Montague wastewater treatment plant bacteria eat waste, save money

  • Interim Supervisor Grant Weaver at the Montague Waste Water Treatment Plant along the Connecticut River in Montague. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Operator Tim Little lubricates an old piston pump moving fluids at the Montague Waste Water Treatment Plant along the Connecticut River in Montague. Recorder Staff/Paul FranZ

  • Operator Tim Little lubricates an old piston pump moving fluids at the Montague Waste Water Treatment Plant along the Connecticut River in Montague. Recorder Staff/Paul FranZ

  • Interim Supervisor Grant Weaver at the Montague Waste Water Treatment Plant along the Connecticut River in Montague. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/8/2016 10:58:42 PM

MONTAGUE CITY — The “bugs” eat the waste in the wastewater here, day in and day out.

And while they’re at it, they chomp up a good share of Montague’s wastewater treatment plant expenses as well.

The plant’s unique system of getting rid of its sludge has worked so well, in fact, that 24 sewage plants around the region have been sharing in the savings, too. At least until recently.

“It’s truly unique,” says Grant Weaver, the plant’s interim superintendent. “Nobody in a small town probably anywhere in the world would think their town would be on the cutting edge. But in this weird niche, Montague is.”

That “niche” is in training its treatment-plant bacteria to feed not only on sewage, but the residue sludge as well. It’s an idea spawned by a visit to Germany by plant operator John Little about six years ago.

While there, he visited a sewage treatment plant on a military base, and started thinking about ways to make the bacteria adapt by cutting down on their oxygen.

He began tinkering with the operation in Montague and gradually got the plant working so that instead of shipping its sludge byproduct offsite to be incinerated, at annual costs of up to $350,000, its bacteria were able to essentially make it disappear.

“It’s just amazing. Unbelievable. We let nature do its job,” said Little. “I thought it was nonsense to do what we were doing. Over the last three years, we haven’t shipped anything out. And we started getting better and better at it. ”

So good, in fact, that 26 wastewater plants around the county began sending their sludge to the little treatment plant that could.

“This plant, instead of trucking out waste sludge and paying out something in the order of a quarter of a million dollars a year to run the equipment, and taking it to other places, stopped that and started generating revenue on order of a half-million dollars by trucking it in from other towns,” says Weaver. “That was great for Montague, but even more significantly … pretty much every other wastewater treatment plant was bringing its waste sludge here, saving huge transportation expenses” instead of paying to haul it to one of the half-dozen incinerators in places like Millbury, or Cranston or Woonsocket, R.I. “It cut their costs in half because of transportation.”

Here’s how it works.

The Greenfield Road plant, which runs at only about half its capacity of 1.8 million gallons of liquid waste a year, runs at maybe five times the concentration of bacteria as a typical plant, according to Weaver.

Also, dumping sludge into the front end of its system, the plant continually moves waste through various tanks: “a highly oxygenated zone ... and zones with zero oxygen, anaerobic zones,” he explains. “By doing that, we’ve created an environment that’s proven it can break down the sludge, to everybody’s benefit. It’s evolved over five years, and in the last three years, it’s gotten to a really good point.”

Weaver, who’s worked on and off as a Connecticut-based consultant to Montague for the past five years, added, “There’s nobody in the country, nobody in the world that we know of, that’s doing this, that trucks in other people’s sludge, dumps it in the liquid stream and doesn’t truck anything out. There are perhaps a dozen in the country we know of that hardly ever truck sludge out of their facilities.”

Yet, in the aftermath of an overflow at the plant in January, followed by a consent order from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and retirement of the plant’s superintendent in June, changes are in the wind, according to Montague Town Administrator Frank Abbondanzio.

“We’re kind of at a crossroads here,” he said, as DEP has called for “technical and scientific research to define exactly what’s going on in this (sludge-eating) process. Even though he said the overflow violation of its operating permit was “not related to the process,” the town is being required to take the pilot program “to the next level.”

Meanwhile, while Montague has not been shipping out its own plant’s sludge, in May it turned off the program of accepting sludge from other plants, to the frustration of neighboring towns, which Abbondanzio said are in “a desperate situation.”

That’s doubled sludge hauling costs for surrounding towns, according to Jan Ameen, executive director of the Franklin County Solid Waste District, which contracts for many of those towns.

“Montague was the regional solution for about four years,” she said.

Greenfield’s wastewater plant has been forced to ship its four 9,000-gallon weekly loads of sludge to Cranston, R.I., according to Superintendent Mark Holley.

“We much prefer Montague’s method,” he said. “It’s more ecologically sound.”

Abbondanzio said he has begun discussions with DEP and area legislators about the need to provide funding for the research, and down the road, to pay for capital improvements to make its process work better. It’s also in the process of hiring a new plant superintendent, hoping to find someone who is on board with its approach.

Even though the Montague plant operates at half its design capacity by volume, says Weaver, with thousands of gallons of sludge added, the concentration of suspended solids and the organic richness of the material could be overloading the system.

“That makes regulators nervous. And it would make any operator nervous,” explains Weaver, who backs the plant’s unique approach but says that the way it’s been run, with staff manually adjusting flow levels even though no one is certain exactly why the system is working as well as it does, “They’re out on edge” in an industry that’s typically very conservative. “They’re grossly overloaded by traditional design criteria. … That requires a tremendous amount of staff attention.”

He guessed that it might cost about $10 million to automate the process, along with installing a new 100,000-gallon tank that can accommodate up to 10 overnight and weekend sludge deliveries, rather than the “jerryrigged” setup that’s been in place, plus new filters to keep out debris.

The town is hoping to convince DEP that it needs to look at the bigger picture, which Weaver says could intensify over the next 12 to 18 months as the half-dozen sludge incinerators try to comply with tighter federal emission standards, or simply give up.

“DEP is expecting us to go to the next level,” said Abbondanzio, who plans to retire at the end of the year. “They need to step up to the plate.”

Ameen agrees.

“It seems with DEP that there’s a disconnect with how serious it is,” she says. “There are a limited number of outlets. How few can you go to before it gets backed up?”

You can reach Richie Davis at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269


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