Jars of free samples greeted guests at the Dec. 1 grand opening of a wastewater facility in far east Fort Worth. 

The containers held an unorthodox gift: pellets of biosolids fertilizer, produced from sewage sludge and sold to agricultural land owners across the Metroplex. 

“I will say, I think they make wonderful stocking stuffers,” Chris Harder, Fort Worth’s water director, told a crowd of laughing city staff, City Council members and Texas Water Development Board officials.

The audience was gathered to celebrate Fort Worth’s latest investment in sewage treatment: a new biosolids processing facility, located at 2501 Greenbelt Road. 

For decades, cities across the United States have championed biosolids programs as a key method of recycling human waste after it is processed and rid of disease-causing bacteria.

Fort Worth’s program, which began in some form nearly 100 years ago, produces about 26,500 dry tons of biosolid fertilizer each year. The product is then sold to farmers and landowners in 12 North Texas counties as a cheaper, organic alternative to commercial fertilizer. 

In 2019, following years of increased odor complaints and a rise in costs, City Council members approved a contract with waste recycling company Synagro to build a new biosolids processing facility and produce dry pellet fertilizer. Synagro also took over operations from Renda Environmental at the previous facility in April 2020.

The $59 million project was financed through a low-interest loan issued by the Texas Water Development Board. The funding originally came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund. 

Brooke Paup, the chairwoman of the Texas Water Development Board, said she is technically not allowed to have a favorite project.

“But I have been watching this project for years. You guys are doing something so innovative,” Paup said. “People don’t invest as much in wastewater as they should, and you’re turning it into something that is so vital and will help our agricultural community. It’s just a win-win.”

At the previous facility, employees used belt-presses to dewater the sewage sludge material and create a cake-like fertilizer. But residents, especially those living in Bosque, Johnson and other counties where the sludge was applied, said the fertilizer caused nauseating odors for weeks at a time. 

As recently as this spring, Katherine Smith and her neighbors in Bosque County experienced what she described as horrendous odors. The 4,000-acre Houston ranch, which lies just across the Brazos River from Smith’s property near Kopperl, has applied Fort Worth’s biosolid fertilizer since at least 2021, according to previous reporting

Smith reached out to several elected officials, but was left without a path to prevent the ranch from applying biosolids, which came at little cost to the ranch owner. 

“The last time we had the really bad smell here was in March of this year,” Smith said. “My daughter said she wasn’t going to let it ruin her spring break, but it even ran her back in the house. We had to leave the farm to do any kind of outside activities.”

At the new facility, which became operational in late July, staff use a rotary drum dryer to produce dry pellets of fertilizer instead of the cake-like material. Harder said the city has not heard any complaints about the new fertilizer since Synagro began applying it to land this summer. 

“As far as the customers, since Synagro is responsible for the distribution, I have not heard any negative at all,” Harder said. “As far as resident complaints, we don’t get any of those complaints any more.” 

Fort Worth also expects the new facility to reduce long-term operational costs by 40%, or at least $2 million annually. The previous process typically cost the city about $410 to produce a dry ton, according to a city info sheet. Now, that cost has been reduced to about $310 per dry ton. 

Synagro also plans to market the pellets beyond applying them to local farms, including the possibility of selling the product in stores. 

The transportation costs are also expected to drop thanks to the smaller size of the fertilizer. Daily transport of biosolids is expected to drop from 22 truck runs to six, according to the city info sheet. 

Smith, who created a Facebook group for Bosque County residents to discuss biosolids issues, said she didn’t experience odor problems or hear of any from fellow group members this summer. That gives her family hope that their days of staying inside to avoid the stench of sewage sludge are over. 

“I’m hopeful,” Smith said. “I mean, it can’t be worse, right?” 

The water department is also excited for new possibilities. There’s plans to reduce costs further by using “biogas” fuel from the city’s Village Creek Water Reclamation Facility to power the biosolids facility. 

Biogas refers to any gas, especially methane, that is produced from organic materials like agricultural or human waste. A pipeline to transfer the biogas from Village Creek to the biosolids plant is scheduled for completion in April 2024. 

District 5  council member Gyna Bivens cheered the leadership of the water department and the lack of odor she has experienced with the new fertilizer product. The facility was built in Mosier Valley, a historically Black community that is part of Bivens’ district in the eastern part of the city. 

“(The water department) has taken a giant leap,” Bivens said. “Investing in wastewater? Who does that? We have been doing wastewater treatment the same old way, every day, the same old time, the same old process, no change in sight. But then people started getting innovative.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley SamselEnvironmental Reporter

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. Her coverage is made possible by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman...