some other such technology. Bicknell, who spoke briefly toward the end of Monday’s meeting acknowledged this.
“Our whole proposal, when we put this together, was to buy the CBJ some time to get in a better position,” he said.
The dryer also allows the city to maintain greater control over what happens to our waste, which was a central part of the Assembly’s discussion Monday.
Assembly member Debbie White, the lone vote against the dryer, asked Watt several questions about why outsourcing to the private sector at the cost of letting go of local control is a bad thing. Watt responded using the landfill and garbage pickup, neither of which the city control, as examples. Watt said that most complaints he receives from the public are a result of these two processes.
“We have not had control of either of those things, and it has been continuously frustrating,” Watt said.
White and Assembly member Jerry Nankervis asked whether the city could write its contract with JMC in a way that could mitigate any future problems that come with relinquishing control. Watt was doubtful.
“We could try to write everything that would be problematic into the contract in the future, but we don’t have perfect vision,” Watt responded. “It’s just my sense that, over time, we would wish that we had more control over what would happen in a monofill operation.”
In the end, the decision came down to economics. According to the city’s Finance Director Bob Bartholomew, who answered several questions at Monday’s meeting, the city has the debt capacity to handle the $16 million capital cost of the dryer.
“We have about $40M of debt capacity, and I think that’s too conservative,” Bartholomew said, responding to Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski, who asked whether the city could afford the steep initial cost. “We have quite a bit of room for debt capacity.”
This, plus the long-term cost effectiveness of the dryer, ended up persuading several Assembly members, including Jerry Nankervis, who said he entered the meeting believing the monofill was the best option.
“My numbers show the 30-year option go to the dryer, which goes against my belief that we should try to involve private businesses and that the government shouldn’t try to do everything,” Nankervis said. “I came in thinking I was going to be in one place, and now I’m in another. I’m surprised myself, but I’m here.”
Gerondale told the Empire Tuesday that he “has no issues” with the city after Monday night’s decision, and he complimented the members of the UAB for putting together their recommendation.
“In the long run maybe the dryer is the best idea, but maybe it would’ve been a good idea to pause for five years and think about it, and I think the monofill would’ve let that happen,” Gerondale said, explaining that the state’s current fiscal crisis will eventually impact the city, too.
All told, he said that JMC spent “in excess of $30,000” putting together the monofill proposal. After accounting for wages, consulting work and boat and plane trips to various sites, developing such a proposal isn’t cheap, and that’s not accounting for the time that Bicknell spent away from other work while fleshing out this plan. Although the Assembly ultimately didn’t side in JMC’s favor, Watt said that the Bicknell and Gerondale did was “a great economic service to the community.”
“I think they showed the best that a monofilling option would look like,” Watt told the Empire Tuesday. “They ran that to ground. They did that far better than we ever could’ve. I think if we hired somebody to try and figure that out, we would’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars and gotten a lesser product.”