This composite of renderings visualize what the proposed sewage-to-fertilizer processing plant at Sand Island would look like, shown with arrow.

Large ‘egg’ may
help recycle city’s sludge

A proposed 116-foot structure
converts sewage into fertilizer

A structure resembling a giant egg would rise 116 feet over Honolulu's waterfront, cost $34 million and house a "gourmet meal" with bacteria breaking down sewage sludge.

City officials are considering the structure that converts sludge into dried fertilizer pellets at the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The City Council's Zoning Committee gave preliminary approval yesterday for the In-vessel Bioconversion Facility, being proposed by the Houston-based Synagro Technologies, to receive a special management area permit.

But while committee members were concerned about the visual impact of the project that's nearly twice as high as the 60-foot building height limits, they praised the technology that would allow the city to recycle 25,000 tons of sludge a year instead of trucking it to the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill.

"I think this is a wonderful project and I am completely delighted that we're planning such a project, but I am gravely concerned about the height," Councilwoman Barbara Marshall said. "I think it's ghastly."

The facility would be on a 1.1-acre site within the sewage treatment plant. It would consist of three main components -- a 116-foot tall silo-looking sludge storage tank, an egg-shaped container at the same height called a digester and a solids-handling building and incinerator.

Right now, sewage coming into the Sand Island plant is treated and the solids, or sludge, is separated out from effluent.

Under the proposal, a step would be added: The sludge would go from the storage tank into the digester where bacteria awaits it.

"The bacteria will have a gourmet meal on it, convert it to very usable fertilizer," the project's planning consultant, Don Clegg, said. "As the bacteria eats its gourmet meal, it produces methane gas."

Clegg said the methane gas is also reused as heat to dry the dewatered sludge into fertilizer pellets.

"Is this project feasible at any lesser height and/or can there anything done to sort of camouflage it?" Marshall asked.

Eric Crispin, director of the city Department of Planning and Permitting, agreed that the buildings aren't attractive but there's a reason for that.

"It's just not pretty. It's an ugly industrial looking kind of plant and facility," Crispin said. "Recognizing, however, that form follows function, there's a functional purpose behind the shape, configuration and height."

Clegg told the committee that nearby shipping cranes at 250 feet are taller than the project and this design is the most efficient for the digestive process: "The egg shape helps the bacteria in terms of circulation of what goes on inside the digestive process, and we went for efficiency."

Crispin said his department plans to work with the applicant in selecting appropriate paint colors to alleviate aesthetic impacts.

Clegg said the structures could be painted or transformed into anything.

"People miss the pineapple," kidded Clegg, an apparent reference to the long-gone Dole pineapple-shaped water tower that once loomed over nearby Iwilei.

Councilman Romy Cachola, whose district includes the industrial Sand Island area where the project is located, complained that the applicant did not give adequate public notice to community groups about the project prior to seeking city approval. Cachola said he feared that residents might be concerned that the area might be seen again as a dumping ground for ugly, unpopular projects: "We should not fast-track."

The committee voted, at Cachola's request, to have the applicant contact the Sand Island Business Association and two Kalihi-Palama community groups to see if their members want a presentation. Final approval the SMA permit would be delayed a month -- to the September Council meeting instead of the August meeting -- to allow for more time for public notice.

Clegg said the applicant has followed all the public notice requirements.

Construction, which is expected to take 14 months, could be held up because the project can't get its building permit until the SMA permit is granted. The project must also get a variance from height limits, which is also pending.


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