Turning poop to fertilizer, new sewage plant saves money and the Earth


Two Michigan public works commissioners submit plans for new ways to handle sewage but only one gets the approval.


Jim Nash is proud as poop of his new $32-million maze of pipes and boilers on the outskirts of Pontiac.

“This is going to revolutionize how sewage is treated,” says Nash, the boss of Oakland County’s drains and sewers. 

Doesn’t excite you? Well, put on your COVID mask — it’ll cut down on odors we’ll encounter — and join a reporter and photographer as we tour a new way of handling everyone’s you-know-what.

“We’re the first place in Michigan to try it and only the third in the nation,” Nash says on the tour.

Oakland County Water Resource Commissioner Jim Nash, right, and Mike Daniels, plant manager, give a tour of the new Thermal Hydrolysis Processing facility (THP) in Pontiac. The plant transforms human waste into class A fertilizer. (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)

In tax dollars and energy, this new technology will save a you-know-what load, Nash promises. Plus, it’s good for the environment, turning the mountains of hazardous solids that come from sewage plants, which other plants must truck off to landfills, into a safe and beneficial fertilizer.

Before starting construction, Nash, who is Oakland County’s elected water resources commissioner, had to get state regulators to approve a sewage permit for his new-fangled chemistry set at the Clinton River Water Resource Recovery Facility (formerly the Pontiac Wastewater Treatment Plant).

At a site 30 miles away in Macomb County, the same regulators denied a sewage permit sought by Nash’s counterpart, Macomb County Public Works Director Candice Miller. It was for a sewage project of almost the same cost, around $30 million.

During heavy rains, Miller’s project aimed to eliminate 70% of the sewage overflows into Lake St. Clair from a pump station at the foot of 9 Mile Road caused when a big underground tank in St. Clair Shores runs over.

Miller, a Republican, blamed the denial on partisan politics at the Democratic controlled EGLE — the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

Nash, a Democrat, declined to comment on why his project got a thumbs-up from Lansing and Miller’s didn’t, except to say that “the science really backs what we’re doing here in Pontiac.”

Politics aside, what’s clear is there’s an accelerating need to improve how southeast Michigan handles its sanitary waste. The region’s population will surely grow in decades to come. The region keeps getting drenched by rainstorms of growing intensity, straining the limits of wastewater systems because most of them combine storm water with sanitary sewage. So heavy rains cause overflows of partially treated sewage, including the overflows that Miller wanted to prevent. At the same time, federal standards keep tightening, demanding higher and higher purity of the treated water that sewage plants can release into Michigan waterways.

In Oakland County, the Pontiac plant has treated that city’s sewage since the 1930s. Now, after decades of improvements, and with major investment after the county took over running the plant several years ago, it handles the sewage of about 10% of the county’s residents, from Auburn Hills to Waterford.

And, the plant is poised to treat their sewage at lower cost. It’s expected to save about $2 million a year over the old system, in part by powering itself with the methane gas generated from processing the raw sewage. Capturing methane, sometimes called a “super pollutant,” is a high priority for combating global warming; scientists say the noxious gas is up to 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its ability to trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere.

To generate the methane, the plant will start with a process called THP — for “thermal hydrolysis pretreatment.” Think of a row of 20-foot-high stainless-steel pressure cookers, sterilizing poop at 330 degrees and breaking down the nasty little molecules. That lets the plant’s team of zillions of bacteria have at it in record time. All of which vastly increases the plant’s rate of production, 24/7 —something that a region weaned on auto assembly lines can get excited about, even if the only color you can get here is … brown. 

But brown is beautiful to Mike Daniels, plant manager for the Pontiac plant. Concluding the tour, Daniels doesn’t hesitate to grab a handful of the dark-brown end product. His staff’s tests show that it’s safe for human contact and ready for a farmer’s fields, he says. 

“This is going to be Grade A fertilizer, just like you buy in stores from cows, only it’s from humans,” Daniels says, chuckling. Already in test batches, it’s helping to green up a sod farm in Lapeer County.

“You’ve heard of Milorganite? That’s the stuff like this from Wisconsin. Ours is kind of the same thing,” Daniels says.

Milorganite stands for Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen, and it’s a fertilizer that’s been made from the sewage sludge of Milwaukee residents for 85 years, according to an online promotion. Pontiac’s output may be similar but it’s coming from a far newer and more efficient process, Oakland County officials say. 

As that process gets fine-tuned, Daniels and his staff are testing samples and sending results to Lansing. State sewage regulators want months of data before they approve the plant’s end product as fertilizer, although all parties expect that to happen. State officials granted the project a low-interest loan from Michigan’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

In Macomb County, sewage chiefs see EGLE as blocking them from improving Lake St. Clair. Miller’s idea was low-tech: expanding an overflow facility into an existing canal used by boaters, closing it off to Lake St. Clair and making it into an open-air retention basin.

That’s a throwback. Across Michigan and much of the nation, retention tanks and basins and underground pipes so big you can drive trucks through them for miles have been used for a century to contain sewage. They’re built to hold back the sewage during rainstorms, then let it drain gradually to treatment plants, which can handle only so much flow at once. In Macomb County and much of metro Detroit, that means letting it drain to the region’s giant treatment plant in southwest Detroit.

Yet, state environmental officials, in a lengthy statement following the denial of Macomb’s permit earlier this month, said that eliminating occasional overflows at the Chapaton facility in St. Clair Shores would make little difference in the quality of Lake St. Clair’s water, hardly denting the lake’s phosphorous level that adds to algae growth in Lake Erie. 

In a formal response to Miller, the regulators in Lansing referred to their long-standing goals for Lake St. Clair, calling for restoration of wetlands along the shores, repair of failing septic systems and more inspections to catch owners of illegal sewage pipes. Tracking down the illegal pipes is crucial, they said.  

“The County has already identified and corrected some major illicit connections, including a subdivision and apartment complex where sewage went directly to the storm system,” but a stronger program to catch violators “is important,” EGLE’s response said.

In a statement sent last week to the Free Press, a spokesman for EGLE weighed one permit against the other: “The contrast between the two situations is that one is additional innovative treatment on land (in Oakland County), and the proposed Chapaton additional storage was a facility proposed to be constructed in a protected waterway of the state (in Macomb County).”

Miller, a lifelong boater, disagreed vehemently after hearing of her proposal’s tentative denial last summer.

“I can’t believe the state thinks allowing partially treated sewer water to go into the lake is OK,” she told the Free Press in August, during a reporter’s visit to the Chapaton site.

Miller pointed out that many prominent Democrats in Macomb County had strongly endorsed her project — support that included unanimous resolutions from the county Board of Commissioners and the St. Clair Shores City Council.

The state’s denial paid that no heed. It said that, instead of temporarily diverting sewage overflows, Miller should seek solutions that eliminate or reduce the need for holding back untreated sewage, such as constructing “green-scaping” to let rain water soak into the ground rather than run into Macomb County’s sewers. Miller retorted that “green-scaping” would be prohibitively expensive in a densely built area such as St. Clair Shores.

Teresa Seidel, director of EGLE’s Water Resources Division, said in a statement that, “We have already begun to work with Macomb County to find solutions to protect Lake St. Clair,” and that “we have a shared mission with the county to protect the state’s waters.”

In Oakland County, besides launching the new plant, water resources honchos are crowing about another bragging point. They’ve been nationally recognized as a “Utility of the Future,” largely because of the new plant. The award comes from a group of five nationwide professional organizations, led by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. The same award went to southeast Michigan’s much larger utility for water and sewage, the Great Lakes Water Authority, soon to celebrate its fifth year of having regional control for services that once were the sole responsibility of Detroit.

More: Michigan denies Candice Miller’s idea to turn St. Clair Shores canal into sewage storage

More: Macomb’s fatberg to be displayed at Michigan Science Center

The big authority, which serves nearly all of southeast Michigan, won its award for making big improvements in how it processes sewage at the world’s biggest sewage treatment plant, in southwest Detroit. That plant is discharging much cleaner water to the Rouge River these days, said Michelle Zdrodowski, chief public affairs officer for the Great Lakes Water Authority.

The authority also earned the award last year, and the year before, for other aspects of its steadily improving wastewater plant, now called the Water Resource Recovery Facility, Zdrodowski said.

Contact Bill Laitner: [email protected]

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