Stamford’s failed attempt at energy innovation cost taxpayers tens of millions
This is the second of two parts examining the Stamford sewage treatment plant’s long history of problems and their causes, the financial implications for local residents and environmental consequences for the entire state. Part I is available here.
Stamford — On a Wednesday evening in December, an overwhelmingly unpleasant smell wafted over the parking lot at Stamford’s sewage treatment plant. It seeped into the cars of members of the plant’s governing board and stuck with them as they drove home after a meeting.
“In winter months, it’s bad,” said Prakash Chakravarti, supervising engineer for Stamford’s Water Pollution Control Authority. “In summer months, it’ll be even more exaggerated.”
Chakravarti said the smell was coming from several trailers that are parked nearby carrying the solid waste, known as “sludge,” from the sewage plant.
Under more routine circumstances that sludge would not be festering in trailers. Rather, it would be fed into Stamford’s “drier/pelletizer,” a $17 million piece of equipment that sucks out excess water and converts the sludge into “cakes” or “pellets.”
The pellets were to be used as fuel to generate electricity in an ambitious plan by the WPCA and the city known as “Waste-to-Energy,” or “Stamford Biogas” — a plan that was shelved in 2010 before it could produce a single kilowatt.
For several weeks recently, even the drier wasn’t in use; its conveyor belt, which transports the sludge into the machinery, had broken down. It has since been fixed. But given that Stamford Biogas was discontinued more than two years ago, Stamford and WPCA officials are wondering if it makes sense to keep using the drier at all.
The drier — and the smell of sludge waiting outside — are probably the least of the WPCA’s worries at the moment. Plagued by administrative mismanagement, failing equipment and a botched $105 million upgrade completed in 2006, the multimillion-dollar agency has come under fire for sending hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage into Long Island Sound in recent years.
But for many, the drier has become a symbol of what went wrong during the city’s previous mayoral administration, headed by now-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The drier was the first phase of the Waste-to-Energy project that Malloy’s staff spent tens of millions of federal and local dollars trying to implement.
The effort was led by the treatment plant’s executive director Jeanette Brown and Ben Barnes, Stamford’s then-director of operations and now the state’s budget czar. It enjoyed strong support from Malloy.
After years of public outcry — and after Malloy and Barnes had left local office — the city abandoned the project in mid-2010. By that time, it was clear that serious issues with equipment at the treatment plant had gone unaddressed for years.
“I think [the] staff kind of got misdirected, and people weren’t really looking at what our primary function and purpose was,” said Mitch Kaufman, a member of Stamford’s Board of Representatives who is also on the WPCA Board. ” … Instead of looking at it from a practical perspective, they were thinking, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ “
During his 14 years as Stamford’s mayor, Malloy touted his achievements in cleaning up the city’s environment and water — as did Brown, who was president of the national Water Environment Federation and known nationally for her work. Brown was director of the sewage treatment plant from 1975-2011.
The Biogas concept was relatively simple: Instead of hauling all the sludge to a landfill, use the energy that it holds to create a synthetic gas that can then power a generator.
Brown said she’d always been interested in the idea of converting waste from sewage into energy. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Chris Dodd earmarked federal funding for the project, that she began to believe her dream could become reality.
“I always thought about the chemical energy that’s embedded in sludge,” said Brown, a professional engineer educated at the University of Connecticut. “And it was always something like ‘Why are we wasting this?’ “
The city began working on research and development for the project early in the decade, using $2 million in earmarks that were matched in part by city funds. Stamford also borrowed $17 million, which it is still paying off, for the sludge drier.
Once the drier was up and running, the city began educating the public about the project — and Brown traveled the country giving talks about it.
“I’ve been very aggressive on [the project’s] behalf,” Malloy told a writer for the monthly publication of the Water Environment Federation in February 2009. “We’re going to prove this technology.”
Brown told the same reporter, “We probably know more about bio-solids gasification than perhaps anyone in the world.”
But Malloy and Brown’s numbers fluctuated wildly. Over a six-month period, they gave widely varying figures on how much energy would be produced — first 10 megawatts, then 15 to 20 megawatts. During testimony to Congress on sustainable water practices in February 2009, Brown said the plant would produce 15 megawatts, enough to power about 10,000 homes.
One month later, Brown told members of Stamford’s Board of Finance of a “one- to two-megawatt facility,” the same figure she used in later applications for grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Cost estimates varied just as dramatically. A few months after Malloy gave an estimate of $50 million to $60 million, Brown said the project would cost $15 million to $20 million.
In a recent interview, Barnes said the project was scaled down “significantly.”
“Doing it on a smaller basis was certainly something that all of us thought was appropriate. There’s obviously some risk undertaking newer technology,” he said.
But other basic facts were at issue. On Malloy’s website for his candidacy for governor — which has been disabled, but can still be accessed — a portion of the section named “Proven Results” reads: “[Malloy] developed a facility that will turn wastewater into energy without carbon emissions, the first project of its kind in the state.”
In fact, the drier by itself produces significant emissions.
Public has questions
As the public education campaign on Stamford Biogas continued in 2009, engineers and others who lived in Stamford began to take notice — and they started to ask questions.
Malloy and his team “were incompetent to do this and they had been giving false information,” said George Stadel, who revived the defunct Stamford Taxpayers Political Action Committee (Stamford PAC) in early 2009 to launch opposition to the project. “Jeanette Brown parlayed this into worldwide recognition for herself. She didn’t know what she was talking about, but she became famous.”
In letters to the federal Department of Energy, local newspapers and local officials, Stadel and the half-dozen active members of Stamford PAC urged the city to abandon the project.
For months, their concerns fell on deaf ears — and today, WPCA board members admitted they were not asking the right questions at the time.
“Everyone was just saying, ‘Go, go, go,’ and most everything was being done by [Malloy’s] administration and Jeanette [Brown],” said Louis Casale, who was on the WPCA board until 2011. “I think it was a lot of hype and we got caught up in it.”
Even city employees were wary of the project and the way it was being pushed through the layers of Stamford government. In mid-2009, as Barnes and Brown were readying new contracts to begin the second phase, city lawyer Burt Rosenberg told them they didn’t have the authority.
Nevertheless, Barnes and Brown were close to pushing through an agreement with the Canadian-based company Nexterra to turn the dried sludge into gas, in a technology known as gasification.
“This is a typical end run around [Stamford’s] Purchasing Ordinance by Jeanette [Brown],” Rosenberg wrote in an email to Tom Cassone, another member of the Malloy administration at the time. “Nexterra will end up with a $5.4 million contract without any legitimate procurement process.”
Cassone responded, “Sorry Burt. Ben [Barnes] is under some pressure and he and the WPCA board believe in this project.” He did not specify where that pressure was coming from.
Soon afterward, Rosenberg apparently met with Barnes. He later relayed the events of the meeting to Cassone.
“Early in the conversation [Barnes] started screaming at me,” Rosenberg wrote. “[Barnes] basically accused me of being an obstructionist — that I did not want to see the project go forward.”
Rosenberg asked Barnes during the meeting why the WPCA had not issued a competitive bid for proposals on the project, rather than simply choosing Nexterra. According to Rosenberg’s email describing the encounter, Barnes had responded that “he wanted to get things done quickly because the new [mayoral administration] will kill it.”
Asked about the exchanges with Rosenberg, Barnes said he did not remember the meeting Rosenberg was referring to, but that he was intent on getting the project done.
“There was a time when I thought there might be an opportunity to advance that project during my remaining time in the mayor’s term,” Barnes said. “[Malloy] was obviously not running again for election … so at the time we thought, well, maybe there’s a way to get this project completed before then. Ultimately we were not able to do that.”
Rosenberg still works in Stamford’s law department. He declined to comment, citing client confidentiality.
Skepticism takes hold
Barnes’ concerns proved correct. Indeed, Michael Pavia — who was campaigning for mayor in 2009 — was deeply skeptical of the project.
“During the [mayoral] campaign, that waste-to-energy plant at the WPCA became the poster child for spending that shouldn’t be happening,” Pavia said.
Another key setback for Malloy’s administration regarding the project came when it was determined that the dried sludge alone would not provide enough energy to power combustion engines and create electricity. So Brown and Barnes suggested that the city truck in wood, which, when burned with the gasified sludge, would do the job.
“It just kind of went way beyond what was practical,” Pavia said.
Barnes agreed that the switch from sludge to part wood showed “legitimate operational technical issues that we never resolved.”
Ultimately, Nexterra never built the gasifier, and the WPCA board voted to kill the project in mid-2010. The vote came on the heels of reports from two separate consulting companies the city had paid to answer the question of whether Stamford Biogas was ultimately feasible. Both reports said that while the project was “technically” feasible, it was not economically prudent.
But Brown, along with Malloy’s staff — who had by then moved from Stamford to the state Capitol — still insisted that ending the project was a mistake. On the day the project was voted out by the WPCA, George Stadel remembers Brown saying, “It’s not over yet.”
“For the most part, municipalities aren’t willing to take risks, and risks are necessary to do some of these things,” said Brown.
She echoed Barnes’ assumption that the project might have gone forward had Malloy remained mayor, adding that she had worked “very closely with [Malloy’s] directors” on it.
“Mayor Malloy was very much committed to our project, but with the change of administration, you get different philosophies,” Brown said. “So it didn’t go forward.”
Sometime in early 2011, Barnes — then secretary of the Office of Policy and Management under Gov. Malloy — approached Pavia about transferring the waste-to-energy project from Stamford to the state in order to revive it.
“I thought it was worth exploring,” Barnes said, although eventually, the state did not take on the project. “Frankly, we had a lot of other things going on.”
Asked if he thought the state could really have taken on the project, Pavia said, “You know, I really don’t.”
“I think, just being in government and knowing the kinds of intricacies that take place, it’s hard enough to manage the normal operation without going into experimentation,” he said.
Stamford Biogas may be dead — but the city is still paying for it. A five-year, several million-dollar contract to operate the sludge drier will expire in March, and WPCA and city officials are debating whether to simply shut it down. Stamford Operations Director Ernie Orgera said he thinks the city could save as much as $1 million a year by doing so.
Of course, as Board of Representatives and WPCA board member Mitch Kaufman pointed out, the drier will still cost the city more money.
“We bonded the money, so we’re paying interest on it,” he said.
“We’re still going to pay interest on it, whether it’s running or not.”
The first part of this two-part series is available by clicking here.
A radio version of the story can be found here.
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