SHIRLEY -- Thanks to an environmentally friendly organic waste disposal facility similar to one currently being considered for state prison grounds at MCI Shirley, a large farm in Rutland that once stored its animal manure in an open-air lagoon can now contain and "digest" the smelly stuff indoors instead.

In simple terms, the "digestive" operation the selectmen heard about Monday night involves combining the manure with other, organic waste materials in an enclosed structure that resembles a squat silo and functions like a giant compost bin with side benefits.

Utilizing a process called anaerobic digestion, the facility produces methane gas and turns it into energy. Besides generating power as a byproduct or the waste disposal operation, liquid effluent can be used to create fertilizer for the farm's fields.

According to Gregory Cooper of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, who presented a visionary view of the proposed MCI project, facilities like the one in Rutland are being built across the state, with more on the drawing board and win/win benefits for all. Deer Island houses the biggest operation to date, he said.

As Cooper explained the program, the state is proactive about its plans and has lined up a series of steps to reach its goals, such as making regulatory changes to remove siting hurdles and banning organics disposal by institutions and other large producers of organic waste, including hospitals, hotels and restaurants.


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The idea is to cut the amount of solid waste disposed of in the state each year, Cooper said, which is 5 million tons now. Twenty-five percent of that whopping total is organic material; that is, food and yard waste that could instead be "diverted" and ultimately converted to other uses. Energy, for example.

In addition to the 100,000 tons of organic material that is diverted now, the goal is to add 350,000 more tons by the year 2020, Cooper said, increasing energy production from aerobic and anaerobic digestion to 50 megawatts. To that end, the state aims to initiate three anaerobic digestion projects by the end of 2014.

It's all part of the governor's efforts to promote alternative "clean energy," Cooper continued, adding that the Department of Corrections supports the proposed MCI project.

The facility would be built and operated by a private contractor. It would be sited in a wooded area on MCI Shirley grounds, located in the town of Shirley but on state land and geographically closer to Lancaster.

The facility could provide heat and light for the prison via the digestion of on-site organic waste, with more trucked in from elsewhere.

According to the DEP, this is a "proven technology," laid out in the presentation in some detail. Touted benefits include local perks such as providing a place to dispose of organic materials collected in town and from businesses. It would also generate local revenues from permit fees and taxes.

But even those who are all fired up about the idea recognize there might be concerns. Which is why Cooper and DEP's Catherine Finneran are making the rounds with their presentation. "We're here primarily to get community input," Cooper told the board.

Finneran said the Division of Capital Asset Management, DEP and the Department of Energy Resources looked for a place to site a large digester, and among 25 choices, MCI is one of three that top the list, meeting criteria such as acreage and available materials. The others are in Amherst, including the UMass campus.

"This is fairly early in the process," she said. "We'll be hiring a consultant to do a feasibility study."

Targeting the planned ban on traditional organic waste disposal, Selectmen Chairman Andy Deveau asked if the state intends to eventually ban residential disposal as well.

The short-term answer was no. "We tend to look at larger generators of over a ton a week, Cooper responded. The good news is that when facilities are built in an area, local haulers want to head there with their collections, too, he added. "The service spreads."

Noting the technology is "new," Deveau asked about possible dangers and unpleasant side effects such as odors, unsightly debris piled outside and possible noise if scrubbers are installed to clean the effluent before its discharged. 

Cooper said he wasn't aware of any complaints about noise or odor from existing sites and that none of the delivered materials would spend much if any time outside. No huge, steaming piles, in other words. In any case, the facility will be in the woods behind the prison and probably not visible to passersby on the highway or area neighborhoods.

Resident John Oelfke, who serves on the Devens Enterprise Commission, later cited his experience with the Devens Recycling Center to expand on that line of questioning, DEC is the sole permitting authority for Devens and when it granted that one, added conditions to the permit to address potential problems endemic to that type of facility, listing measures taken to control odors, noise, outdoor rubbish piles, truck traffic, even rodents.

The Federal Environmental Protection Agency as well as state agencies such as DEP will make sure the digestion plant meets strict controls, Cooper said.

Resident Jackie Esielionis was concerned about truck traffic on town roads, while Pam Callahan asked about odors.

Citing the Rutland facility as an example, Cooper indicated that odors there were likely a lot worse before, when pig manure was deposited in an open-air lagoon on site. Now, it's processed indoors, in an airtight building.

As for trucks -- at least 10 a day - the facility managers would be instructed to designate truck routes and make it clear they expect them to be followed, Cooper said.

The selectmen said they'd like to visit the Rutland site. Cooper agreed to set up a visit.