In a deal city officials say will solve Baltimore's sludge problems for years, the Board of Estimates has agreed to pay two firms about $320 million to convert wet, smelly sewage sludge into neat little pellets.
The agreement, approved yesterday, gives city officials an answer to a malodorous sludge problem that has hung over the city-owned Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County for years.
The answer city officials are touting is to superheat the sludge and convert it into pellets that can be sold as fuel, fertilizer or even material for road construction.
The contract approved by the board is the largest awarded in the city in years, according to Public Works Director George G. Balog. The firms that won the contract are Bio Gro/Clay Joint Venture, which includes a black businessman, Robert Clay, and Enviro-Gro Technologies.
Each company plans to construct a $33 million plant on leased land at the Back River plant. The plants probably will be financed with state bonds.
Both firms have agreed to grant 35 percent shares of the construction projects to firms owned by minorities and women. They also have promised to build a training partnership with Morgan State University's engineering school to help provide technical staff for the processing plants.
Once the processing plants are operational -- which officials say will occur within three years -- sludge will be pumped through pipes directly to the processing plant to be superheated and converted into pellets. The heating, and keeping the process completely indoors, should eliminate odor problems around the plant, officials said.
"I think this achieves a number of very important policy goals," commented Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "The things we are currently doing are things we cannot rely on in the future. States will increasingly be closing their borders to transportation of sludge from other states. We are going to have to take care of our own sludge."
"We really are leading the way with this," he said. "Big cities around the country will be following us."
Currently, the city trucks about 75 percent of its sewage sludge out of state, where it is often spread on landfills or farmland. That costs some $11 million a year. The remaining sludge is turned into compost at the city's Quarantine Road Landfill. But that disposal method has run into problems, which prompted the contractor to request changes in the deal.
The city has had other difficulty in disposing of sewage sludge. In 1988, the notorious "poo-poo choo-choo" -- 61 open rail cars of sludge from Back River -- rolled through several states in an unsuccessful search for a dump site before it was forced to return to Baltimore.
The problems with sludge odor at the plant date to the 1960s, even though the city has invested more than $400 million in the facility since 1969. Some 600 tons of sludge are produced daily at the Back River plant from wastewater that is piped there from the city and county.
The plants to be built at Back River each employ a different method for drying the sludge. Once they are in operation, the city will be able to see which is more efficient, Schmoke said.
The composting operation will continue.