Save Our Digester Group - Adding a Sludge of Questions to the Mix

The digester's work: According to a post on PLSD’s FB page, “what is called the “digester”… is a tube that woodchips, paper, cardboard and biosolids are loaded into and mixes the material together for about 24 to 48 hours. The material is placed on an aerated concrete floor where compost piles are constructed and this is where the composting occurs.”

PINETOP-LAKESIDE – The Save Our Digester group is growing in numbers. There are 34 members who have joined their Facebook page group and there are at least 135 people previewing the site. The operative word in the title of the group is “our,” as ratepayers feel ownership in the digester in which so much taxpayer money has been invested.

In November a rumor circulated around the Mountain that the so-called digester — a piece of equipment used for large -scale paper composting — had been shut down and replaced. This drew interested ratepayers together who wanted answers, thus the forming of the digester group.

The Pinetop-Lakeside Sanitary District (PLSD) provides sewer service and wastewater treatment for Pinetop-Lakeside and other areas of Navajo County. It serves approximately 8,200 customers who pay for the service, including the operation of the digester.

Many people showed up at the December board meeting, and 10 actually spoke about their concerns at the call to the public. It was learned in that board meeting that the digester — correctly named rotary biomixer, per District Manager Dave Smith — has not been shut down to date and is still operating though new equipment with new technology was approved, ordered and has been received.

PLSD reported that it will cost between $200,000 to $270,000 to repair the digester they have been using for approximately 16 years. They say it is a question of spending money to repair the equipment or going with newer technology.

In November Board Member Meier motioned for the district manager to purchase a Roto Tub Grinder not to exceed $22,000 and a Roto Mixer not to exceed $58,000. Board Member Place seconded. Board Member Kengla motioned for the district manager to purchase an appropriate tractor not to exceed $65,000. Board Member Place seconded. After further discussion Board Member Kengla amended the amount to purchase not to exceed $74,000. Board Member Place seconded, according to the meeting minutes. This new equipment would replace the digester.

“The digester is still up and running; it still has useful life but we are moving toward different technology to do the same thing – trying to find new technology (at) a fraction of the cost of electricity,” board member Kris Kengla told the Independent after the December meeting.

The Save Our Digester group wants answers and is not only asking the questions but also doing the research.

Posted on the Independent’s Facebook page in response to the Dec. 27 article, Ellen Atkin wrote, “The PLSD ratepayers have bought and paid for, invested in, a multi-million dollar custom-built Eweson Digester and its proven supporting process improvements. We are sixteen years into the life of the digester, longer for the supporting capital improvements, and yet, we are buying replacement equipment and ‘experimenting’ with supporting processes.”

District Manager Dave Smith said, “If it is such great technology, why doesn’t Snowflake and Taylor and Show Low do it? How come nobody else uses it? What do other people do with compost municipal waste? Look at that.”

Smith says that he is trying to work with people who have concerns.

“When I gave my number out at the board meeting,” explained Smith, “and said if anyone wants to discuss anything with me, that was meant for anyone in attendance that night, not the 8,200 people in the district. I meant one-on-one. I have no problem talking to anyone who has an honest, legitimate issue and is not just looking to find fault.”

“If you research our board members, you will see they have been around for a long time. They are a great board. They have their own thoughts and opinions. I am not leading them to do what I want,” he added.

Gary Atkin, a former district manager and former board member for PLSD, and a Save our Digester member, says he submitted requests for information about nine items, and eight are outstanding. The one item that has been fulfilled is that of meeting minutes. Atkin said he has been been reviewing the PLSD minutes at their office. Ellen Atkin has submitted two formal requests and has received one to date. She has also been able to go in and review minutes on site. Atkin mentioned that it says requests will be filled within a reasonable time.

Smith said he thought they had complied with all of Atkin’s requests, and reasonable time depends on the request.

Smith explained that after each board meeting someone transcribes the minutes and a week later they go to the board for review and any possible changes. Then they go to the attorney, because they have a new employee doing them. After they are approved by the board they post them on the website the next day. They have the minutes all the way back to when the district was formed. The December meeting minutes, however may be somewhat delayed.

The January meeting is on the calendar for Jan. 8 but as of right now, Smith says there is no business to place on the agenda and a cancellation notice will be posted. That means the December minutes will not be approved by the board until the February meeting which makes them unavailable for two months.

According to Smith, though meeting notices are only required 24 hours in advance of a meeting, he usually has them posted the Thursday before. If he has not received agenda items for the meeting from the board by that Thursday before, he checks with Chairman Neil Whittle. When there is nothing on the agenda, the meeting is canceled.

Smith said Whittle says they will not have a meeting just to have a meeting. There is, however, still time to post the agenda should anything change.

If a cancellation of the Jan. 8 meeting is posted, it looks like there will be a lot of one-on-one visits to the PLSD office and possibly a very lengthy Call to the Public at the Feb. 12 board meeting.

Reach the reporter at

Barbara Bruce is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering arts and entertainment on the Mountain and the Pinetop-Lakeside town government.

(3) comments


The quotes by the PLSD general manager, in the news article, sound defensive. I hope WMI will do a follow-up news article to allow for his further comments to the public.


It is time for a citizen's advisory committee.

“When I gave my number out at the board meeting,” explained Smith, “and said if anyone wants to discuss anything with me, that was meant for anyone in attendance that night, not the 8,200 people in the district. I meant one-on-one. I have no problem talking to anyone who has an honest, legitimate issue and is not just looking to find fault.” ~Dave Smith, PLSD District Manager, White Mountain Independent, January 3, 2020

Citizens being concerned about the operation of the digester, recycling paper and cardboard, and preventing as much waste from going to the landfill as possible, are not new issues here in Pinetop-Lakeside. Many of those concerned today, have been asking 'honest, legitimate' questions and seeking information for quite a few years now. Apparently, they are not receiving adequate answers or a convincing enough argument to allow them to understand the need to throw the baby out with the bath water. We are not looking to find fault. However, we are looking for honest and legitimate answers. And, it appears that the information we ARE receiving doesn't look good for our community's future wastewater and environmental needs, let alone, protecting an already tried and true multi-million dollar investment.


The following is a small sample of the questions presented by concerned citizens to the PLSD Board of Directors at the December 11 meeting. Any one, or several, of these items could have been placed on the agenda for discussion at the January 8 meeting. How will these questions and concerns now be addressed by management and the Board of Directors?

...hate to see it scrapped without a replacement process being fully reviewed and explored. If the digester is removed, one thing is for certain, it cannot be replaced. ...request that the board form a group of concerned ratepayers to review the suggestions that PLSD management has proposed.

...would like to know more about what the board is considering. ...held open houses and public hearings in the past and suggest that you do so again in your consideration of replacing this machine. ...the public deserve to know how we will be impacted if you change this process. Will the community still be able to drop off paper and cardboard for recycling? Will you still provide composting to the community? Will any waste be taken to the landfill?

The board chairman in 2015 said about the removal of the digester “Since this has come up, I've gotten a lot of feedback and the community is shocked. I'm happy with what we are doing now and have had no negative feedback. The community wants it and are willing to pay the costs.” “...the community backs the digester 100 percent...”. (Chairman Dennis Bluhm quoted in the Independent January 15, 2015) What has changed since this comment by the board chairman? Why is the digester now being removed?

Has a cost/benefit analysis been done?

Has there been a life cycle analysis of the digester?

Is there funding for digester operation, repair and maintenance?

Have you had a professional engineering firm weigh in on this?

Is the digester fully paid for? How much did it cost? Has it been fully depreciated?

How much does it cost to operate the digester?

How much does it cost to repair and maintain it?

In 2015, PLSD board member Chris Kengla said in a discussion about removing the digester, “We have a social and environmental responsibility here.” Does the PLSD board feel like it has a social and environmental responsibility? Does the board feel like it has a responsibility to solicit public commentary and ideas when considering major issues like this? We feel like we are being left out of the equation. Does the board feel it is important to include us?

Board meeting minutes talk about the difficulty in operating the digester. Why is this happening now? Are the operators fully trained in its operation? If so, why are there problems?

The minutes talk about a replacement process. Has the public been fully informed about this replacement and the ramifications that it will have?

How much has the board already approved for the replacement of the digester? Is it too late to go back?

It looks like some very expensive equipment has been purchased to replace the digester. Was it purchased under a competitive bid process?

How much does the district spend on electricity to run the digester? Minutes discuss putting on a separate power meter. Has that been done?

Previous board minutes talk about a study to be done by a firm called Tetra Tech. Was this study done? How much did it cost? What was the result?

Has an Asset Management Plan ever been done by the district?

When was the last Strategic Development Plan performed by the district?

Why...eliminate a process that has worked for so long and so well? Is it strictly financial? have you come up with the financial numbers to do this. Is it technical or mechanical? Please provide the documentation.

Is the process flawed or is the machinery breaking down? What kind of maintenance is required to keep it operating efficiently?

...a compost material is produced by PLSD. Is it available to the public? Is it sold to private companies or outlets or can it be bought here? Is it safe to use on a garden? How much would it cost for a pickup load?

Has the public been asked for their opinion on this issue? As a taxpayer and ratepayer to PLSD... have a right to give some input on this before a decision is made.

...don't know anyone who wants to get rid of this positive usage of recycled materials. How much money has already been spent on this investment and how much will we lose by removing it? Who has come to you and demanded or even suggested that we do this?

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