Bankrupt Synagro continues hauling in waste despite equipment problems

Bankrupt Synagro continues hauling in waste despite equipment problems

Finance Director does not expect waste burner to pay $750,000 host fee this year

WOONSOCKET - A piece of equipment that eliminates odors from Synagro's sludge incineration operation on Cumberland Street has needed replacement since at least November of 2012, but the recently bankrupted company continues to accept truckloads of the waste from neighboring communities.

The company, which is under contract to process waste at the Woonsocket treatment plant until 2027, has filed for Chapter 11 protection, leading city officials to question if a cash shortage was responsible for the delay in replacing a "scrubber," which they say is responsible for increased odor from the facility.

"It was offensive, which is why we were in touch with them. We believe that a lot of the odor complaints from last summer were because the scrubber was not functioning properly," said Public Works Director Shiela McGauvran. "They admitted in November that it needed to be replaced."

According to a pamphlet previously released by the Woonsocket Regional Wastewater Commission, the company, which was first contracted to process waste at the plant in 1988, had installed two such scrubbers as part of their odor control system. Three additional scrubbers had been installed by the city.

A recent increase in odor complaints led McGauvran and Mayor Leo Fontaine to inquire if the needed equipment was responsible for the smell at the plant.

At first, McGauvran said, representatives said that the scrubber issue was not related to the ongoing odor. When city officials called Synagro's corporate offices, however, they got a different answer.

"Fortunately for us, they were very responsive," McGauvran said.

The new scrubber, which had to be fabricated to fit the existing equipment, is expected to arrive in Woonsocket on May 23, but she said the company is hopeful they'll get it sooner. Synagro has reportedly offered to pay the premium to have the order expedited.

Synagro spokesperson Jamie Kinder confirmed Wednesday morning that the part should arrive "next week."

"It was a top priority to get it working and operational," Kinder said.

On Friday and Saturday, McGauvran confirmed, workers performed considerable maintenance on the piece to improve the situation, removing the scrubber for cleaning and unplugging some blockages.

"It's working much better," she said. "It has minimized the odors drastically."

Synagro representatives have denied that money problems delayed purchase.

"They're not off-the-shelf pieces," said Kinder. "We put it in our capital budget for 2013 but there's a delay from the time you realize you need it to the time you take delivery of it."

Meanwhile, truckloads of waste continued to arrive at the plant this week and upgrades, which will allow the facility to capture gases from the incineration operation and convert them to energy, made more headway. Synagro Technologies Inc. recently renewed its contract to run the sludge and dry cake waste incinerator, which includes hauling in the material from neighboring communities. Veolia Water of North America, meanwhile, runs the city's wastewater and drinking water operations.

Gases, which until now, have escaped out the facility's towering smokestack, will soon be turned into electricity.

According to a report in The Woonsocket Call Saturday, the company has received its new waste heat boiler and has begun the work of connecting the equipment to existing machinery and electrical services. The project is expected to generate enough power to run the waste processor's operations, and cover a portion of the electrical needs at the nearby wastewater treatment plant.

But some residents feel that the company should hold off on waste burning, considering the current circumstances.

"The part has to be fabricated for that particular smokestack, but in the meantime, it's not like they've stopped burning," said environmental advocate and mayoral candidate David Fisher. "Given the situation, they should be trying to mitigate the danger. Instead, they make money, and here in Woonsocket we pay for it through quality of life."

At a meeting in 2011 where the company made their pitch for installing the new heat recovery system, a Synagro representative estimated that 10 percent of the material which is processed at the plant comes from Woonsocket with 90 percent coming in from outside the city.

"The big deal with the scrubber is not so much the odor, it's the fly ash," said Fisher. Scrubbers, he said, eliminate some of the carcinogens, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds that otherwise become airborne during the incineration process.

"It shows you the danger of privatization. Clean water, clean air and clean soil is part of the public trust and there's a real danger when you put any of that in the hands of a corporation," he said.

Kinder, however, said that the scrubber that has been an issue is a dewatering scrubber.

"It is merely there to clean air from an odor perspective," Kinder said. "There's no fly ash involved."

The company agreed to pay $750,000 in host fees as part of its new contract when the heat recovery system was approved last year, but Finance Director Thomas Bruce says he's not expecting to see that money anytime soon in light of the recent bankruptcy filing.

Synagro, he said, usually pays fees to the city in three installments over the course of the fiscal year, but nothing has been received in the current budget cycle. The full amount is due by June 30.

"It's my conservative estimate that we're not going to get it," he said.

That is not to say that the money is lost, however. According to a report by Reuters, the waste processor has an offer to be acquired by an affiliate of Swedish private-equity firm EQT. If that company moves to address the back debt, the bill for the Woonsocket facility would likely be near the top of the list.

"It's very important to them that we continue processing sludge and we're going to require that payment," said Bruce. "You have to consider the significance of that location, trucking in from other communities to incinerate."

At a bankruptcy auction scheduled for June 10, EQT is reportedly prepared to start the bidding with an offer of $460 million. Layoffs and facility closures are not expected.

While the city is not authorized to break the contract because of the upheaval, McGauvran emphasized that any purchaser would still be subject to state law and Department of Environmental Management regulations.

Asked if the change will disrupt the process at the Woonsocket plant, McGauvran could offer little assurance.

"We don't really know what to expect at this point," she said. "We have no idea how this transaction will affect their future operations here."

Synagro filed for Chapter 11 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del., and representatives have said they expect the sale to be completed in two to three months. Judge Brendan Shannon has been assigned to the case. In the meantime, city residents who want to report a problem are still instructed to call the Odor Hotline at 401-765-7623.

The Synagro plant on Cumberland Hill Road in Woonsocket as it appeared in 2008. (Valley Breeze photo by Bruce McCabe)
Three construction cranes, at the left of the photo, at work on the Synagro plant on Cumberland Hill Road in Woonsocket Monday.