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Perham incinerator improvement plans may change

Appropriately, it was on Earth Day, April 22, that one of Otter Tail County's most pressing environmental issues moved closer to a resolution.

Disposal of more than 30,000 tons of garbage annually at the Perham incineration facility will be cleaner and more efficient, if officials from the city and the county continue down the new path which was mapped out at an April 22 meeting.

It was described as one of the most positive meetings of the past two years, which is how long officials have been debating the future of the Perham Resource Recovery Facility.

Instead of a near-$10 million expansion, officials from the city and Otter Tail, Wadena and Todd Counties are considering adding a Mechanical Recovery Facility (known as MERF), at half the price.

At an estimate of $4 to $5 million, the MERF would be an attached facility with sophisticated technology to sort steel, aluminum and other recyclables from garbage. From the MERF, the solid waste is then ready for burning in the attached incineration facility.

Though the MERF does not increase the capacity to the extent the original expansion project would have, the sorting technology should increase capacity enough to service Becker County's estimated 7,200 to 9,000 tons a year, according to Mike Hanan, Otter Tail County Solid Waste director.

Another benefit to the MERF, said Hanan, is that the mechanical sorting of the solid waste will help improve emissions from the incinerator. The Perham plant has, on occasion, failed the Minnesota Pollution Agency's emissions tests. By removing discarded items that shouldn't go through the burner, the MERF will reduce the level of toxicity in the emissions, said Hanan.

The primary "down side" to the MERF is the fact that it will not generate the quantity of steam desired by Bongard's Creameries. The Resource Recovery Facility generates steam from the incinerator, which is in turn sold as energy to Bongard's and Tuffy's pet foods. Bongard's, the largest contract, has paid from $1.5 to $3 million annually for the steam--a major revenue source.

The original expansion plan would have nearly doubled the capacity of the incineration facility, which would generate enough steam to lock Bongard's into a longer term contract, noted Hanan. Presently, the Bongard's contract is year-to-year--in part because the incinerator capacity is not enough to meet their potential demand.

Despite the drawback with Bongard's, the concept of spending $4-$5 million for the MERF, as opposed to nearly $10 million for a full expansion, is an idea that might finally gain concensus with the governing body.

With the MERF, it would improve efficiencies enough to seek out a contract with the Becker County solid waste department--and perhaps even Hubbard County. The Perham RRF will lose one of its customers this year, as Stearns County will discontinue its contract and will be sending most of its garbage elsewhere

Perham and county officials have engaged in sometimes-heated debate over the expansion, the governing structure and operations for more than two years.

The MPCA has a grant approved for the original expansion plan, but officials will be investigating to see if the $2.9 million grant could also be applied to a MERF.

When he was leaving the April 22 meeting, Perham RRF plant manager Brian Schmidt said he approved of proceeding in a new direction, with the MERF.

"If you would have asked everybody at the plant three years ago what they wanted, they would have told you a MERF," said Schmidt.