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'PRRFect' garbage solution takes slow steps forward

The methods and means of solid waste disposal are never perfect.

But that's what the three counties of the Perham-based Resource Recovery Facility want to achieve--at least in name.

PRRFect is the nickname regional solid waste officials want to ingrain in peoples' minds--especially in the minds of state officials.

"We want those down at the state to hear 'we're hauling our waste up to PRRFect,'" laughed Todd County solid waste director Tim Cadwallader.

Who would have thought that a bunch of "garbage people" would actually think in terms of marketing? The "perfect" moniker is derived from Perham Resource Recovery Facility (PRRFect).

Marketing--along with maneuvering, negotiating, borrowing, begging and some salesmanship--will all be necessary to put a deal together for a $8-9 million expansion of the Perham garbage incinerator facility.

The facility is operated, more or less, like a "partnership" between Otter Tail, Todd and Wadena Counties, and the city of Perham. In effect, Perham contracts with the "County Coordinating Committee" to manage the facility.

But the county partners want a more defined joint powers agreement than what presently exists.

Perham officials state demands to sell facility

Meanwhile, the Perham City Council, which manages the facility under the present collaboration, is making some very specific demands before it will agree with a new joint powers agreement:

----The newly formed board must buy out the city for $1 and transfer all existing debt to the new board. This would relieve the city from most of the long-range financial obligations.

----The new joint powers board must relieve the city of all past, present and future liability. Presumably, this condition is aimed at eliminating the city's risk in the event that some environmental threat or clean-up requirement is uncovered at the site--now or later.

----The city would have an ex-official member on the new joint powers board.

Perham's demands have been the source of lengthy discussion by the County Coordinating Committee, including at the group's recent March 5 meeting in Perham.

Perham officials appear apprehensive about the joint powers agreement.

City administrator Kelcey Klemm questioned the motivation in forming the Joint Powers Board, expressing concern that it could jeopardize the present Perham management team. Under the Joint Powers Agreement, the board would have the authority to replace management.

Several county officials tried to reassure Klemm and Perham Mayor Kevin Keil that management change was not the intention behind the formalized Joint Powers Agreement.

But Keil reaffirmed that the city's conditions in selling the facility, as stated in a letter to all the participating county officials, must be met before the city would consider approving the Joint Powers Agreement. Representatives are expected to bring Perham's concerns to their county boards.

Grant requests will be submitted for expansion

Though there appears to be a stand-off between Perham City and the counties over the governing mechanism for the facility, the coordinating committee took a big step forward on the expansion plan.

The group accepted a planning study, which was proposed by HDR engineering firm. The fee for the design and analysis work was quoted as $44,500.

The engineering approval paved the way for another major step forward. The committee finally authorized an application to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for $2.8 million. The grant was committed to the project two years ago, but the formal application process was never approved, in large part, because of continuing disagreements among the various partners.

It was also learned at the meeting that the project could qualify for even more state funding--potentially up to $2 million for each participating county. State bonding money is another potential revenue source, but it wouldn't be available until after the 2010 legislative session.

Becker, Cass County waste could help finance expansion

Despite the internal wrangling of the past two years, the incinerator coordinating committee has reason for optimism.

"Sales and marketing" efforts to nearby counties may be paying off. In order to be economically feasible, the incinerator needs to process as much as 20,000 additional tons of garbage each year.

Becker County, which is currently transporting virtually all of its solid waste to Fargo-Moorhead, is interested in joining the joint powers agreement. Becker would likely generate 10,000 tons each year.

Cass County (Minnesota) is hauling its solid waste all the way to Elk River. Cass is also interested in entering into the agreement. This would create a joint powers body of five counties, all of which would share in paying for the expansion of the plant. Perham's role remains uncertain, until terms are reached over sale and management of the facility.

The expansion could expand the workforce at the Perham plant from 15 to 19.

Energy sales may include Otter Tail Power, as well as Bongards, Tuffy's

The other major financial component of plant operations is the sale of steam generated from the incinerator.

Last month, Bongards creamery purchased 23.7 million pounds of "recycled" steam. Tuffy's pet foods, meanwhile, purchased 4.8 million pounds of steam.

The stability of the contract with Bongards has been a concern for incinerator officials. Managers of the Perham cheese-making operation have investigated alternatives to incinerator steam, including natural gas. If the price falls far enough, Bongards has suggested it might convert from steam to natural gas, said Perham city manager Klemm.

Without the steam sale revenue, a plant expansion would be difficult to cash-flow.

Another alternative is the sale of the recycled steam energy to Otter Tail Power--which is very interested because of the state's mandate that 25 percent of energy be "green" by year 2025.

Whether revenue from converting steam to electricity for Otter Tail Power would offset the loss of Bongards is uncertain. But officials are expecting the HDR engineering firm to conduct cost analysis of several different scenarios.

Other Perham incinerator news

Other topics and issues pertaining to the Perham Resource Recovery Facility:

----The plant expansion, as currently proposed, is predicated on moving retired incinerator-boiler equipment from the former Fergus Falls plant, which closed two years ago. There are serious questions as to whether the used equipment can be cost-effectively retrofitted to the Perham facility--and that it might be less expensive to design and install new equipment.

----A settlement has been finally reached between several parties involved in the sale and installation of the auxiliary boiler. Though most of the liability was settled between the engineering firm, the manufacturer of the boiler and the installation contractor, the Perham incinerator committee did incur about $47,000 in additional expense pertaining to the project.

----A plan to add new hoppers was scrapped when facility manager Brian Schmidt learned that they could cost $134,000 per unit. He had originally hoped that two units could be acquired for $140,000. Schmidt said that the existing apparatus can be patched up, but that new equipment will be needed in two years.