This week’s edition of The Lowell Ledger (no affiliation with Lowell’s First Look) carried a story about the biodigester. Extensively quoting Ross Pope, the owner of a new company associated with the facility, the article gave some people the impression the biodigester would be back up and running soon.
However, that was news to leaders in Lowell. City Manager Mike Burns responded with a statement saying, “Neither Mr. Pope nor his company has been retained to speak on behalf of the City or Litehouse nor work on their behalf.” He went on to state, “It is troubling to the City of Lowell, Lowell Light and Power and Litehouse that the Lowell Ledger would publish such a story without asking any of us for comment.”
Reached by phone, Steve Donkersloot, the Lowell Light & Power general manager, said he was “shocked and had no idea the story was coming.” He added that the utility has been working with Litehouse but has not had any contact with Pope or his firm, Advanced Water and Energy Solutions (AWES).
With so much confusion swirling about, we decided it would be best to set the record straight. Lowell’s First Look has talked to Burns, Donkersloot and met with Pope and his team. We also have reached out to Litehouse for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Based on our research, it appears efforts are underway to make the wastewater treatment side of the facility operational again, but it could simply be wishful thinking on the part of the biodigester owners.
Recap of What’s Happened So Far
If you aren’t up to speed on the situation involving the biodigester, you can read this article about the technology and this article about how it went horribly wrong. After the plant coated the town with a foul stench for months on end, the city council finally pulled its operating permits, and it has been dormant since last November.
In January, Pope says he was brought onto the project. With a background in finance, he doesn’t have any experience with biodigester technology, but that’s not a problem, he says. “I have experience in fixing problems,” he told Lowell’s First Look.
While Pope is hesitant to say anything negative about the previous manager of the biodigester, he notes the facility was handling twice the volume of waste it was designed to process. Plus, there was a hidden problem he says no one realized until he got on site and started taking apart the machinery. “When you’re pre-treating industrial waste, so much of it is where you can’t see it,” Pope says. He showed off one of 500 baffles that was clogged with waste – the equivalent of having plaque lining a person’s arteries. He credits the clogged machinery with causing the overpowering smell last year. “You couldn’t see it,” he says. “Nobody could see it.”
However, that doesn’t mean the previous operators get a pass for the problems with the biodigester. “There’s no reason for what happened to have happened,” Pope says. “It’s a mistake in two counts. One, in the design and the other that they didn’t stop it and fix it when they should have.”
The Dilemma for Litehouse
Closing the biodigester solved the problem of stinky air for area residents, but it created a new problem for the city’s second-largest employer. Litehouse Foods is in the midst of a major expansion, and their plans were based on the promise they could send waste to the biodigester for processing.
Without an operational biodigester, the company has been forced to truck its waste off-site at considerable cost. At the May Coffee with Council meeting, some councilmembers briefly mentioned the biodigester and expressed regret at the position in which Litehouse Foods has found itself. They also mentioned feeling the city is obligated to help the manufacturer.
While Pope seems confident the answer to helping Litehouse lies in treating their waste at biodigester site, Burns says that won’t be happening. “The City and Lowell Light and Power are committed to working with Litehouse to find a solution to its current wastewater pre-treatment needs,” he said in his statement. “That solution will not involve restarting the biodigester.”
What Happens Next for the Lowell Biodigester
Pope isn’t proposing to restart the biodigester right now, but he does want to bring waste from Litehouse Foods to the plant for chemical treatment. He also didn’t seem to rule out the possibility that the facility would process other waste at some point in the future. “I do know biodigesters work,” he says. “They work all over the country.”
Still, Pope declined to provide any specifics other than to say he hoped to have a handle on the situation by the end of summer. When it comes to the actual operation of the plant and how it would run, he says that’s not part of his job description. “My job is to assess the problems, report to the legal eagles what the problems were…how to fix them and how much it’s going to cost,” he explains.
Lowell’s First Look reached out to city councilmembers for their thoughts on the issue as well. As of publication, three out of five members had responded. Mayor Mike DeVore referred questions to Burns. Councilmember Jim Hodges stated that he had no communication with either AWES or Litehouse. He added that Burns had been leading the city efforts to work with Litehouse, adding that “things are quite incomplete, but progressing in a positive manner as I understand it.” Councilmember Alan Teelander replied to our email by saying, “All the answers to these questions can be found via a foia (sic) request of my city emails.”
Burns and Donkersloot said they have not have any contact with Pope or AWES. Pope says he will likely send proposals to Litehouse and city leadership once his team has analyzed the facility and created a workable solution. “We’re getting all our ducks in a row,” he says.
Despite Pope’s obvious enthusiasm for the project and adamant belief there will not be a repeat of last year’s odor debacle, it should be noted that many of the same players are still involved. Veolia was managing the daily operations of the plant and is still onboard. Paperwork creating AWES was filed with the state on May 17, 2017, and the attorney named on that document is the same as the one who previously represented LEAD in communications with the city.
“This should be a win for the city, a win for the community, a win for Litehouse,” Pope says. City leaders seem unconvinced, and Lowell residents will have to wait for a formal proposal to be made before finding out if they’ll change their minds.