Lard Have Mercy?
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.
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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.
"When you stepped ten feet away from our pilot plant, which was an open, outdoor process, you couldn't smell anything," Wimbish says. "You had to be standing next to the equipment to smell anything."
Not everyone remembers it that way. Darren Coker, a lawyer for the city of Pearland, says public works officials there wanted to shut down Noyes's facility after six months because of concerns about the quality of the water being sent to the city's plant. When Noyes and Wimbish threatened to sue, the city agreed to extend the lease for a year and added performance guidelines.
According to Coker, the company, known as The Grease Spot, operated within the lease terms "most of the time." Whether or not that performance set a new standard for liquid waste disposal is another matter.
"They were very optimistic and liked to brag," Coker says. "But we never really saw any numbers that indicated that it was achieving what they were claiming. We were pretty much determined to not renew their lease."
As for the question on the minds of Noyes's future neighbors in Spring Branch: "I can tell you," Coker says, "it's not odor-free. Fortunately there were no residents in the immediate vicinity, so it didn't become a major problem for us."
Wimbish says the Pearland problems stemmed from a now-retired city wastewater supervisor who "harassed" Noyes and may have been in cahoots with a competitor of Noyes's.
The situation, Wimbish says, eventually escalated into a volley of legal threats that destroyed The Grease Spot's relationship with the city of Pearland.
"The reason they wanted us to leave, quite frankly, is because we threatened to sue them," Wimbish says. "But we went out there as scientists. We just wanted to turn our plant on and go do what we were going to do, but this [supervisor] was interfering with our ability to do business."
Louis Knieper, a former Noyes business partner, doesn't think the plant superintendent harassed anyone, at least during his few-month involvement with the pilot project.
Knieper says he and associate Gary Tipton helped Noyes develop the new GG&S treatment process when the three men owned a company called Ecoloquip, located at the proposed Spring Branch plant site. After helping build the pilot plant, Knieper and Noyes had a falling-out over "operational issues."
"I can tell you that when Mr. Noyes was running the plant, he was not above cutting corners because he needed money," Knieper recalls. "And he was not above taking in materials when he didn't have the space to take in materials. He had a lot of spills, a lot of problems, a lot of things that went wrong."
Knieper bought Noyes's shares in Ecoloquip, though he continued to provide equipment to Noyes. That relationship ended when Wimbish sued him in a dispute over rent at the Oak Tree Drive location, which is owned by the Noyes family. Knieper suspects that the suit was filed to make room for Downstream Environmental.
"Even though I paid Dan a quarter-million bucks for a start-up company, she decided we needed to go away because they wanted to put the wastewater treatment plant there," says Knieper. He credits Noyes with "a long and acclaimed record" in the liquid waste disposal industry, but admits to a certain dislike for Wimbish. "They were going to be kicked out of Pearland, and they had no place to go. So she sued us."
Knieper says the lawsuit over the rent ended when he agreed to move Ecoloquip.
"My daddy raised me not to be anyplace I'm not wanted," he says.
Nowadays there are a lot of people who don't want Downstream Environmental in Spring Branch. The TNRCC has taken note. The state agency "is going through the extra step of reviewing [Noyes's] application a second time," says TNRCC spokesperson Ruben Ocho.
That may not be enough to stop the plant, however. If Noyes's application meets all the technical requirements -- that is, if it outlines how odor will be controlled -- then the agency may have no choice but to approve it.
"We can't guarantee that there are not going to be odors," Ocho points out. "If the regional office starts getting complaints -- 'Hey, this place stinks' -- that's when we respond. All we can do is review their process to abate the smell, and if it meets the standard, then it meets the standard."
Of course no one in Spring Branch really knows exactly how Downstream Environmental plans to control the stench of GG&S. Tom Ostrowsky realizes that if Noyes wants to put a GG&S treatment plant in the neighborhood, there's not much residents can do to stop it.
Still, aware of the mixed-use nature of their neighborhood, they might be willing to give an entrepreneur like Dan Noyes some benefit of the doubt, if he'll first share the secret of his new technology.
"But they don't want anyone to look at that," says David Curcio, a lawyer representing plant opponents. "The problem everyone has is, do we believe them when they say it's odorless? We don't want to wait until it's there to find out, well, they were wrong, it isn't odorless."
E-mail Brian Wallstin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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