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Lexington considering an anaerobic digester

A local desire to get “greener” and a push by the state to ban large institutions from discarding food waste into landfills has prompted Lexington to consider housing one of the state’s first anaerobic digesters on municipal land.

The digesters use micro-organisms to break down organic materials, such as food and yard waste, in a process that creates “biogas,’’ which can be burned to produce electricity, and leftover material that can be used as fertilizer.

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Lexington last week began a series of meetings to inform residents about the process, and gather feedback on whether the community will support setting up an anaerobic digester on the former landfill property on Hartwell Avenue. The second installment is convening at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at Cary Memorial Library, 1874 Massachusetts Ave.

Lexington is one of four communities that have received a grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection to investigate hosting an anaerobic digester, said Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the state agency. Bourne, Hamilton, and New Bedford, which operates a regional trash-disposal facility with Dartmouth, have also received funding, he said.

Franklin is considering allowing a private developer to open an anaerobic digester on town-owned land on Pond Street.

In Lexington, Selectwoman Deb Mauger said her board is investigating the process in part because Town Meeting passed a resolution asking officials to consider the impact that local initiatives have on climate change.

Some residents have expressed concerns about odor and noise from the digester facility, and the number of large trucks that would be hauling organic waste to the property.

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“The question is: Is it appropriate for the town of Lexington,” said George Burnell, a former selectman who is worried about the truck traffic.

Coletta said the state sees a lot of benefits in anaerobic digesters, including the creation of energy from a renewable source and reducing the amount of waste going into landfills. An anaerobic digester at the Jordan Dairy Farm in Rutland, Mass., converts food waste into energy, and several waste-water treatment plants in the state also use anaerobic digesters, Coletta said. Nearly 200 of the plants are in operation across Europe.

“We’re very confident that there is a very good upside,” he said.

This summer, Coletta said, the state’s environmental agency is planning to issue draft regulations that would ban large institutions — such as universities, convention centers, hospitals, and commercial food processors — that create a ton or more of food waste a week from sending it to a landfill or incinerator. Under the change, which is being targeted for implementation next summer, the institutions would be required to send the organic material to an anaerobic digester or a composting facility, Coletta said.

In the meantime, the state is also looking at the possibility of creating small anaerobic digester facilities at three state-owned sites, including at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and prisons in Norfolk and Shirley. He said those digesters would use organic waste created by the institutions where they are located.

If the ban covering food waste is implemented, there would be a market for operations that could process the material, said Bruce Haskell, a consultant with Cambridge-based Camp, Dresser & McKee Inc. The engineering firm was hired by Lexington to look at the feasibility of setting up an anaerobic digester on the town property.

Mauger said Lexington is interested in issuing a request for proposals from vendors that would give detailed accounts about the operation they would run at the Hartwell Avenue site, including the traffic levels and any odors that would be created. The town doesn’t have an estimate for what it could make by leasing the property, she said.

Franklin recently sent its town administrator to visit an anaerobic digester in Michigan for a first-hand look at the facility and whether the operation was causing any odor or traffic problems for the community, Town Council chairman Bob Vallee said.

He said the town administrator had a positive review of the facility, but the council has tabled the idea for further consideration after several Franklin residents raised concerns about the truck traffic in and out of the site.

Valle said he believes the digester would be a good source of revenue for the town, generating perhaps $500,000 a year. He noted that the Pond Street property is an old sewer bed situated right off Interstate 495, and said trucks serving the facility would not be driving through the town.

In addition to the revenue the digester could create for the town, he said, it would also generate reusable energy.

“It’s a win-win situation, as far as I’m concerned,” Vallee said.

Concerns about odor, noise, and trucks at the Hartwell Avenue site in Lexington were raised by several residents at the informational meeting last Thursday at Cary Memorial Hall.

Maureen Joseph said she’s worried about the truck traffic, and whether odors from the anaerobic digester would prevent her from opening her windows or going outside.

“I really do not want to become a prisoner in my own home,” Joseph said.

But Mauger said the town would not go forward with the idea if the operation would cause unacceptable odor or traffic problems.

“It is a show-stopper, it wouldn’t happen,” Mauger said.

Mauger said that in the town’s limited research, odor has not seemed to be a problem at the facilities.

The Hartwell Avenue site has close access to Route 128/Interstate 95, and has been used for composting as well as storage for public works and emergency equipment, said Haskell.

The consultant estimated that from 25 to 50 trucks from Greater Boston could visit the facility per day.

Mauger said more meetings will be held after the Thursday morning session to determine whether the digester is something the town wishes to pursue.

She said Lexington needs to decide whether it really means what it has said about being a green community.

“Now is the hard work,” she said.

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.

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