Friday, December 03, 2004

Amherst Pellet Project Poops Out

Or perhaps the subtitle should be, "What are these people smoking?" (Answer: Fertilizer Pellets) The joke's on Amherst. Or is it Clarence? Or perhaps the man in charge of running a decade-long project designed to turn sewage into marketable fertilizer pellets. No, not convicted killer Scott Peterson, although this job sounds tailor-made for him. Maybe we could get him assigned to Attica. The gist of it is that the town of Amherst faced escalating costs for treating its de-liquefied sewage, aka "sludge" and was looking for a way to reduce costs. Enter the Duke and the Dauphin, no, wait, make that the marketing manager for New Coke, hold it, okay, let's go with The Emperors New Men's Shop. Well, whomever it was, the brilliant idea was to transform the sludge into marketable fertilizer pellets which would no longer cost the town to dispose of, but rather would earn income that would offset other expenses. Great idea! I have always wanted to use coffee grounds for mulch or rain runoff for gas or ordinary household dust for drugs to be sold on the black market. So why not sludge into fertilizer pellets? Unfortunately there were some significant startup costs, and they had to hire the Wizard of Oz to oversee the project. It took years to come to fruition, but when it finally did they were in the Waste Marketing Business big time. The Miracle Pellets were christened "AmEarth" a funky combination of Amherst and the planet upon which it sits (precariously, it must be noted, as Amherst moves ten feet closer to China every time a car strikes a deer in the area.) Not dissuaded by any tenuous link to the term "Amway" (would the whole town soon be able to retire and spend the rest of their lives sailing their yachts around the aforementioned planet?), the town plunged ahead with its plan. I would have come up with a name reminiscent of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound era of music and called the product "Stoolettes." The town spent $16 million on plans, equipment, operating expenses, and of course "consultants." (I of course was not consulted. I would've asked what other town in America was successfully funding their local ice skating rink by selling people its leftover sewage. After I received the list I would've wiped my butt with it. Recycling! Perhaps reams of paper from the town meeting's minutes can be turned into a product called Fharmin.) Anyway. Well 1998 turned out to be a banner year for Sludge Sales, with 682 tons of pellets being sold to local farmers and others. (Retail price: unknown. But this is Buffalo. I'm sure everyone used their coupons and took advantage of 2 tons for the price of one specials.) At last Amherst, one of the most prestigious suburbs of the Buffalo area, was ready to stake its reputation as King of the Cowpies. Buffalo too could benefit from the added cachet of being associated with such a successful project. Forget the Rust Belt! We could be the Colony of Compost. The Deans of Decomposition. The Emperors of Entropy. Or whatever the chamber of commerce could think up to cash in on our revitalized aura. But after 1998 a suspicious odor began emanating from the project. It was not the Sweet Smell of Success. By the turn of the millenium instead of seeing glowing reports in Business Week, Forbes and Fertilizer Daily, they were looking at red ink. And complaints from towns such as Clarence, which felt its residents were being overcharged for expenses due to a questionable project that no one had a say in. The town was still furiously producing the pellets, but was now only selling 12 percent of them. Many of the farmers were taking away tons of pellets for free. As a charitable thing. At least Amherst wasn't paying for having the stuff hauled away. You see there's another problem with the odiferous little pellets. They are combustible. Yes! They have a tendency to burst into flames at odd moments, such as when the Niagara River is flowing. To top it off, the town has spent exorbitant amounts of money trying to sack the project manager, whom they blame for the whole mess. Others say he is being scapegoated for telling the truth, which according to him is that the project was poorly planned. (d'ya think?) Of course the town followed improper procedures in attempting the disciplinary action, costing even more money and causing the poor fellow to be reinstated. (I call him "poor fellow" only in deference to how this must look on a resume.) So now everyone is upset, and the locals in those sewage districts are left holding the bag (perhaps it has been affixed to the town's collective rear end, like they do with horses in New York City). But there is a silver lining in all this. If Buffalo really runs into trouble with its whole budget and taxing crisis, it can always send up a flare. Just run up to Amherst and light a match.

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