By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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There is, within the realm of such things, a particularly noxious form of liquid waste called grease, grit and septage, or, as it's sometimes referred to by those in the business of handling it, GG&S.
GG&S is considered "nonhazardous," meaning it doesn't kill or maim. You probably don't want it moving in next door, though. Or down the block. Or a quarter-mile away, even. GG&S smells to high heaven, an unforgettable stench that stings the eyes and buckles the knees.
The grease in GG&S comes from restaurants, which are required to collect the unconsumed flotsam and jetsam of the dining trade in underground tanks called grease traps. The grit is wastewater from self-service laundries and car washes. Septage, of course, comes from septic tanks. This evil melange is sucked up by vacuum trucks the size of tractor-trailers and hauled to treatment plants, which remove the crud and clean the water.
Until recently it went without question that such plants were located in heavily industrialized areas, a reasonable distance from those who would resent the odor, if not the constant groaning of the vacuum trucks.
Rather than bringing the sludge to the plant, Daniel G. Noyes wants to bring the plant to the sludge. Noyes, doing business as Downstream Environmental, L.L.C., wants to build a GG&S processing facility in the 1600 block of Oak Tree Drive.
That happens to be in Spring Branch, but it could be in any one of the older neighborhoods in zoning-less Houston, where homes, schools and churches share sidewalks (or, just as likely, ditches) with apartment complexes, office buildings, light manufacturing facilities, warehouses, an assortment of blue-collar small businesses and, more to the point, restaurants and fast-food joints.
But they don't share a waste treatment plant as a neighbor. Noyes's proposal has already caused a stink of its own among the residents and business operators in the area. They vehemently oppose Downstream Environmental's plant application, filed last July with the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission.
The concern is the possibility that the plant, with a processing capacity of 30,000 gallons a day, will not, despite Noyes's assurances, be odorless. Then there's the truck traffic: According to his application, Noyes expects a minimum of five round-trip visits per day from waste haulers.
"A lot of people are saying, 'How can this guy put this in here?' " says Tom Ostrowsky. He's a member of Our Lady of Czestochowa, a Catholic church one block east of the proposed plant. The largely Polish-American congregation, which has raised $350,000 for an expansion of the church, has led the opposition to the proposed plant, which would be less than 100 feet from the church parking lot.
"This is not a place for this kind of plant," argues Ostrowsky. "Does the guy have no conscience? Does he need the money? He can't find another location?"
But Mary Wimbish, Noyes's partner, says the company is about to "really revolutionize" the processing of GG&S. According to Wimbish, Downstream Environmental has perfected "urban-friendly liquid waste disposal."
"Traditionally these plants do stink, but we have put a lot of time and money into research and development," Wimbish says. "We're environmentalists. This is something that we pioneered."
What exactly Downstream has pioneered is something of a mystery, however. No one except a few people at the TNRCC are privy to the details of Noyes's process. Wimbish says that, until a patent is issued, confidentiality agreements prohibit any discussion of the new technology.
"That's our secret," she says.
As business propositions go, Dan Noyes has a pretty good idea. For years GG&S was dumped in landfills. In 1993 federal clean-water legislation banned that practice. Now, the collection, treatment and disposal of nonhazardous liquid waste is a $25 billion-a-year industry. Houston is considered a rich market. About 13,000 businesses collectively produce more than one million gallons of GG&S daily.
But only a handful of Houston's treatment plants are equipped to handle the especially difficult waste. As much as 500 times more concentrated than garden-variety sewage, GG&S puts an inordinate amount of stress on the city's wastewater treatment system. Moreover, if not handled correctly during the pretreatment stage, GG&S could impact water quality.
The substance is particularly messy. Leroy Arce, a plant manager for U.S. Liquids, which treats about 1.5 million gallons of GG&S a month, says he spent more than $100,000 upgrading his air scrubbers and odor monitoring equipment last year. Even so, "it's almost humanly impossible" to take the stink out of GG&S.
"It's easier to stay in compliance when you're in an industrial area, because it's very hard, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to say, 'I don't emit any odors,' " Arce says. "It's not going to happen. I've been in this business for about 25 years, and I've tried everything in the world."
But he hasn't tried Downstream Environmental's new process, says Wimbish. She says Noyes had an unqualified success with a two-year pilot project. He operated a GG&S plant next to the city of Pearland's wastewater treatment facility.
The Spring Branch facility will be a commercial prototype, a relatively small plant that will demonstrate the reliability of Noyes's process, which the company plans to employ on a greater scale later on, she says.