Plans for a $45 million composting center to serve Hampton Roads have been nixed, and a popular lawn-and-garden product known as Nutri-Green, made locally from treated sewage, no longer will be sold after the end of the year.
The two surprise decisions by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District come as the public agency tries to contain costs amid more than $1 billion in planned sewer upgrades and pipeline repairs to improve environmental performance and meet stricter regulations.
Nutri-Green has been manufactured since the early 1980s and is one of HRSD's hallmarks, sold in colorful bags covered with flowers at garden stores across the region. But by ending its production after Dec. 31, the agency can save at least $600,000 a year, said Ted Henifin, HRSD's executive director.
"It was a tough decision," he said Wednesday. "But in the end, we have to watch our expenses more closely, especially with so much work ahead of us."
The proposed composting center in York County, planned for more than a decade, would have manufactured Nutri-Green as well as convert organic wastes from sewage plants into other reusable materials.
HRSD had been looking to build a new center since it closed its old one in Newport News in 1996. It already has spent some $4 million to design, acquire land for and engineer the York County project, which just months ago appeared primed for construction. Officials then described it as state-of-the-art, odor-free and a good environmental investment.
But a last-minute internal study showed that a private company, McGill, which operates a sprawling facility in Waverly, can make compost just as well and without a major public investment, Henifin said.
McGill officials had raised those same arguments more than a year ago, when HRSD was nearing the end of its studies, but they were largely rebuffed.
Under an existing contract, McGill makes Nutri-Green for HRSD today. But the agency serving 17 cities and counties in Hampton Roads can save more money by doing away with the product line and its distribution, Henifin said.
The decisions were made administratively and without a vote by HRSD's ruling board of commissioners. Henifin briefed the board about the changes late last month, but few outside the room knew of them.
Henifin said he wanted to keep the news quiet so as not to jolt local home-and-garden markets, and board meetings are rarely covered by local media.
Bob Broom, a senior administrator for McGill, said Wednesday he had heard rumors that plans for the York County facility had fallen through and that Nutri-Green would be phased out. He said it was "obviously good news" for his company, which is one of the few in southeastern Virginia that turns wastes into compost, a rich and brown recycled product that stabilizes soil and enhances its performance.
McGill has contracts with the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach to convert yard wastes into compost, and handles organic wastes for Wal-Mart, Anheuser-Busch and Birdsong Peanuts, among other clients.
HRSD and most municipalities are under state and federal orders to fix their old and leaky networks of sewage lines. During storms, the lines often become inundated with rainwater, causing backups and spills of raw sewage that can foul local waters.
In addition, to meet tougher environmental rules, HRSD must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus from its wastewater that are later discharged into rivers and creeks that feed the Chesapeake Bay.
The Bay suffers from too many of these nutrients, which can lead to algae blooms and dead zones.
HRSD intends to borrow $1.2 billion in bond money for the upgrade projects. It will be repaid through higher sewer fees.
EPA Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Strategy – http://www.epa.gov/oecaerth/civil/initiatives/chesapeakebay.html