Good Risk, A

Cobb County, Ga., has turned a facility with a history of serious problems into a well-run composting operation.

Outside the Cobb County Composting Facility in Marietta, Ga., one January morning, it looks like a monsoon is brewing. But Joe Accortt, county solid waste division manager, isn't worried. All stages of his composting operation — the garbage and sludge separation, pumping and aeration systems — are fully enclosed. Additionally, this isn't the first storm the facility has weathered.

In fact, Cobb County's composting plant has had a history so turbulent it's amazing the facility still is in operation, let alone winning awards.

In 1995, Cobb County decided to build a 20-acre co-composting facility to handle its solid waste and sludge. The county signed a contract with the now-defunct Bedminster Bioconversion Corp., Marietta, Ga., hiring the company to design, engineer and manage the plant. As part of the deal, Cobb County would provide the capital and raw materials, while investing nearly $25 million to develop the facility. Bedminster would handle day-to-day operations and receive some of the profits.

However, a string of problems, including design and engineering flaws, fires, closures and debt, rained on the facility's parade, according to Bill Byrne, Cobb County Commission chairman. Byrne, who also has a degree in landscape architecture, says the facility's design had serious problems, which made maintaining air quality, fire protection and the equipment's electrical motors difficult.

“When people see the facility working, they think it looks easy,” Byrne says. Since May 1999, when the county took back operations of the facility, composting has been flourishing. But back in the mid-'90s, “we knew it couldn't work,” he says in retrospect.

A Stormy Past

According to Byrne, the county “battled” with Bedminster for about a year about design problems, but the contract provided the company full authority to build the facility as its staff saw fit.

“There was nothing we could do about it,” Byrne says.

Lon Kennebeck, currently product quality assurance manager for the facility who originally was hired by Bedminster in 1992, called his former employers “strong willed.”

“It would take a while to tell them something didn't work,” he says. “Sometimes they were resistant to listen to the people in the trenches.”

As Bedminster began designing the facility, the county had concerns, Byrne says. But those concerns went ignored and when the facility opened in summer 1996, “Everything we said would happen, happened,” he says.

The main problem, Accortt remembers, was odor control. “The odors in the plant were beyond belief,” he says. “We're surrounded by residences and offices, and it was just intolerable.”

Because Cobb County operates a co-composting facility that accepts solid waste and sludge, one of the main sources of odors was the high sulfur content in the sludge. In Bedminster's design, sludge sat in an open pit and then was moved on open conveyors throughout the plant. There also were no fans to blow stagnant air out of the facility, Accortt says.

Kennebeck, who at the time was Bedminster's automation control specialist, attributes some of the early difficulties to a fast-paced schedule. “The original startup I felt was way too fast,” he says, noting that the final screen at the end of the composting process was not operational when the plant opened. “We weren't ready. There was a very frenzied pace with a deadline [to open the facility by the date stated in the contract, which was] looming.” But this didn't give Bedminster enough time to conduct an equipment test with the material, he says.

Eventually, before the end of 1996, the facility caught on fire — twice — causing $12.5 million in damages and destroying much of the operation. The facility was forced to close, and the county took some flack from the local press.

“They had a field day,” Byrne says. “[People wrote,] ‘How could you be so irresponsible with taxpayers’ money?' We could have walked away, but we would have had to acknowledge that building the facility was a colossal mistake, and we were unwilling to do that. We knew it would work if the facility was managed and designed correctly.”

More than a Quick-Fix

Consequently, the Cobb County Commission in 1997 hired Accortt to oversee the county's interest in the project. The county and Bedminster assessed the problems and planned to rebuild the facility with the money from the insurance claim. Bedminster still handled design and engineering, but this time, the company took direction from the county, Accortt says.

One of the first orders of business was to create a new air handling system, which included air intake, transfer and odor control fans. Air and gasses were captured and then blown through biofilters so they could be treated. According to Cobb County's specifications, Bedminster also developed a neutral zone in the center of the facility where air could be sucked in and whisked away, Accortt says.

To further reduce odors, the facility was directed to treat the sludge prior to composting. Originally, the facility composted with primary or undigested sludge, Accortt says. But treating the sludge with chemicals and bacteria reduced the odor. Under the new system, once treated, the sludge was delivered through a controlled and metered pumping system into an enclosed area so that it did not interact with the outside air.

Additionally, the ratio of garbage to sludge in the compost was reduced from two parts garbage to one part sludge, to three or four parts garbage to one part sludge.

The rebuilt facility was slated to reopen in June 1998, so Accortt made sure to test the system before giving the county final approval to open for business.

“We set ourselves up [to increase] the system slowly,” not starting with the maximum capacity of 300 tons per day, which the facility was contracted to handle, he says. The first week, the facility processed 20 tons of garbage. By the end of 1998, the facility was up to 100 tons.

“We checked out the system components and made sure everything worked all the time,” Accortt says. “We had a pretty fancy control system.”

Kennebeck, whose job was to fix bugs in the computer system, agrees. “I felt I was more prepared [with the reopening],” he says. “The startup was a lot slower and more careful.”

Back to Government Control

As specified in the contract for the reopening, Bedminster had to initiate a five-week proof of performance test, which it passed in 1999. However, the facility still was underperforming. Compost was being produced, but it was not ready for market, Cobb County officials say.

More importantly, Bedminster had run out of money.

So in May 1999, the Cobb County Commission voted to take back control of facility operations.

At that point, Dain Kistner, former marketing director for Bedminster Cobb, called the switch a “win-win scenario.” He told Waste Age in June 1999 that the facility was costing more to run than what it received from the government, about $2.5 million per year.

Both Byrne and Accortt say the reverse privatization process was smooth. There was an escape clause in the contract noting that Bedminster would pay off its debts if the contract were broken, “but [Bedminster] ran out of money, and we ran out of time,” Byrne says.

Instead, the two parties agreed that Bedminster would walk away. Cobb County would assume the plant's approximately $175,000 in debt and hire any of the 26 employees who wanted to stay with the facility. Bedminster managers and engineers left, but most of the operations' employees stayed. The county named Accortt plant manager.

Kennebeck remembers being surprised when Bedminster's managers told employees about the deal. But, he says, they handled it well. (Bedminster has since sold its other composting facilities and operations to a Swedish company. Waste Age's efforts to reach the company and former employees were unsuccessful.)

“They came in immediately when they knew it was going to be leaked to the press,” Kennebeck says. “They said everyone could stay. They tried to make the transition as smooth as possible.”

And it was, says Accortt, whom the county named solid waste division manager in September 1999. “We didn't shut down for a day — we just kept running. When we took over, there really was no difference [in daily operations] than the day before.”

Products and Prizes

Now, nearly two years after the switch, Cobb County's facility sees approximately 60 haulers who bring residential garbage to the site for composting. The facility processes its maximum allowed 300 tons per day because the tipping fees are comparable to the nearby landfill's fees. The composting facility charges $32.50 per ton.

Additionally, to avoid unnecessary shutdowns, the site has an emergency power generator. In preparation for a power outage, equipment is being upgraded and spare parts are on-hand, Accortt says.

“We don't have to wait for something to break down,” he says, adding that once equipment has been operated a certain number of hours, it automatically is replaced. “We haven't had a forced shutdown since we restarted.”

With the new system, decomposition takes a few days, rather than weeks. As materials arrive at the facility, glass, paper, cardboard and metal are separated. The garbage is mixed with treated sludge from the nearby wastewater treatment plant and fed into one of five digesters — cylinders measuring 210 feet long with 13-foot diameters. As the garbage and sludge is co-composted, water and oxygen are fed into the digesters, causing a natural hydraulic system that accelerates the composting process.

Three days later, the compost is filtered to eliminate any non-biodegradable material, and the rough compost is deposited on a fully automated aeration floor for up to six weeks of curing. Once cured, the compost is screened again before being marketed.

By correcting errors and working on improvements, Kennebeck says Cobb County has “brought a little more life into the plant.” There is a bit more red tape than in the private sector, he says, but it is worth it.

“With the government [running the operation,] you have to be accountable to the citizens, so anytime you purchase anything, you have to get bids or compare prices from different vendors, which can slow things down at times,” he says. “Things seem a little slower, but I'd rather have a slower pace with things going ahead instead of moving backward.”

Meantime, the compost itself, marketed locally as Bioblend, also is moving. Approximately 50 tons of compost per day is given away for free three days per week to Cobb County residents. The facility also sells Bioblend in bulk for $8 per ton to $10 per ton to landfill operators and other commercial companies, Byrne says.

“We've sold or given away every single pound of product,” he says.

The reverse privatization process was smooth. There was an escape clause in the contract noting that Bedminster would pay off its debts … but [Bedminster] ran out of money, and [the county] ran out of time.

According to Accortt, the plant still is calculating its revenue and operating costs for 2000, the first full year under county control. But Byrne pulls out a chart showing that fiscal year 2000 solid waste expenses for the county were $14.6 million. Total solid waste revenue for the year was $12.6 million, “so it's almost a break-even proposition now,” he says. “[The facility] has done far more than we even anticipated.”

Key to the facility's success was running the plant like a business, Accortt says. “We run it more as a production plant as opposed to a place to dump your garbage,” he says. “We're constantly improving and tweaking the system to make it more efficient.”

The improvements the county made already are garnering national and global attention. Accortt often gives facility tours to visiting environmental officials from around the world. Also, in 2000, the National Association of Counties (NACo), Washington, D.C., honored the facility with its achievement award “in recognition of an innovative program that contributes to and enhances county government in the United States.”

“Government often is criticized as being reluctant to try anything new,” Byrne says, noting the plaque is his “pride and joy” and pays tribute to the risks the county undertook to maintain the facility. “They like to stay with the tried and true. But we tried something new for a good reason, and it worked.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, however, Accortt says he wants to continue reducing the county's waste stream and improve the mechanics and technology of the facility. He also wants to market Bioblend more aggressively as a soil amendment and encourage county residents to recycle their waste. Eventually, he would like to build another composting plant in the county.

But for now, Accortt says he's pleased with the facility's operations despite its spotty past. “Solid waste is such a difficult issue to manage, let alone make money on,” he says. “[Composting] plants come and go, and there are more failures than successes. But we're a success story.”

Melanie A. Lasoff is an Atlanta-based free-lance writer.

Cobb County Composting Facility Profile

No. and Types of Equipment: 5 digesters designed by Bedminster; 3 compost turners designed for the facility with Fecon Industries parts; 1 loading system with a conveyor configuration; and 1 primary trommel screen engineered to the plant's specs.

Amount of Compost Produced: 30 percent of the garbage that the facility receives cannot be composted or recycled and is taken to the landfill; 70 percent either is composted or recycled — the majority is composted.

Sources and Percentages of Waste: Private haulers — primarily residential waste from large private companies such as Waste Management Inc. Independent and small haulers contribute approximately 60 to 80 percent. Construction and demolition waste is not accepted.

Employees: Approximately 30, including 1 supervisor of operations, 4 lead operators, 10 operators, 2 truck drivers, 1 quality assurance manager, 1 biofilter and odor control technician, 1 quality control technician, 1 plant manager, 1 office manager, 1 receptionist/administrative technician, 1 maintenance supervisor, 1 office worker and 3 maintenance technicians.

Service Area: All of Cobb County, Ga., plus east, west and south of the county, depending on where the private hauler has picked up other trash. The facility does not turn away any trucks.