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Philadelphia moves to privatize sludge treatment operations
Union presents cheaper alternative

By Mark McDonald

Responding to changes in technology and warnings that the city is violating its own air-quality laws, the Street administration is proposing to privatize the water department's biosolids recycling center in southwest Philadelphia.

If Street convinces City Council to approve the contracts, the privatization will be the city's first major outsourcing in a decade.

The city wants to sign a long-term agreement with Synagro, a Houston-based company that operates in 23 states, to build a $66 million plant on the city's current biosolids operation on Penrose Avenue near the airport.

For the roughly 100 city employees who treat and compost the sludge into a dry substance that is either landfilled or turned into a compost known as "EarthMate," the city will offer jobs elsewhere in the government. Or, they can apply for jobs with the company.

"This proposal is in no way a reflection on the performance of union employees," said Water Commissioner Bernard Brunwasser, "but rather environmental issues and real changes in the technology of biosolids handling."

Joyce Wilkerson, Mayor Street's chief of staff, said, "There is going to be change. We are looking at these huge EPA fines and extraordinarily expensive alternatives if we don't pursue this. We think that people understand the need for change and want to be a part of it."

But Herman "Pete" Matthews, president of AFSCME District Council 33, said he will ask City Council to hold the proposed contracts until the union can mount its own counter-offer. The bills were introduced Feb. 16 by Majority Leader Jannie Blackwell on behalf of the administration.

"I think we can do it cheaper down there and we want a hold on those bills until Council can hear our position," Matthews said. For him, Street's plan is déjÀ vu.

In the early '90s, the Rendell administration was on a privatization tear. Matthews, then the head of Local 394, which represents the blue-collar sewer and water-treatment workers, successfully countered an administration privatization plan with a union plan that saved millions of dollars and the jobs of about two-thirds of the workforce.

Brunwaser conceded that the union plan saved money, delayed water rate hikes and improved the air quality, but this time the city has run into an environmental wall.

He said his department has roughly 300 vacant jobs, more than enough to accommodate the displaced biosolids workers.

The city spends about $22 million a year to treat and dispose of the sludge. "In the initial period, the contract is for $20 million annually. And in each year, the proposal is less than the projected cost of staying with the current system," he said. The contract has a three- to five-year interim period, a 20-year basic term and a five-year option, he said.

Compared to the late '80s when the sludge stench traveled far and wide from the treatment plant in southwest Philadelphia, these days the odors wafting onto I-95 and the Platt Bridge from the city's Biosolids Recycling Center are relatively mild, he said.

But the open-air composting, which employs about half the workforce, must end, Brunwasser said, because of air quality issues.

The city annually produces about 200,000 tons of biosolids from its three sewage treatment plants. Brunwasser said about 60,000 tons are composted and considered Class A or mostly pathogen free.

Of the remaining 140,000 tons, 60,000 tons go to Pennsylvania and Maryland farms, 20,000 tons are dumped in mine reclamation sites and 60,000 tons go to landfills, he said.

Facing the need to landfill the 60,000 tons that are composted, an increasingly expensive and environmentally-challenged alternative, Brunwasser said the city in 2002 decided to find a company that could finance, build and operate a thermal drying, enclosed composting operation. Part of the deal would be to remove the city completely from the disposal business.

If City Council approves the contracts, Synagro, which is in a joint venture with McKissack & McKissack and Len Parker & Associates, will operate the current center on an interim basis while it builds its new facility.

The plant, which will be owned by the company, will take up about half of the 72-acre site, freeing up the rest of the land for new uses. The city will continue to own the land under the plant.