Construction underway at Perham Resource Recovery Facility

Brian Schmidt, plant manager at the Perham Resource Recovery Facility, says it's his pet peeve when people call the place an "incinerator." Incinerators, he says, burn garbage, plain and simple. But the building in Perham is what he calls a "wast...

Brian Schmidt and Michael Hanan
Marie Nitke/FOCUS Brian Schmidt and Michael Hanan, who are key overseers of the expansion project, touched base while inspecting the construction site last week.

Brian Schmidt, plant manager at the Perham Resource Recovery Facility, says it’s his pet peeve when people call the place an “incinerator.”

Incinerators, he says, burn garbage, plain and simple. But the building in Perham is what he calls a “waste energy facility,” and it does a whole lot more than that.

It not only burns waste, sparing area landfills from massive heaps of garbage, but it creates steam in the process. That steam is then sold to two major businesses in town, Tuffy’s Pet Foods and Bongard’s Creameries, which use it as an energy source.

The facility is also a back-up source of electricity for Otter Tail County.

And, while air pollution is commonly associated with incinerators, the waste energy facility in Perham meets strict air pollution standards set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.


These standards will get even stricter soon, when a major expansion project at the facility wraps up and new, updated permit requirements take effect. When that happens, the facility will produce 10 times fewer emissions than it does today, even as it burns more trash and nearly doubles the amount of steam it produces.

While giving a tour of the place late last week, Schmidt and Michael Hanan, the executive director of the Prairie Lakes Solid Waste Authority, explained that the expansion project will allow for new technologies and processes to increase the facility’s capacity and efficiency, and to add a recycling component.

When complete, the three-phase project will expand the current facility by 68,000-square-feet, they said. The building will look markedly different than it does today, not only larger but more enclosed, hiding some pipes and other industrial features that are currently visible from the outside.

Fast progress is being made on the expansion. Work got underway in mid-April, and as of late last week, some new walls were already up, roof work had begun and the dirt was flying as crews busily made their way around the construction site.

The first phase of the project is the addition of a new Material Recovery Facility, or MRF. Currently, waste goes into the incinerator raw. The MRF will serve as a pre-processing point for that waste, so recyclables can be saved and non-combustibles removed.

Schmidt explained how a new, large piece of equipment called a “trommel” will mechanically rip open plastic trash bags and then separate their contents by size. At a “picking platform” inside the MRF, 12-15 new employees will remove unwanted materials and sort through recyclables.

Basically, all things bad for the burning process will be removed in the MRF, Hanan said, as will anything that could negatively affect air emissions. Things that can be recycled, will be.

Once this phase of the project is complete, the Perham facility will be the fifth in the state to have an MRF (of eight or nine total waste energy facilities in Minnesota, Hanan said). Construction on this phase is expected to wrap up by the end of the month, with equipment installed by January and several months of engineering and compliance testing after that.


The second and third phases of the project will both start in mid-September. These phases are less massive than the addition of the MRF. They include a new “tipping floor” (where the dump trucks go to literally tip their back ends to dump out loads of garbage), along with updates to the waste energy building, such as a new boiler and emissions control equipment.

Also included in the expansion are new office spaces, a re-done control room, an observation deck for classroom and community tours, a conference room, and a break area. The entire project is slated for completion by December of next year.

When it’s all said and done, the project will have a price tag of $28 million, according to Perham City Manager Kelcey Klemm. The facility will go from generating about 25 pounds of steam per hour to 50 pounds per hour, supplying 90 percent of the current steam demand, compared to today’s 60 percent, Hanan said. Its solid-waste-processing capacity will increase from 116 to 200 tons per day.

Operated by the Prairie Lakes Solid Waste Authority and owned and utilized by Otter Tail, Becker, Todd and Wadena counties, the facility is also starting to work with Clay County, which may have a use for its leftover ash.

Klemm said the expansion benefits Perham by providing new jobs and giving Tuffy’s and Bongard’s a competitive edge with its affordable steam product. The project itself, he said, is “a major capital investment in the community.”

By taking the existing building and “completely revamping it, adding the best available technology for solid waste management,” he said, the expansion is going to make the facility “work better and more efficiently. Having that in our community is a plus... It’s good for Perham in the long run.”




A writer, editor and mom of four (two kids, two dogs), Marie's been in the newspaper business for over 20 years. She started at the Detroit Lakes Tribune in 2017 after working just down the road at the Perham Focus for several years. Before that, she was at the Herald-Review in Grand Rapids, Minn.
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