Tension in Delhi as Solar Installation Vote Approaches

Apr 24, 2012

Delhi Township voters will soon decide whether to move forward with a plan to build a cutting edge solar facility. 

Supporters say the “sludge dryer”—which would cost the township $2.6 million --would enable Delhi to sell its dried sewage as fuel, possibly to Michigan State University and others.  Currently, farmers legally spread the township’s wet sludge on their fields. 

Critics complain taxpayers already pay enough for the township’s green initiatives and fear additional costs in the future. Complicating matters even more, both sides accuse each other of deceptive claims and unfair tactics.  

MARK BASHORE: Elected Delhi officials—most of whom support the plan--say the sludge dryer would add $1.20 cents a month—maybe less--to township sewer customers’ bills. 

I spoke with one of these backers. Sandra Diorka is the township’s Director of Public Services.  She says selling dried sludge as fuel would make money for the township, but her main reason for supporting it is environmental.

SANDRA DIORKA:  It will remove from the environment the pharmaceuticals that people contribute to the sewer.  They will be destroyed and we will be paid to destroy them.

BASHORE:  They’re not destroyed if they’re put on farmers’ fields?  Is that correct?

DIORKA:  That is correct.  This is a relatively new issue in my business.  It’s only been on the scene since about 2002.  Since then, the EPA has accumulated over 8,000 studies.  In fact, I’ve been contacted by MSU, which is trying to get grant money to replicate a study where they showed that land application of Class A bio-solids to pastureland harmed the reproductive ability of sheep.

BASHORE:  Opponents of the project have managed to force a special election on May 8.  One thing they say is that the township already gives away, free, wet sludge to area farmers for fertilizer, and that before another two and half million is spent on a dryer, Delhi should be exploiting a market that already exists.  Here is trustee Derek Bajema. 

DEREK BAJEMA: Farmers have called me and said ‘We’d be willing to pay for this.’  We haven’t asked them—as a township.

BASHORE: Is he right?  Are you giving away product you could be selling now?

DIORKA:  No, we cannot sell this product.  There’s no market.  Mr. Bajema has never produced a name or a contact for us to locate.  That is simply untrue.

BASHORE: You’re talking with MSU about possibility of selling these bio-solids—dried sludge--to the university and possibly to the (Lansing) Board of Water and Light. It’s part of MSU’s long-range energy plan to burn more of this. How much money would the MSU arrangement be worth to the township?

DIORKA:  Well we haven’t actually negotiated a final price.What we’ve talked about is indexing the price of our product to the BTU value (of coal.)  So in other words, if it had half the BTU value of coal, MSU would pay us half the price of coal.  And that would be somewhere in the range of $10,000 to $20,000 a year.

BASHORE:   $10,000 to $20,000 a year against a $2.5 million tab for the township—that sounds like a long range project.

DIORKA:  Well, you’re forgetting to think about the savings that we’ll have in our operations and maintenance. Transporting dry product (costs) less money than wet.  Those savings are around $57,000 a year.

In addition, we’ve been approached by several municipalities willing to bring their bio-solids to our facility to dry because the increasing price of bio-solids land application is becoming untenable to them.   So we will be able to realize income.  And a very, very conservative estimate for income from that is $40,000 a year.  So now we have a total possible savings and income of $117,000 a year.  And the bond payments will only be $165,000 a year. 

You may also not be realizing that we’re getting over $3 million in grants toward this project.  So the $5.5 million project will only cost $2.6 million.

BASHORE:  To the township…

DIORKA:  To the sewer customers of the township.  There’s another point I’d like to make.  Zero on taxes.

BASHORE:  What’s your take on where Delhi Township voters feel about this? Will they approve it?

DIORKA: Unfortunately I’m not very optimistic.  There’s been so much misinformation, so much intimidation and scare tactics that people are going to vote no.

BASHORE:  Opponents claim that after a presentation you made to a senior center group about the dryer plan that they were denied access to that group.  Again, here’s Trustee Derek Bajema.

BAJEMA:  When I try to give the other side at public forums, like the Holt Senior Center a couple weeks ago, I’m rebuffed and told ‘You can’t. You can only give facts.’  And I give the facts.  I preview them to the person rebuffing me and they say ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t. I can’t let you.'  It’s not fair. It’s freedom of speech. 

BASHORE: What do you know about that?

DIORKA:  I find this to be a very interesting comment.  Because when the board approved putting this issue on the May ballot, Derek accused the rest of the board of conducting a ‘stealth’ election, where only those ‘cronies’ who are for the project would show up.  So we’ve been making our best effort to educate our citizens about this issue. I made a presentation at the senior center.  It was facts only, and that is what we are expected to do.

BASHORE:  But you do support the project.

DIORKA:  I absolutely do support the project.  I would not have brought it to the board if I didn’t.  In fact, it’s my job to look to the future, have vision and bring to the board the best recommendations possible.