In the City of Bellingham, the wastewater produced by more than 90,000 people is treated at the Post Point Wastewater Treatment plant located in Fairhaven along the coastline of Bellingham Bay and the Salish Sea. This sewage water contains human waste, along with everything else we flush down our drains, including soaps, cleaners, pharmaceuticals, and more – a cocktail of nutrients and toxic chemicals. Post Point, which first began operations in 1974, currently uses incinerators to burn sewage sludge derived when water is separated from solids in the treatment process. These incinerators are at risk of failure due to age and years of deferred maintenance. They also spew climate pollution into the air as a byproduct. It’s clear that some course of action is needed to ensure effective, continued wastewater treatment for a growing population while also addressing three core community concerns: cost, climate and contaminants.
The decision at hand
For the past several years, the City has been focused on a technology called anaerobic digestion as a replacement for the incineration process. Anaerobic digesters rely on bacteria to break down sewage sludge into a dense, compost-like byproduct known as biosolids. In some instances, biosolids are sold and used as fertilizer for croplands, parks and gardens. Unfortunately, anaerobic digestion does not break down toxic contaminants we know are present in our city’s wastewater, including Contaminants of Emerging Concern like plastics, fire retardants, PFAS (Per- and PolyFluoroAlkyl substances) and PCB’s (PolyChlorinated Biphenyls).
RE Sources’ primary concern is making sure we never spread biosolids containing toxic forever chemicals on lands in our region or beyond. We can’t afford to take such a risk when it comes to protecting our soils, local food systems, groundwater, waterways and community health. Just this year, Maine passed legislation prohibiting the land application of biosolids known to contain PFAS in the wake of widespread cropland contamination and poisoned well water on farms in the state.
In addition to toxic contaminants in the sludge produced at wastewater treatment plants, we also need to address nutrient contamination related to the discharge of water from the treatment plant into the Salish Sea. RE Sources supported strengthening the Department of Ecology’s permit requirements for wastewater treatment plants, as they are a significant source of nutrient pollution threatening our vital and unique Salish Sea ecosystems.
New developments and a future-facing solution
In late summer 2022, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood requested a pause on the City’s plan to move forward with an anaerobic digestion upgrade at Post Point, citing cost estimates that have ballooned from $200 million to potentially $1 billion thanks to inflation and other factors. The Mayor asked Bellingham City Council to consider a revised approach of making repairs needed to keep the wastewater treatment plants current incinerators in operation.
RE Sources supports the proposed approach of pausing the anaerobic digestion plan and making short-term fixes to the incinerators, AND we encourage the City to take this opportunity to consider additional options. Instead of relying solely on Band-Aid solutions in patching the incinerators (which does not further our City’s greenhouse reduction goals), we urge the City to:
- Consider all available options, including thermal processes such as gasification and pyrolysis, with the help of a new third-party consultant.
- Solicit input from the public on how to best move forward (funds are already allocated for outreach).
- Ask the state legislature to secure funding for this project to reduce the burden on taxpayers and help us serve as a model for other cities to follow.
Unlike anaerobic digestion, thermal processes like gasification can break down the strong chemical bonds in persistent toxic chemicals. Additionally, the process generates useful byproducts including syn-gas, which can be used on-site to power the plant’s operations, and biochar. This material is far drier and lighter than biosolids, so in addition to being safer, it’s also cheaper to transport and use as a soil amendment.
Anaerobic digestion is currently a more broadly adopted method for processing sewage sludge, but emerging science around the health impacts of PFAS chemicals and soil contamination means plants around the country using this technology may soon have few safe or affordable options for responsibly disposing of biosolids. Moreover, there are inherent equity issues when a community generates toxic waste that it needs to dispose of in other communities, often poorer ones with less recourse to refuse it. It’s a costly headache and toxic burden that Bellingham could leap-frog by investing in thermal processing, either in place of, or in tandem with, the current incineration system.
It’s your future
We as a community have an important decision to make when it comes to investing in wastewater treatment infrastructure that will balance considerations of cost, contaminants, and climate.