A state-of-the-art sludge-processing facility that has been touted as the answer to the area's solid-waste recycling needs officially opened Wednesday, ending a 10-year effort to make the project a reality.
Throughout the morning, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District officials led visiting dignitaries on tours of the district's $50-million facility, which turns sludge into fertilizer that is safe to use on gardens.
"This is probably a prime example of how well this technology can work," said keynote speaker Alan Rubin, senior scientist of the Water Environment Federation.
"Not only does it turn out a product that meets all the federal and state requirements," he added, "but it's also a facility that protects the public interest."
The Rancho Las Virgenes Composting Facility, 3700 Las Virgenes Road, is one of the first in the nation to recycle nearly all of the water and solids from the sludge it collects, according to district officials.
The plan is to give the fertilizer to Kellogg Supply Inc., a Carson firm that sells various kinds of fertilizer, district officials say. The district's customers will get for free any fertilizer Kellogg does not use.
The facility works like this: Sewer solids are brought by pipe from the Tapia Water Reclamation Facility about two miles away. The sludge is kept in tanks for about two months to allow microscopic bugs to feed on harmful bacteria.
The sludge is then spun dry and pushed by conveyor belt to another building, where it's mixed with sawdust and baked for another month. The entire facility is enclosed to keep foul odors from escaping.
The project has not been without critics. Tad Mattock, director of the Camarillo-based Camrosa Water District, said that, while recycling sludge is "a great idea," the facility is not self-supporting because the fertilizer is being given away.
A. MacNeil Stelle, vice president of the water district's board of directors, said the project "was never intended to make money."
District officials decided to take financial risks to build the facility, he said, because they were afraid there would be no place to put sludge in future years.
"Our alternative was to put the sludge in the landfill," Stelle said. "I know this was risky, but when you have no alternative, you have to assume the risk."
Another critic, Diane Eaton, who is running for a Division 2 spot on the board of directors, says water district customers will have to shoulder the burden of paying for the facility. She noted that the district's board of directors voted Monday to increase rates for customers by an average of 7%, which she says will go to pay off a $60-million loan taken out by the district in 1991.
It will be some time before the facility will be able to accept green waste such as grass and leaves, something Calabasas officials had been hoping the facility would be able to do. This would help the city comply with a state law that requires the city to reduce the amount of solid waste that it takes to landfills by 25% in 1995 and 50% by 2000.
Calabasas Councilwoman Lesley Devine said she was a little disappointed that the facility is not accepting green waste. "But I guess it appears that, technically, there is not much choice."