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Tammy Morgan addressing the North Elban town board (Photo:  Chris Morris)
Tammy Morgan addressing the North Elban town board (Photo: Chris Morris)

North Elba waste digester would be a first

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A high school science teacher from Lake Placid wants to help the town of North Elba change the way it disposes of organic waste.

Tammy Morgan teaches biology and environmental science at Lake Placid Middle-High School. She recently delivered a preliminary report to the North Elba town board on a proposed project to install an anaerobic digester at the town-owned landfill.

As Chris Morris reports, some farms already use anaerobic digesters to process manure, but North Elba would become the first municipality on the East Coast to use this kind of technology to process food waste on site.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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Morgan says the project has the potential to make North Elba a hub for green jobs and green technology. She says the successful installation and use of an anaerobic digester could serve as a model for other communities.

“As an intern last summer, I had to come up with a bioenergy project for my community,” she said. “And the thing about our community that really bothered me was our waste management. I’m hoping to divert 900 tons of organic materials from landfills, directly from our town.”

Simply put, an anaerobic digester converts organic matter like food scraps or yard waste into marketable products like liquid or solid fertilizers and biogas.

Morgan says a lot of food consumed by people in the North Country comes from far away and is made with inorganic fertilizers that require fossil fuels to produce.

“And then what do we do with them?” Morgan asked. “We take those food wastes that we don’t quite use – we don’t use all of the food, it doesn’t all go into our stomachs – and we transport them great distances out. So we’re bringing stuff in, transporting it out. And the food that we are talking about here is something that has both matter and energy that could provide economic input into our region rather than just being this thing that we are constantly paying for.”

Morgan says the digester takes organic waste and produces digestate, which has a solid and liquid component that can be used as fertilizers. She says the digester is more useful than composting because it produces energy in the form of methane gas.

“In this system, there’s zero waste,” Morgan said. “We’re taking all of the organic material that now we are paying to remove from our region and converting that into products that stay right here.”

Food waste produces more energy than sewage or manure, Morgan said. It also has a higher economic value.

Morgan says the big challenge for North Elba is educating people to use separate containers for food wastes. She says that would require an educational campaign and community support.

“And I would say that that’s why we’re uniquely situated here because we have representatives of the (Adirondack) Green Circle here tonight, and of the Wild Center, both of which are huge advocates for environmental education and are good at getting the word out,” Morgan said.

Morgan says she would propose buying a centralized anaerobic digester facility to produce biogas. That biogas could then be used to produce heat and power for greenhouse crops, or be compressed for use with natural gas vehicles.

Morgan says the facility could be coupled with a compost unit to produce liquid fertilizer and compost. The liquid fertilizer could be used at green spaces like municipal parks, while the solid fertilizer could be sold locally.

The big question here is cost. Morgan says the entire project would likely cost close to $500,000. But she says there is funding available for projects like this through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Gail Brill of the Adirondack Green Circle says she supports the project. She says gardeners in the North Country face a big problem when it comes to sandy soils.

“Gardeners and people that want to grow their own food are really searching for this kind of compost,” Brill said. “It’s going to really change the gardening dynamic and the food supply dynamic in this area to have that kind of compost available.”

The town board is backing the project as Morgan continues her research. She hopes to have a feasibility study on the project completed by the end of July.

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