A Green Thumb: This WWTP Operator Strives for a Zero-Carbon Footprint

Landis Sewerage Authority is one of the most environmentally friendly wastewater treatment plants in the Mid-Atlantic thanks to the work of Executive Director Dennis Palmer

A Green Thumb: This WWTP Operator Strives for a Zero-Carbon Footprint

Dennis Palmer, executive director and chief engineer of the Landis Sewerage Authority, takes the author on a tour of the wastewater treatment plant. (Photo By Traci Browne)

Interested in Energy?

Get Energy articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Energy + Get Alerts

Can a modern wastewater treatment plant operate with a zero-carbon footprint? Dennis Palmer, executive director and chief engineer of the Landis Sewerage Authority (LSA) thinks it can.

LSA is located in Vineland — the largest city by square miles in New Jersey. The service area covers 80 square miles of which half of that is sewered for a population of 37,000. Currently, LSA has a 10.2 mgd permitted capacity and an actual flow of 5.5 mgd that processes wastewater (nitrification and denitrification with some phosphorus removal) and returns all that treated water back to the aquifer through infiltration basins and spray irrigation. It is the largest treatment plant in New Jersey that discharges all treated water back into the ground.

Palmer says he became interested in the idea of a zero-carbon footprint when he read about facilities in Austria and Germany that were able to achieve that goal. “I see wastewater facilities as an energy resource as well as a nutrient resource.” says Palmer.

A unique biosolids program

In Palmer’s view, the authority has a responsibility to be good stewards of its over 1,800 acres of land. That’s why he’s always on the lookout for ways to improve the property, which consists of an upland pine oak forest, wetlands and farmland. Yes, that’s right — farmland.

When Palmer started working at LSA, the facility already had a small Bermuda grass farm on the property. Under Palmer’s leadership, LSA’s farm has diversified and now grows hay, straw, corn and sorghum. Instead of trucking biosolids to another facility and the costs involved with that transport and disposal, LSA’s biosolids go straight to their own farm.

However, it’s not just a convenient place to offload recycled biosolids — the farm generates income as well. While not enough to cover the entire cost of the farm, it does raise about $120,000 a year or more by selling hay, straw and corn to local farmers as feedstock.

Maintaining natural habitat

Like the farm, the forest on the property is actively maintained by LSA. To hear Palmer talk about his forest, you might think you were talking to a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. He talks about subjects such as controlled burns to allow seeds lying dormant in the ground to sprout, thinning trees so those that remain are stronger and hardier, and how they’re fighting the southern pine beetle — knowledge he’s gleaned by working closely with foresters and the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

LSA also partners with organizations like the Audubon Society, National Wild Turkey Federation and the Sportsman Alliance to achieve a common goal of seeing the natural habitats maintained properly to help both game and songbird populations.

Efforts are underway to establish a pine savanna made up of pine trees, hedgerows, grasses and milkweed which attracts insects, birds, pollinators and monarch butterflies. They are already seeing an uptick in a variety of species in the habitat area. The LSA is also working to bring back the bobwhite quail — a bird once common to the area that is now almost impossible to find.

The economics of zero-waste

But moving toward zero waste has a business advantage as well as an environmental one. When Palmer is considering a new project, he’s looking for a quick payback. Ideally, he’d like to see a return on the investment in five years or seven years at the most. Beyond that he wants the project to either save money or make money for the authority.

One such example is a million-dollar investment in a cogeneration unit, partially funded by a grant from the New Jersey Department of Energy, which offsets about $120,000 to $140,000 per year of electricity costs. A crucial part of that unit is a receiving station funded through the state’s Department of Agriculture which can handle cow manure from nearby milk and beef cattle farms, as well as food processor waste and FOG. Those materials are run through a rock trap and then a Muffin Monster grinder before being heated and circulated within the tank and finally fed to an anaerobic digester to increase methane production for the co-gen.

In this way, LSA turns what is usually a waste into something useful, and Palmer says the system has paid for itself in three years from tipping fees. Palmer has also tapped into grants to fund a wind turbine which can generate enough electricity to power all the lights and computers at the authority’s office building on a windy day. Another grant supported an electric vehicle charging station that sits in the parking lot, and the LSA has a plugin hybrid SUV powered by the charging station.

Not only are grants a big part of Palmer’s strategy, but he also credits his success to having strong advocates. “I’m lucky that my board gives us the flexibility to push the envelope.

He says that more operators may not be undertaking initiatives like this because they fall victim to analysis paralysis. Besides being the executive director of the LSA, Palmer is also the authority’s engineer of record so they can do for themselves what other organizations would have to hire a consulting firm for. They were also able to also tap into the talent and skills they had in house to build their receiving station.

Another green initiative Palmer has taken on is a 40-acre solar farm. Currently, it is the largest land-based solar project at a treatment plant in New Jersey and it is a joint public-private partnership between the City of Vineland Municipal Electric Utility, LSA and private utilities. Palmer says that because of the power purchase agreement with the utility, not one dollar was spent on any aspect of the construction, giving the solar project positive cash flow from day one.

He says getting involved in the community and getting the community involved with your operation is one of the first steps to take when looking to go green.

In addition to inviting volunteers to help with the pine savannah, LSA hosts an Earth Day celebration and part of that event is a sponsored poster contest for middle schools. Through these types of programs, they’ve been able to reach thousands of youths and their parents and get them thinking about the importance of water.

Being environmentally minded has raised awareness for the plant far beyond just the local community. Business groups, college and high school students, environmental groups and more are drawn to what LSA is doing and seek tours of the facility. The more people are thinking about what is happening after they flush their toilet is not just good for LSA, but it’s good for other treatment plants, the environment and people everywhere.  Palmer says in the end, it all comes down to progress. “If you’re not doing something to improve and not moving forward, you’re moving backward you’re going to get run over.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.