REXBURG — Mayor Richard Woodland and two city employees spent $5,000 on a trip to Europe to personally witness technology they said could drastically improve the sewer treatment process in Rexburg.

Woodland, Public Works Director John Millar and City Attorney Stephen Zollinger flew to Zurich on May 5 and returned on May 12. During their time there, they also went to Munich to view waste management equipment.

No purchases have been made as a result of the trip yet.

Airfare, transportation and meals made up the bulk of the expenses for the trip. M2 Renewables and Huber Technology, the European companies who sell the equipment, furnished the lodging for the three city officials.

When asked why the officials chose to fly to Europe instead of using cheaper video or print options, Woodland said it was vital to observe the process and inspect the machinery firsthand.

Funds for the trip were paid out of the city’s current $10 million sewer improvement bond, said Richard Horner, Rexburg’s chief financial officer.

The bond, which was approved by judicial confirmation in September 2010, created a fund for new utility and system construction and is designed to be self-sustaining through building permit fees.

Members of the sewer oversight committee, comprised of city council members Chris Mann, Sally Smith and Jerry Merrill, approved the expense in advance, Horner said.

City officials said the fact-finding tour will pay off for the city as it seeks better technology to deal with bio-solids, the sludge that is left at the end of the sewer treatment process.

After concluding that traditional methods wouldn’t work, Woodland said the city turned its focus to cutting-edge technology developed by a Swiss-German company.

Woodland and Millar said they decided the best option was to see the process in operation to learn if it really would deliver as promised.

Although operational in Europe, none of the equipment has been installed yet in the U.S.

“I was very skeptical — in my lifetime I’ve seen a lot of gimmicks,” Woodland said.

But the trio came back convinced that the process works as promised.

“They had an answer to every question,” said Woodland.

Millar said Zollinger’s role on the trip was to check out warranty specifications and relay the EPA and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s legal requirements to company officials.

Zollinger is also qualified as a civil engineer.

“He was involved in incineration — trash to energy projects — in Utah,” Millar said.

While in Europe, city officials toured the facilities of M2 Renewables, which manufactures the M2R Thermal Energy Conversion equipment. The officials also traveled to Munich, Germany, to see the equipment in operation.

The M2R Thermal Energy Conversion system uses a reaction process to convert sewer treatment plant bio-solids into combustible gas and inert solids that can be used for road base or as an additive to concrete.

“In the upgrading of our treatment plant, we’ve been looking at a better method of disposing of our bio-solids,” Millar said. “They’re actively trying to get into the U.S. Market. We’re the first ones (in the U.S.) to actively pursue utilization of this specific technology.”

He said city officials have been looking for a long-term solution to bio-solid disposal for some time because the material has to be hauled away and can create odor problems.

In 2008, odor problems from drying sludge that had been held over through the winter led officials to explore ways to dispose of the odors at Rexburg’s sewer treatment plant.

In subsequent stages the city added a gravity belt thickener to decrease the amount of water in the bio-solids and made other improvements, such as the addition of a bio-tower. The tank is filled with a honeycomb-like plastic filter media that serves as a surface for bacteria that break down waste to grow on.

When dry enough to haul by dump truck, the bio-solids are hauled to a 40-acre site west of the city near the landfill where the matter is tilled into the ground.

If the conversion process now under consideration proves effective, it would eliminate much of the hauling and allow the city to generate electricity with the gaseous byproduct.

During the trip, the three city officials also spent one day in Munich at the IFAT ENSORGA, billed as the world’s leading trade fair for water, sewage, waste and raw materials management.

“It was interesting to see what’s out there for the future,” Millar said.

But the main focus on the trip came back to a potential breakthrough for Rexburg’s bio-solid problem.

Millar said they presented M2 Renewables with information on the city’s needs and requirements in light of EPA and Idaho DEQ requirements.

“It looks favorable to date,” Millar said. “We haven’t seen a proposal yet. Now we know enough to ask meaningful questions.”

He said a previous informational exploration trip to California over two years ago focused on solar drying processes, but Rexburg’s weather don’t make those a good fit.

He said incineration processes can eliminate the solids, but lead to air quality problems.

According to Millar, the next steps are to present what has been learned to the Rexburg City Council and continue the dialog with M2 Renewables.

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