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Delhi Voters May Reject Solar ‘Waste-to-Fuel’ Facility

Mark Bashore

Next Tuesday, voters in Delhi Township will weigh the costs and benefits of getting greener. They’re considering whether to finance $2.6 million on a facility that dries sewage using solar power.  Township trustees approved the plan in 2007, but last year opponents mobilized and forced the vote.  Their message--that now is not the time to spend more on green initiatives--resonates with many in the township.  WKAR’s Mark Bashore reports the issue has created a rift in the township.

Five years ago, Delhi Township officials were really thinking green.  They launched an ambitious, two-part plan to modernize the way the township deals with sewage.  First, in 2009, it spent around $10 million on an award-winning anaerobic digester.  It’s been decontaminating waste ever since.  John Elsinga is the Delhi Township Manager. 

“It’s state-of-the-art, it’s awesome,” he says. “It’s a very intelligent investment…”

Elsinga is among a majority of Delhi trustees who still supports phase two--a solar powered sewage drier. There are only a handful of these systems in the whole country. 

He proudly shows me around the township’s sprawling waste facility.  For now, he says Delhi is limited to injecting its wet sludge into farm fields.  The drier would create a somewhat less toxic product.

“Does it really make sense taking all the pollutants out of the waste water, then reintroducing them into the environment, into the soil, subsequently taken up by plants?,” he asks. “I don’t think so.”

Supporters also think wet sludge injection could eventually be banned, so why not be ahead of the curve?  And they see other advantages. Trucking the dried waste would cost a lot less.  They might process sewage from other communities.  And they could sell it as fuel to Michigan State University and others.  

Under the proposal, the state would buy $5 million worth of bonds from Delhi, then forgive half the debt.  To cover the township’s costs, sewer customers would pay $1.20 more per month. Resident Anna Wenzlick says it’s a bargain.

“I think people are just so fed up and so frustrated with the extra money that they’re letting it blind them to how great something like this could be for how little we have to pay for it,” she says.

But advocates have run into intense grassroots resistance.  Yard signs throughout Delhi proclaim “no sludge dryer.”  Township Trustee Jerry Ketchum says that recent police and fire millage increases, along with a squishy economy, have put residents in a saving mode.

“It might sound like it’s just a little bit of money,” he says. “It’s only $1.20 a month. But it’s the $1.20 a month here, an extra dollar a gallon for gas in the last few months. It’s (a) 10% or 15% rise in grocery prices. They are screaming ‘We have to put an end to this at some point.’  They want us to start with this.’

Opponents also point out that largely detoxified sludge has been injected into area fields for years and that federal and state authorities consider it safe.

Both sides accuse the other of spreading….misinformation.  Depending on who you talk to, all costs have been accounted for, or they haven’t.  The sludge Delhi already creates could generate revenue….or it couldn’t.  Act now or lose the millions in state grant money…or not. 

Long-time resident Frank Badalamente says he’s researched the plan.  He’s attended meetings and even spoken with the EPA.  He plans to vote no.

“There’s no guarantee that it’ll work,” he maintains. “Even the engineer that was there making a presentation—he has no comparison with any plant or any sludge system in the United States that’s doing this.  It’s like a pig in a poke!”

Opponents and even supporters seem to agree on one point--the township’s already pretty green.  Voters will clear up the murk in a week.

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