Trakas raises stink over sewage plants
Upgrades too costly, could pose health or environmental risks, councilman fears
ST. LOUIS — The region's sewer utility aims to begin construction later this year on an almost $1 billion upgrade to its two treatment plants that burn human waste.
But a St. Louis County councilman on Thursday voiced his concerns about the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District project and vowed to be a thorn in the utility's side, closely examining the long-planned work and even pushing for last-minute alternatives.
"I'm going to be all over it," said Councilman Ernie Trakas, a Republican from unincorporated South County. "They'll get, from me, incessant scrutiny."
Bess McCoy, a spokeswoman for MSD, said she was "mystified" by Trakas' complaints and believes he "just has a lot of misunderstanding about we're doing."
The sudden dispute surrounds MSD's decades-long practice of incinerating leftover solid waste that settles out of wastewater it treats. The utility burns the waste in order to reduce the volume of the material — and the truckloads needed to move it — as well as to create a sterile, safer byproduct.
After years of planning, MSD is set to equip its Bissell Point and Lemay wastewater treatment plants with new incinerators — an investment intended to make the process cleaner and more efficient. The two plants, along north St. Louis' industrial riverfront and in South County, respectively, burn their own leftover waste plus what is trucked in from the utility's other plants in the region.
But Trakas, whose district includes the Lemay facility, listed several concerns in a Thursday news release and interview — ranging from the rising estimated costs of the upcoming project, to worries about odor and air quality, even though the upgrades are expected to significantly decrease emissions from the existing incinerators.
Costs of the project — with an estimated $900 million price tag — were a primary focus of his.
"I think it's ambitious to think that the figures they put together are accurate," Trakas said. "They are at least worthy of scrutiny and questioning."
Trakas said he also wants to know more about environmental and health impacts linked to the incineration activities. He argued that alternative approaches for managing the waste should be explored, even though MSD has already picked a design and construction team and plans to start building in the coming months.
"I don't think this is a done deal," said Trakas.
He said he hopes that MSD "will delay or cancel" the project, according to his news release. Otherwise, he warned, "I will do everything in my power, including explore my influence on MSD board appointments and legal options, to prevent this catastrophe from costing taxpayers."
But MSD said the facts contradict Trakas' claims. McCoy, the spokesperson, said that the utility's plans to install more efficient incinerators, for instance, will not change the volume of waste that is treated, and that the upgrades will decrease — not increase — emissions from the activity, by 70%. "I find it hard to believe that he
would not support cleaner air for his constituents," she said. "(The new incinerators) are just going to make sure that the waste that is created gets treated ... which is something I think we all want."
MSD is pursuing the upgrade because the plants' current incinerators are more than 50 years old — and employ technology that's about a century old.
The system has aged to a point where the utility says it is no longer allowed to continue maintaining the incinerators, and must modernize them in order to comply with environmental regulations.
Converting from the multiple hearth incinerators to fluidized bed incinerators reduces the need for added fuel, even while burning the waste at higher temperatures, McCoy said.
"It essentially is fueled off of the waste," she said. "That higher temperature breaks down the product a lot better."
McCoy said incineration is a common method of solid waste treatment used in other cities, beyond St. Louis. She said that odor complaints don't typically stem from the practice and are more commonly tied to other aspects of wastewater treatment.
Years ago, the project initially had a cost estimate of $575 million, before forces like inflation drove up the cost, McCoy said. MSD hopes, however, that the price tag might fall short of that as inflation cools.
McCoy said Trakas' statements run counter to a list of endorsements and support from entities like the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the local chapter of the NAACP, Greater St. Louis Inc. and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page.
MSD wants to — and has tried — speaking with Trakas recently but to no avail, McCoy said.
Trakas told the Post-Dispatch on Thursday that a conversation between the two "is going to be had now." Bryce Gray • 314-340-8307 @_BryceGray on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org