Less than a kilometre off the Trans-Canada Highway in Ladysmith, undetectable by smell, sits the town’s new state-of-the-art biosolids facility that’s literally ‘turning’ human waste into high-quality compost.
The $1.8-million facility makes previous operations at the local public works yard seem somewhat archaic, where staff would constantly be uncovering, turning and moving piles through a series of channels.
Now, all the biosolids operations on Thicke Road are being done completely indoors under a giant white tent-like structure that’s somewhat similar in looks, at least from the outside, to a sports dome.
“It’s a lot less physical to do this. You still have to be monitoring what’s happening but you don’t have to actually physically turn the piles,” said director of infrastructure Geoff Goodall speaking about the difference in how biosolids are now being handled.
“Pretty much all you’re doing is putting material in at the one end and screening it at the other end.”
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That’s the essence of the operations in a nutshell but there’s also a lot more sophistication integrated into the design that combines biochemistry with physics.
The town acted last year following complaints about its public works facility on Sixth Avenue, where the smell would seep into the RCMP detachment, fire hall and neighbouring homes depending on which way the wind was blowing.
While town staff, council and the mayor faced demonstrators and made the nightly news last January talking about how they were working to find a solution, behind closed doors that same day a deal was inked to purchase the 2.24-acre site on the south end of town for $840,000.
The municipality had secured at $570,000 regional gas tax funding grant for a new building while the remainder for purchasing the land and completing the project came from the sewer reserve.
CAO and city manager Guillermo Ferrero said they visited facilities elsewhere in B.C. to find the best fit for the town and also expect the Ladysmith site will attract similar attention from municipal officials, businesses and even Vancouver Island University students wanting see the biosolids operations.
“We’re going to have a lot of people coming to see the facility as a good example,” he said. “The closest facility that is similar to this, I believe, is in New York (City).”
The town tweaked the design of its own facility to make it large enough so that trucks transporting material from the wastewater treatment facility can fully back in and allow the doors to close before unloading a pile.
It’s hoped that this part of the design will mitigate any smell along with a complex system that includes aeration, negative air pressure and bio-filtration to control odour.
Mayor Aaron Stone said building a scalable facility was the right decision from both a fiscal responsibility standpoint, as well as the impacts the previous site was having on the community.
“It’s about understanding the realities of when you look back at the last decade and the cost of infrastructure build outs and the accelerating costs that we see today of infrastructure, to do something piecemeal now that would only last 10 years and then do it again in 10 years at double the cost doesn’t make financial sense,” he said.
Once inside, biosolids are placed into a 60 metre channel with wood chips and a giant automated mixing system takes over the heavy lifting of moving the material for the next 85 days.
“There’s not that many facilities using that turner technology,” Goodall noted.
Build on a concrete slab, one the important features of the facility is a leachate collection system that works to prevent any runoff which could harm surface water and groundwater.
There’s also very little waste involved in the whole process.
“We mix wood chips in with the biosolids and then they go through the channel and when it’s finished at the other end we put the material through a screener and any oversized material we reuse at the start of the process again,” Goodall said.
Ladysmith’s facility was also built to allow room for growth down the road, whether it’s accepting biosolids from other municipalities or marketing its compost similar to the Comox Valley Regional District with its SkyRocket product, or Kelowna’s OgoGrow.
Both of those scenarios would be for city council to decide and Mayor Stone is confident in Ladysmith’s position given its investment in infrastructure over the past few years when it comes to projects like the wastewater treatment plant and now the water treatment plant.
“We’ve taken down some really big items for the long-term under the existing financial framework,” he said, explaining how that eliminates surprises when it comes to parcel taxes for anyone putting down roots in the community.
“From an investment standpoint, a residential standpoint, that provide people with some cost certainty some fixed-cost understanding…it’s not an unknown anymore. It’s challenging and it’s difficult but we’ve made the long-term investment that the community needs and now we can support the growth that we see on the horizon.”