Years after failure of composting facility, city finally close to wrapping up complicated project

Officials await OK on Compost Cincy plan

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati is finally starting to close the book on a business that it once hoped could help it reduce its landfill costs -- and help save the planet, too.

In January, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency signed off on a cleanup plan for the former Compost Cincy site on Este Avenue in Winton Hills. Among other things, the plan calls for the city to analyze lab samples taken from the site and determine if the site is safe to be used – which officials say the city has done.

The city has now submitted those samples to the Ohio EPA and is waiting on the OK to proceed with closing the site. That will involve spreading and seeding the compost that remains onsite; creating stormwater controls and a plan to manage stormwater until the seedlings are established; and moving a portion of the compost offsite to use in local gardens and farms.

When the work’s done late this year, the plan is to sell the site for light industrial use.

Ohio EPA had originally wanted the city to dispose of the remaining onsite waste in a landfill, but this would have cost about $1 million.

In August 2012, Compost Cincy began leasing the property, part of the city’s former Center Hill Landfill, to operate a commercial food waste composting facility.

The city wanted to do something with food waste other than put it in a landfill, which is neither cheap nor environmentally friendly, and Compost Cincy seemed to answer that need. In 2011, the Hamilton County Waste Composition Study estimated that food scraps make up nearly 20 percent, or 17,578 tons, of residential waste generated per year locally.

The U.S. EPA estimates that nationally, food scraps account for 18 percent of all landfill waste, and they have three times the methane-creation potential of biosolids. Before it breaks down into carbon dioxide after a decade or two, methane warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2.

When it was last updated in 2013, the Green Cincinnati Plan, the city’s roadmap for becoming a national leader in addressing climate change, referred several times to Compost Cincy and its potential to help fulfill the plan.

“With the introduction of Compost Cincy, Cincinnati is becoming a leader in the diversion of food scraps and yard debris from landfills,” the plan noted. It would be cheaper to drop off yard debris and food scraps at Compost Cincy than to pay $25 a ton to landfill them, the report said.

“Not only are the yard debris and food scraps being diverted from area landfills, but by using Compost Cincy to recycle these items, jobs are created throughout the process helping to stimulate the economy,” the plan said.

Unfortunately, after just a few months in operation, Compost Cincy started getting complaints about odors, birds, insects and other vermin. A lawsuit the city later filed against the business said that neighbors a mile away, including in Elmwood Place, were bothered by the smell, even inside buildings.

Neighboring businesses began complaining in March 2013. According to a memo from then-City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr., those businesses represented a total of 249 employees, annual payrolls of $9.3 million and $12.6 million in facility investments.

City staff tried to find another location for the business but couldn’t and decided to terminate Compost Cincy’s lease in April 2013. However, according to the lawsuit, the company didn’t vacate the property until the city locked it out in February 2014.

In the lawsuit, the city alleged that the company left behind more than 40,000 cubic yards of unfinished compost and waste. City officials wanted the company to reimburse the city for $279,000 paid to a private contractor to help mitigate odors; install stormwater controls; remove waste from compostable materials; and spread, mix and aerate the waste.

The Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas granted the city a default judgment for $353,000 plus interest. The city never collected any of that money, however, because Compost Cincy went out of business, said Rocky Merz, the city’s director of communications.

The experience with Compost Cincy convinced city officials that future composting operations should be done indoors, Dohoney wrote in the 2013 memo. The best option would involve an anaerobic digester that would break food waste down in sealed vessels to produce compost and natural gas, both of which could be sold.

Officials were working with organizations interested in partnering with the city to create such a facility, and with purchasing the end products, Dohoney wrote.

There are still discussions about building this kind of facility in Cincinnati, Merz said, but it’s likely the city wouldn’t be an active partner in such a project. The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati wants to build two such digesters to treat human waste from its sewage system.

Meanwhile, most of the city’s food waste still goes to a landfill, Merz said. Many residents do backyard composting, some facilities do onsite composting and some pay to have their food waste hauled to commercial compost facilities. 

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