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Compost pad draws blight concerns from potato industry

Posted on March 2, 2016 by Taber Times

By Trevor Busch
Taber Times

The Town of Taber has thrown open the doors for the development of a composting materials handling facility to coincide with the town’s cart-based solid waste initiative, but not all stakeholders are convinced concerns about the facility have been resolved.

Approved unanimously following a lengthy public hearing process and further council discussion at their Feb. 22 regular meeting, Development Permit 16-07 gives the go ahead for construction of a compost pad south of 80th Avenue, located roughly equidistant between 50th Street and Highway 36.

A rectangular clay-lined area spanning approximately five acres, the proposed compost pad will be ringed by a berm to control runoff, dust and litter, and a wind fence will be built at the base of the berm to collect waste debris. Trees are intended to be planted on top of the berm to enhance odour control.

During the public hearing, Terence Hochstein, executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta, expressed concerns over the development potentially infesting local potato crops with late blight.

“I have one question that I would like you to consider before you make your final decision. We had the opportunity as the processor and grower’s association to have a conversation with some of you. Has any consideration, or any thought, gone into the possibility of late blight (which) is a huge issue for the potato industry in this province. It’s one of the most devastating diseases there is in this industry. If the chance occurs that during that processing of your compost, it is shown there is the release of spores coming out of that — and the gentleman that presented that day didn’t have a definitive answer — at what responsibility, or liability, does that come back against the town, as being the possible source of an infestation downwind? It’s just something I think you need to consider before you make that decision.”

Late blight was responsible for the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, which resulted in the death and mass emigration of millions of Irish. The fungal pathogen, phytophthora infestans, belongs to a group of fungi called “water moulds”. It thrives and produces spores under a humid, moist environment and causes infection only when free water is present on plants.

The pathogen is highly aggressive and can potentially infect all plant parts, causing rapid die back and death. Different forms of the pathogen can easily travel by wind and rain, and it survives between crops and over winter on infected seed potatoes, cull potato piles, volunteer potatoes and diseased organic debris. Tomato plants can also be a source of late blight, which attacks both potato and tomato plants equally.

“I’m not saying that is the only possible source — we have it all over the country — but the industry is working very hard to eliminate or mitigate as many sources as possible,” said Hochstein.

On June 22, 2015, council passed Bylaw 11-2015 which rezoned a portion of 5190 80th Avenue (Block A1, Plan 7819AQ) and a portion of Block B1 Plan 7819AQ, to DC-3. Due to the nature of a Direct Control district, council is the only authority who may approve the development permit, and prior to making a decision on the permit a public hearing must be held.

Sec. 31 (Direct Control District DC-3) of Land-Use Bylaw 4-2006 requires council to hear any persons affected by development in that area.

Administration had received several items from Bio-Cycle Solutions for the Development Permit Application, including the completed application, a site plan, operations plan, and geotechnical study. The development will not initially be serviced with water and sanitary sewer, due to the expense.

In a Feb. 16 letter from the M.D. of Taber’s Subdivision and Development Authority, that body expressed continued reservations about the development of a compost site in close proximity to that municipality’s boundaries, requesting that “the development not create a nuisance to M.D. of Taber residents, including odour or blowing garbage” and that “the Town of Taber ensure that the facility is operated in accordance with the operating plan provided with the application, including protection of the water table”, as well as requesting that “comments from Alberta Transportation pertaining to the intersection of Highway 36 and 80th Avenue” be considered as part of the Town of Taber decision.

Potato growers in the gallery at the public hearing also questioned the potential presence of crushed or broken glass in finished compost material, which would make it an unattractive option for potato producers considering food safety regulations.

“If a potato grower doesn’t want our product, they don’t have to buy our product,” said Don Francis, CEO of Bio-Cycle Solutions. “We do sell some of our product to some potato growers — not that many. The majority of our product is sold to canola farmers, and folks across the prairies in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Our current product line is as clean as it’s ever been. The worst thing we can have in our industry is looking at a field and seeing a shiny reflection coming back at you.”

The composting pad will be designed to accommodate up to 20,000 incoming tonnes of compostable material capacity per annum, and will produce approximately 12,000 tonnes of high quality class ‘A’ compost finished product, following Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment Guidelines for compost quality.

The finished compost product will be marketed and delivered by Bio-Cycle through their fertilizer division to new and existing clients in the agricultural community.

“We think this facility is going to deliver a lot of benefits to the community,” continued Francis. “Number one diverting material from landfills is a good thing to do, sustainability, and hopefully adds to the Taber ‘brand’. You’re also going to save some money by not landfilling it. There’s economic benefit, too, in terms of revenue sharing, and providing some finished product for free to the community.”

Bio-Cycle will operate the organics pad, collecting a minimum of $30 per tonne on incoming acceptable organics wet waste material, regardless of source, while the Town of Taber will be charged $25 per tonne for incoming wet waste derived from their residential organics collection program.

Through utilizing aerated static pile (ASP) technology, Bio-Cycle contends the facility should have minimal odour concerns, as it will incorporate a secondary negative air bio-filter system, the material will be mixed for aeration the day it is received, while filtration systems and aeration tubes will add oxygen to prevent odour. The compost will spend four weeks in ASP, followed by 10 weeks of curing time.

“In a nutshell, blight and other micro-organisms cannot survive the processing heat that our piles are cooked at,” said Francis. “It’s impossible. But we can’t make any guarantee that a spore can’t live on the top of a pile and move around the atmosphere. That’s why we don’t guarantee we can avoid being a pathway for that material to move around the community. We tried to get that point across respectfully to the group (PGA), who were I think very paranoid — which is fair, that’s their livelihood.”

Taking aim at the concern of potato crops being infested with late blight, Coun. Joe Strojwas suggested that sometimes the farmer “is his own worst enemy”.

“I appreciate the potato growers here having concern for the industry. It affects all of us, there’s no two ways about it. This is a regulated process, where heat and everything is applied. There’s a lot of farmers out there that take cull potatoes and just spread them across their land, they’ll go over them with a harrow or till them in. So those spores can be created. The farmer is his own worst enemy is what I’m trying to say here, because it’s not put through a process where it’s composted or dug in. In a lot of cases they just dig a hole, bury them, and leave it like that.”

Addressing drainage concerns, Bio-Cycle indicated two underground leachate lines will run behind the ASP system and pick up leachate from aeration pipes, which will also help collect surface runoff from asphalt areas. Leachate from manholes will be recirculated back into the compost piles, and groundwater monitoring will be tested annually to ensure compliance.

Hours of operation will be established by the Town of Taber, but are typically Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Access will be controlled by a locked gate and scale house, while incoming traffic volumes are estimated at two to three loads per day. One to two loads are estimated to be outgoing on a daily basis.

The site will be enclosed by a chain-link wind fence, and the tipping area will be secured to keep out pests and animals. All incoming haulers must be pre-approved, and show their identification.

Francis was dismissive of any potential liability concerns for the town involving the facility and cross-contamination of potato crops with organic disease such as late blight.

“I have a hard time understanding how an outbreak of blight down the road could possibly be somehow tracked back to our compost pad, unless that grower bought compost from our site, and it was tested and it showed that it had blight in it. I just don’t see it. If the Taber community doesn’t want us to take certain materials that they’re concerned about, that’s no problem. My point is, I don’t see how that could be proven. I’m not trying to take the ‘fifth’ here, but it’s difficult for me to comprehend how that could happen.”

Incoming materials will come from Town of Taber residential, commercial, and industrial wet waste generators, while it is intended that additional materials will be incoming from surrounding communities in southern Alberta. a portion of compost will be available for town operations and residents for local use.

Feedstock to be received for composting includes food waste from grocers, food processors, and residential; grass clippings; yard waste; biosolids (dewatered sludge); animal manures; woodchips; and drywall.

“I have full confidence in the process here,” concluded Coun. Randy Sparks. “The Town of Taber needs this facility. These individuals from Bio-Cycle are going to make sure that they do the best they possibly can to ensure that there’s no issues of any kind. I support them, and we need to pass this and carry on.”

Bio-Cycle Solution’s composting materials handling facility is expected to be fully operational by late spring 2016.

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