“It’s been a failure.”

It was a full house in the council chamber as the City Council and Lowell Light & Power Board held a joint meeting to discuss recent events surrounding the Lowell biodigester.

The facility was ordered to shut down by the City Council at their November 21 meeting. However, the membrane on the main biodigester structure ruptured over the weekend, resulting in an extremely foul smell and leaving some residents to wonder if the facility had actually shut down.

LEAD says biodigester has shut down

At the start of the meeting, city manager Mike Burns read a letter sent by LEAD’s attorney to the city attorney. It outlined the actions taken by the company since the November 21st order to shut down.

  • Deliveries of feedstock have been halted
  • Litehouse was notified that no waste streams would be accepted as of November 24
  • Sludge began being pumped from the facility’s tank on November 26
Crews work to shut down the Lowell biodigester in this photo taken on November 28.
Crews work to shut down the Lowell biodigester in this photo taken on November 28.

LEAD did not provide a definite date for when the sludge would be completely removed, but its goal was Friday, December 2. The tank would then be power-washed. Since the membrane on the facility is ruptured, local residents will likely still smell odor until the tank is completely empty and has been cleaned.

The company did not send a representative to the meeting, but Lowell’s First Look contacted Greg Northrup, a managing member of LEAD, prior to the joint session. In an email, he said the company did not plan to attend because they did not believe any action was being proposed at the time.

Northup also addressed news reports that described the weekend rupture as a near explosion. “There never was an explosion potential,” he wrote. “Both the inner and outer membranes ruptured as they were designed to do to prevent structural damage.”

The circumstances surrounding the rupture are still being investigated by LEAD. Northrup added the tank and its sub-systems would be inspected and reviewed after being emptied.

Council, Board Members Apologetic; Residents Angry

Striking an apologetic tone, city council members and Lowell Light & Power board members admitted during the meeting that mistakes had been made. “We let you down,” said Tina Cadwallader, a member of the Lowell Light & Power Board. “And I apologize.”

Members of the Lowell Light & Power board listen to citizen comments during Thursday's joint meeting.
City leaders listen to citizen comments during Thursday’s joint meeting.

Cadwallader wasn’t the only one to apologize during the initial hour-long open meeting. “I deeply apologize,” said Jim Hodges, a city council member who was mayor at the time the biodigester contract was approved. The facility, which was intended to be the first in the nation to use its technology, was “too daring perhaps,” according to the former mayor. “This was not the way it was supposed to be.”

That was a common theme among council and board members who had been part of the original vetting process for the project. A team went to Germany to review biodigester plants there and found them to be odor-free. They were also given high marks by those living near them and working in them. However, city officials say the facility created by LEAD has been a far cry from what was envisioned and promised. “It’s been a failure,” said Lowell Light & Power chair Perry Beachum.

The apologies did little to appease some city residents who were upset with the placement of the biodigester as well as the seemingly slow response from city leaders to shut it down. Ryan Mitchell, a resident of Amity Street, expressed the frustration of many in the crowd. “It’s nasty, and nasty and kids don’t go together,” he said, referencing the biodigester’s location in the neighborhood. “There’s nothing wrong with forward thinking and progress but don’t do it in the backyard of kids.”

What happens next for the Lowell biodigester

After hearing public comments, the council and board went into an approximately 90-minute closed session to discuss their legal options. Once they reconvened, both groups passed motions.

The City Council moved to have LEAD’s wastewater permits revoked. Its second motion was to direct the city manager to terminate the lease agreement with LEAD by January 16, 2017 if a mutual agreement to dismantle the facility before then cannot be reached. Both motions passed unanimously.

Meanwhile, the Lowell Light & Power Board voted unanimously to revoke the purchase power agreement by January 16, 2017 if a mutual agreement to dismantle the biodigester was not made before then. The purchase power agreement is the document which stipulates the terms by which the city utility purchases power from the biodigester.

It remains unclear what happens to the Lowell biodigester equipment if LEAD does not agree to dismantle and remove it.


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