Biodigester Owner Optimistic Although Talks with City Sour

In what appears to be turning into a case of “he said, she said,” the owners of the Lowell biodigester and city officials have significantly different accounts of what has transpired in recent months. While representatives of Advanced Water & Energy Solutions (AWES) say they have been in contact with the city since January about restarting the facility, city manager Mike Burns insists that’s not true.

Stuck in the middle is Litehouse, the second-largest employer in the city. They are searching for a new way to dispose of waste now that the biodigester has shut down. Both AWES and the city say they can help, but it’s unclear which side will come out on top in the end.

What AWES is Saying
Ross Pope, CEO for AWES, says he has been meeting monthly with the city since January. In their initial meeting, city officials mentioned the need to conduct a forensic analysis of the biodigester to determine where things went wrong. Pope said his team had already planned to conduct their own audit and Burns, along with Lowell Light & Power Manager Steve Donkersloot, agreed to accept the audit conducted by AWES.

During the following months, Pope says he worked on hammering out terms for restarting at least the wastewater treatment side of the biodigester. By May, he thought he had reached an agreement with the city and expected a special meeting of the City Council to be held on June 7 to consider an agreement to restart the plant. However, talks fell apart before then.

According to a timeline provided by AWES, the city apparently balked at the idea of any information going to the public prior to the June 7 meeting. On May 23, the city withdrew its support of the memo of understanding between the two parties. On June 7, Pope sent an email to Burns and city council members requesting a meeting with all stakeholders. That request was declined by Burns, citing AWES contact with the media as the reason.

Matthew Gryczan, managing director of the communications and strategy firm Engine, says the city’s response is problematic. “The email from Mike Burns to AWES…is only the most recent example of how he is trying to intimidate AWES into keeping the public in the dark about work at the plant,” he said in a statement on behalf of the company.

AWES remains undaunted though and expects to be at the next city council meeting to request a wastewater treatment permit.

The City Side of the Story
The city’s version of events is different. Burns says he had been meeting with LEAD – the previous biodigester owners – to discuss what should happen with the shuttered facility. While Pope attended those meetings, he was not a part of the conversation. Burns says he was not negotiating with AWES and to that point, he is likely correct. Paperwork creating AWES wasn’t filed with the state until May 17, 2017. While company representatives may have been in meetings, the entity itself didn’t exist until only recently.

Burns says the final meeting held between the city, Litehouse and LEAD was held on May 16. On May 18, the city met with the attorney representing both LEAD and AWES. He informed the city of plans to roll out a website and additional information to the public about restarting the facility. The city opposed the plan and apparently wanted to do any communication jointly with Litehouse. Then, on May 23, the city met with Litehouse alone, and the company indicated they only wanted to work with the city.

While Burns disagrees with how AWES characterizes the situation, he too says that, in May, the city and Litehouse were only weeks away from proposing a solution for the company’s waste disposal problem. It is unclear whether that solution was delayed because of AWES outreach efforts or for another reason. It is also unclear whether the city’s solution also would use the wastewater capabilities of the biodigester plant in some form.

What is clear is that Burns is not impressed with the manner in which AWES has approached the situation. “Ross is running around like a bull in a china shop,” he told Lowell’s First Look.

Where Litehouse Stands
Between the feuding parties is Litehouse, a manufacturer everyone seems to agree deserves assistance. Waste that was being sent via a pipeline to the biodgester is now being shipped off in trucks to Muskegon. It’s a considerable – and unexpected – expense for the company that designed its recent expansion, in part, around the idea that it would be able to send waste to the nearby plant.

Gryczan met with an engineer from Litehouse on May 10 to discuss the company’s needs further. On May 23, the Litehouse President and CEO met with Pope after a separate meeting with Burns. Dan De Buhr, an engineering consultant with AWES, met with Litehouse’s director of engineering on May 30 to walk through how the biodigester could address the company’s waste problem. De Buhr thought that meeting went well and told the company he could have the plant up and running within 60 days to take their waste.

As of press time, Litehouse has not responded to questions regarding this matter. However, the company’s spokeswoman did confirm it was only working with city officials at this time.

Legal Action May be Looming
While the city undoubtedly hopes the issue of the biodigester will disappear, it seems unlikely investors will simply walk away from a facility that had been expected to generate nearly $7 million in revenue over the course of 10 years. Pope mentions the facility is under contract to provide power to the city and is unable to meet that obligation without a wastewater permit. The company feels the contract language supports their case, but “AWES has been strenuously trying to keep this out of court since everyone will lose,” Gryczan said in his statement.

City officials haven’t made any comment on whether the biodigester plant could be used to treat wastewater, but they have vehemently denied the possibility of the facility being used to create energy. “There is absolutely no situation in which we would allow the Biodigester to resume operation,” said Mayor Mike DeVore in a statement.

AWES, on the other hand, says it doesn’t make sense to run the facility if it’s not making energy. The company envisions a three phase start-up of the plant that begins with treating Litehouse’s waste. Then, that would be augmented with other waste streams and in the final phase, the facility would once again produce electricity.

“This was an ideal solution for the city and Litehouse,” Pope says of the biodigester. “It was poorly, poorly executed.” Now that he and his team believe they have identified all the problems, they say the plant should no longer remain idle. “There is no reason for this to not operate without odor,” Pope says.

City officials don’t appear inclined to change their minds and seem ready to dig in for the long haul. At the direction of the city attorney, a communications firm has been retained to address community and media inquiries into the issue.

The next chapter of this story will likely be written at the June 19 city council meeting.


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