Stamford's failed attempt at energy innovation cost taxpayers tens of millions

Stamford's Sewage Woes, Part II

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A view of Stamford's sewer treatment plant.
Tim Coffey
Problems at Stamford's sewer treatment plant, Part II
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Problems at Stamford's sewer treatment plant, Part II

Many of Connecticut's sewer treatment plants are in need of upgrades because of aging infrastructure.  But in the city of Stamford, some observers are blaming an ambitious "waste to energy" plan for taking the city's focus away from needed upgrades. In part 2 of a series about problems with Stamford’s sewer treatment plant,

Connecticuthas a history with "trash to energy." A large plant in Hartford collects garbage from more than 50 towns and burns it to help supply power and keep trash out of landfills.  But that kind of trash burning is relatively simple compared to the "Stamford Biogas" plan. Starting in the late 90s the administration of then-mayor Dan Malloy spent years and millions of dollars on an innovative technique that dries the solid sludge from wastewater to make little pellets. Those pellets could then be burned to generate electricity, in a project known as Stamford Biogas or Waste-to-Energy.

Louis Casale was on the board of of the Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority, or WPCA, for a decade.

“It was the answer to our sludge problems. We’re going to make the pellets. We’re going to burn the pellets. We’re going to use the energy to run the plant. And, it was a win-win situation," he recalls.

But the engineer in charge of sewage treatment in Stamford - Prakash Chakravarti - was skeptical.

“You can get energy out of anything. Any organic matter. But what it takes to get that energy out and how much energy you put into it…was not worth it," Chakravarti says.

For instance, in that "trash to energy" plant run by the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority in Hartford - the garbage being burned is relatively dry. But the process of drying out wet, murky sewage sludge takes lots of energy.  And it was never clear how much energy burning the pellets would actually generate.  Figures ranged from 15-20 megawatts - enough to power several thousand homes - to about 1-2 megawatts - just enough to run the plant itself. 

That didn't stop Stamford WPCA’s director, Jeanette Brown.  This project was supposed to be her crowning achievement, after decades at the agency.

 “It was her baby, and she did everything," Chakravarti remembers.

Chakravarti, and members of the WPCA board say they weren't really involved or informed about the Waste-to-Energy project.  They say it was driven mostly by Malloy, Brown, and Ben Barnes, the city's director of Operations, who now serves as the state’s budget czar.  In an interview, Barnes defended the project, saying "Shame on us if we can't innovate and find ways to do things better."  The city got senators Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd to earmark millions for the project.  And Barnes still insists it could have cemented Stamford’s reputation as a cutting-edge city.  

But cutting edge can also mean high costs.  Estimates for the project were as high as $60 million if completed....and at least $20 million has already been spent.  

"During the campaign, that waste-to-energy plant at the water pollution control authority became the poster child for spending that shouldn't be happening," says Stamford's current mayor Michael Pavia, who was campaigning for the job when controversy over the Waste-to-Energy project really peaked.

Pavia characterizes the public’s view this way: "Why are we spending money on an experimental facility? Why not let somebody else do the experimentation and if it works, then we’ll import the technology?”

Two independent consulting firms were paid tens of thousands of dollars to evaluate the project. Both said it was technically feasible but not economically smart. By mid-2010, Waste-to-Energy was dead. Barnes and Brown both say the failure was because of what they called "static thinking" in Pavia’s new Republican administration.

But many others said good riddance.

“Maybe the engineering staff were looking at all this stuff and instead of looking at it from a practical perspective, they were thinking, wow this is cool. This is really neat," says Mitch Kaufman, who sits on the WPCA’s board and Stamford’s Board of Representatives.

"I think staff kind of got misdirected, and people weren't really looking at what our primary function and purpose was.”

That is -- to treat waste water.  That "misdirection" has been blamed for the chronic problems with infrastructure at the plant. 

Although former director Jeanette Brown - who wouldn't speak to us on tape - has resigned, and the "Stamford Biogas" plan is dead, the city of Stamford is still paying for it.

Remember the piece of equipment that dries the sludge...called the pelletizer? Well, the city bonded $17 million to build the drier and is still paying interest. Officials and residents are now debating whether it makes sense to keep using it – after all, all they’re doing is creating pellets that can’t really be used for anything in the state.  They might save some money by shutting it down. But as Mitch Kaufman points out,

“You know, we bonded the money, so we’re paying interest on it. WE’re still going to pay interest on it, whether it’s running or not.

So what happens to all those hundreds of tons of waste pellets?  They can't be conventionally burned...and farmers in Connecticut aren't allowed to use them for fertilizer.  So they're being given away to farmers in New York to use in their fields.

Read more in the Connecticut Mirror here.