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Fremont Regional Digester threatens shutdown because of permit dispute with EGLE

The Fremont Regional Digester under construction. (file photo)
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
The Fremont Regional Digester under construction. (file photo)

A company that turns food waste into electricity, renewable natural gas, and fertilizer is threatening to close its operations because of a dispute with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

The Fremont Regional Digester (FRD) takes in food scraps, meat processing waste, and liquid manure, as well as liquids such as syrups and juices. The digester converts that waste into energy and a liquid that’s spread on farm fields.

That liquid waste is at the heart of the dispute.

When the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy looked into some complaints about odor and runoff, it found the liquid waste did not have enough nutrients to qualify as fertilizer. Fertilizers are regulated under an Agricultural Use Approval.

EGLE had been regulating the operation through its solid waste division. But in a letter to the company, it explained that since the digester is using “highly liquid feed stock” as well storing the liquid waste in large lagoons, it shouldn’t be regulated as a solid waste, especially since it the liquid waste is being spread on farm fields. EGLE officials said the Fremont Regional Digester needs a groundwater permit from the agency’s Water Resources Division.

“We keep all kinds of organic waste out of landfills,” said Bill Caesar, president of Generate Upcycle, which owns the Fremont Regional Digester.

He said his company is helping Michigan meet the new climate goals signed into law recently by Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

He feels the liquid waste the company describes as a fertilizer should be regulated by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“The fact that they want to treat this as an industrial pollutant doesn’t work at all for the material we’re producing. We need to get the regulation of our digestate (the liquid waste) out of the Water Resources Division and into another regulatory agency that is familiar with the material and knows how to regulate it properly,” Caesar said.

A spokesperson for the digester company laid out what the apparatus produces: "Digestate is a nutrient-rich substance produced by anaerobic digestion, it is used by agricultural providers as an organic fertilizer, replacing the need for synthetic chemical-based fertilizers. It consists of left-over indigestible materials, nutrients, and dead micro-organisms."

EGLE denied it’s trying to “shoehorn FRD into a regulatory framework designed for industrial pollutants,” as Caesar has said.

“The statutory obligations being discussed with your company appropriately apply to a large variety of operations, including anaerobic digesters,” EGLE Director Phillip Roos said in a letter to the company.

“Liquid wastes applied to the ground require a different legal authorization – a groundwater discharge permit,” explained Roos.

Caesar said his other operations in North America have not had the kind of regulatory experience that his company is having in Michigan.

Caesar said the Fremont Regional Digester might stop accepting organic waste at its facility at the end of the year. That would put 17 people out of work and could affect the Gerber baby food plant and local farms that rely on the facility’s services

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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