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Composting conundrum in Los Alamos County

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It’s just a hunch, but I bet everyone reading this column has driven by the intersection of East Jemez Road and West Jemez Road and caught a whiff of the county’s composting operation.  
Depending on the day, and your past olfactory experiences, you may find the smell to be an assault on your nostrils.  
Personally, I think it is a pleasant earthy scent that symbolizes the transformation of waste into a valued commodity. But, that seems to be a minority view.  
The Los Alamos County Council and public in general have made it clear that the creation of a sustainable community is important, and composting is one initiative that greatly increases the sustainability of our community.  
Composting promotes waste reduction through the recycling of organic materials and leads to reduced landfill and transport emissions.
Yet, current composting operations in Los Alamos County have been suspended and the future of the program is uncertain as a result of landfill closure and other issues, including those pesky odors.        
In the past, the county composting operation took three feedstocks; biosolids from the wastewater treatment plant, brush from local residents and businesses, and manure from the North Mesa Stables to generate a soil amendment that was given away to residents free of charge.  
The quality of the compost commonly came under scrutiny by local residents, but the compost always seemed to find its way out of the Eco Station.
With the temporary termination of composting operations the county had to find a new disposal option for these three feedstocks.  
Sending these materials off the hill for disposal in a landfill is a last resort, and to this point Environmental Services staff has been able to avoid this outcome for two of the three feedstocks; brush is being processed into mulch and given away to residents and manure is being given away to residents as well.  
These diversion techniques are temporary in scope since it is expected that given an extended period of time large piles of these feedstocks will start to collect and material will have to be sent to the landfill.  
The last feedstock, biosolids, is being shipped to the landfill in Rio Rancho since there is no alternative use for this New Mexico classified special waste.    
The Environmental Services Division is working with the Department of Public Utilities to investigate alternative options for composting after landfill closure. Continuing to compost at the Eco Station after closure is complete is still a possibility but there are two major barriers that would need to be overcome; the odor issue and permitting the new operation.  
The plan until recently was to move the composting facility to Bayo Canyon, a location that has been permitted for composting by the state.  
After the DPU performed a cost analysis, they determined it would be more cost effective to ship their biosolids off the hill to be placed in a landfill than compost at Bayo Canyon.  
The Environmental Services Division is committed to diverting these composting feedstocks from the landfill, which means finding a new location and/or process for composting in Los Alamos County.  
The division is currently investigating technologies that would decrease the odors created during composting that may enable the operation to remain at the Eco Station, and they are also pursuing other potential locations in less populated areas.

Tom Nagawiecki
Environmental Services Specialist