March 2, 2010

Local Firm President Blasts Cornell University Digester Safety Features

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The local environmental advocacy firm Toxics Targeting is blasting both Cornell and Ithaca officials for the methodology they used to test Cornell’s alkaline hydrolysis digester, which the College of Veterinary Medicine hopes to use in the near future to dispose of its animal carcass remains.

Walter Hang, the firm’s president, accused Cornell of having “dangerously incomplete” safety precautions — a bold characterization which University officials have fiercely contended.

They — and other officials involved in testing the digester — have characterized the polarizing Hang as a lone voice in a sea of overwhelming opposition. Hang remains the only one to question the testing of the hydrolysis digester so far.

Yet Hang has a credible record of environmental advocacy successes, having been vindicated in The New York Times and The Ithaca Journal on such issues as the Gun Hill pollution site and the lake source cooling dispute over 10 years ago.

When the Vet School accidentally discharged its wastewater to city sewers on Feb. 19, University and Ithaca officials dismissed concerns by pointing to test results from its ongoing application to the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Plant. Nearing a vote by the plant’s inter-municipal board, the permit request would allow the Vet School to regularly dispose its processed animal carcass remains at the Ithaca plant.

Hang has doubted the comprehensiveness of these tests — which the University and city have said have complied with all standards of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Within those tests, Hang has pointed to two major sources of concern, both of which Cornell’s Biosafety Engineer and Vet School plant overseer Paul Jennette ’87, and chief operating officer of the wastewater facility Daniel Ramer say they have complete responses to.

One of Hang’s stated worries is that the over 150 chemical constituencies the EPA requires Cornell test for in its wastewater discharge do not fully preclude dangerous chemicals. Hang feels that the wastewater “is very likely” to include harmful elements not included on the EPA’s list –– elements which, if undetected, would flow to Cayuga Lake –– the drinking supply of over 30,000 local residents.

Jennette and Ramer have both responded that Hang’s concerns are misinformed and misdirected.

Jennette felt that Hang’s charge is aimed at the wrong source; it is the EPA, Jennette said, who is responsible for the list of chemical constituencies Cornell is required to check for –– not Cornell or Ithaca officials.

But even if Cornell and the city of Ithaca were to take it upon themselves to test the wastewater for other dangers, the practicality of this proposal would be suspect.

“What are we supposed to do, test for every [possible chemical constituency] under the sun?” Ramer asked. He added that the cost of doing so would be prohibitively expensive and wholly impractical, and that the EPA’s list was a successfully proven list of criteria.

Hang had a response to this –– one that lies in another one of his anxieties about Cornell’s testing of the alkaline digester.

He excoriated the University for not fully revealing the contents of the pretreatment wastewater, saying that it was logical for the contents entering the digester to inform the sampling of what came out of it.

“The University refuses to release the contents [of the pretreatment wastewater],” he stated.

“Seek and ye shall find,” Hang said. “How [are the plant’s operators] supposed to find toxic chemicals when they don’t know which ones to look for [from the pretreatment wastewater]?”

Jennette responded that the University had been fully upfront in disclosing and releasing all the designations required by federal EPA standards.

Prof. Eugene Madsen, microbiology, erred on the side of the University.

While admitting that it’s “possible” a dangerous chemical could escape, he stressed the great unlikelihood of such an event and agreed with Ramer that expanding the list of tested chemicals was very expensive and unnecessary.

“My guess is that no ingredients exist that warrant expanding [the list of] 150 compounds that the EPA requires,” Madsen said.

Another concern of Hang’s lies in a test that he says shows “dangerously high” levels of phenol, a potentially toxic chemical, at 39mg/L. He further stipulated that the University has vacillated in its explanation of this finding — first attributing the phenol levels to laboratory error and then later to an intentional spiking.

Jennette said that there was “no vacillating, no change of story, no nothing” on the part of the University. He explained that the Vet School had dumped huge amounts of phenol into the digester to see what would happen, and that the results from this specific test were in no way representative of what would be produced from a normal run of animal waste.

While Madsen agreed with Hang that phenol is “not good stuff,” he downplayed the significance of its presence in the wastewater, saying “it’s pretty biodegradable” and “naturally occurring.”

The wastewater facility for Watertown, where the University has been trucking its wastewater, has reported that the Vet School’s discharge has been unproblematic. “If the city of Ithaca is designed the same way as Watertown [the wastewater will] not be an issue,” said Michael Sligar, the facility’s plant operator.

Hang dismissed the significance of Watertown’s example, saying that lake pollution is a long process, and that the effects of the pollution would not be felt immediately.

This whole debate is likely to be revisited, according to Ramer, when the city of Ithaca’s consultants complete and submit their study.

Original Author: Jeff Stein