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Compost fire at Hornsby Bend plant to cost city some $9 million

Friday, June 14, 2013 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin spent nearly $3 million to extinguish a February fire at the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant. According to a memo from Austin Water Utility director Greg Meszaros to Mayor and Council, the utility was forced to let out a contract to OMI Environmental Solutions in order to put out fires that spread among compost at the facility.


The utility is now set to begin cleanup operations. According to the memo, those could take up to two years and cost city taxpayers an additional $6 million.


The utility placed an item on the June 20 Council agenda asking for ratification of the additional firefighting expense – something of a formality, considering that the work has been completed.


In addition to the cost associated with putting out the fire, the memo lists a host of next steps that will ultimately lead to the reopening of the facility to Austin Resource Recovery composting on July 1.  Resource Recovery spokeswoman Alexandria Bruton says in the meantime, yard waste – the source of the compost at Hornsby Bend – is being processed under a temporary Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permit at the no-longer functioning FM 820 landfill. It is then transported to Hornsby Bend.


In the memo, Meszaros notes that the fires were likely caused by spontaneous combustion, and that high winds caused the flames to spread rapidly. Though the Austin Fire Department responded to the incident, they did so “to prevent the fires from spreading and becoming a wildfire.”


The utility then turned to OMI to finish putting out the fires. “Compost fires are not your typical fire,” Austin Water’s Assistant Director of Treatment Jane Burazer told In Fact Daily. “We needed specialized equipment brought in to fight this fire.”


It took OMI three days to put down the most dangerous portions of the blaze. However, the company continued work at Hornsby Bend from March 4 through March 22. Between Austin Fire and OMI, 6.7 million gallons of water was expended from “on-site ponds.” Nearly 5 million gallons was later replaced.


According to the memo, post-fire cleanup operations will prioritize Resource Recovery’s yard waste grinding site. As part of that effort, the utility will solicit bids to clear 200,000 cubic yards of what Meszaros calls “burnt and charred materials left over following the fire” – a figure roughly equivalent to “10,000 to 12,000 haul trucks of material.”


In the memo, Meszaros adds that “compost piles, by nature, are susceptible to spontaneous combustion and long term drought conditions have increased these risks.” He writes that, “in response, Austin Water is taking steps to mitigate the risk and strengthen on site fire suppression capabilities.”

According to Meszaros, those efforts include reconfigurations of the size, shape, orientation, and spacing of compost and the purchase of water cannons.

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