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Published: Wednesday, 10/12/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Council debates sewage plan

Collins voices concern over sludge treatment safety

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Aliens, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster were all a part of a furious debate yesterday among members of Toledo City Council over the safety of the city's plans for its sewage sludge.

The Bell administration has urged council to award a contract to S&L Fertilizer, a company that takes pathogen-containing sludge from the city's wastewater treatment plant to a confined facility next to Maumee Bay. The contract would place the entire responsibility for handling the city's sewage sludge on S&L, an endeavor it has shared with another company, N-Viro, for the past few years.

Under the new contract, S&L would be taking about 50,000 tons of sludge a year to the facility, partly owned by the Lucas County Port Authority. S&L mixes the sludge -- which contains pathogens such as E. coli and algae-feeding phosphorus -- with contaminated dredgings from the Maumee River and Maumee Bay shipping channels. Some of the mixture is then used as cover for the city's landfill.

Councilman D. Michael Collins has objected strongly to the plan, fearing contaminants from the sludge could be leaking into the lake. Officials from N-Viro, which stands to lose almost $1 million a year if the city contracts only with S&L, has voiced similar concerns.

At a council hearing yesterday to address those worries, officials from the Lucas County Port Authority, the city's public utilities department, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the facility and still owns a part of it, offered multiple assurances that S&L's activities are safe. They said the facility -- known as Facility 3 -- is built to contain dangerous substances, and several tests and inspections of the water around it show no evidence of leaks.

But Mr. Collins said he would not be convinced until mud samples from the facility are tested for pathogens. Questioning Mike Pniewski, a corps of engineers representative, and Toledo's Public Utilities Director David Welch, he asked for scientific certainty that no leakage of pathogens or phosphorus had occurred. When the officials could not answer definitively, Mr. Collins insisted the city sponsor third-party testing of the mud.

"What is the harm in testing the soil … so that when we make this decision we make it with the best available scientific evidence?" Mr. Collins asked. "All I'm saying is: Test the dirt."

That prompted a frustrated barrage of questions from Councilman Joe McNamara, who asked the gathered officials if there is scientific certainty that aliens, UFOs, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster don't exist. The tests already conducted around Facility 3 are as much as can be done at this time to show nothing harmful is leaking, he said.

"It's probably impossible to prove. There's many things out there that we just don't know," Mr. McNamara said. "What we need to do is take the best science we have, the best evidence we have and evaluate it."

Councilman Steven Steel, a former environmental studies teacher at Bowling Green State University, said testing the facility's mud would not prove anything. Even if mud next to the water tested positive for contaminants, there would be no way of knowing whether the substances came from the facility or from the water itself. Phosphorus and pathogens frequently enter the lake from other sources, he said.

Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat called on council to vote on the S&L contract promptly during their council meeting next Tuesday to avoid further delay.

Also yesterday, council voted 11-0 to approve another contract, this one with the city's largest union, AFSCME Local 7. The contract would increase medical-benefit and pension costs and freeze wages for almost 800 city workers over the next two years.

Councilman Paula Hicks-Hudson was the only council member absent for the special meeting.

A vote by union members is expected this afternoon. AFSCME representative Steve Kowalik said he would not comment until after the vote.

The three-year pact would save the city about $3 million in pension and medical-benefit expenses between now and the end of the contract on June 30, 2014.

The deal follows negotiations between the union and the city at the end of last month. City council had ordered the negotiations after both sides hit a wall and the Bell administration attempted to impose cuts that were opposed by union members.

"I think the vote was highly appropriate based on the request made by the city council and us being able to follow through," Mayor Mike Bell said yesterday. "It gives us a sense of direction. We still have structural issues within our city, and this is a good start in being able to address those issues."

Mr. McNamara was the only councilman yesterday to oppose an immediate vote, saying he would prefer that AFSCME members vote first. However in the end he voted for the contract.

"At the end of the day it's really not a big deal. I just wanted to give the union a chance to vote first since that's the normal procedure," he said.

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.



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