Support our mission
 
Maj. Bill Gatewood watches as a bulldozer smooths out a field that will soon be covered in mountains of sewage sludge. Gatewood, a reservist who is a farmer in civilian life, is using composting techniques to rid Camp Bondsteel of waste that would otherwise have to be incinerated at a much higher cost.
Maj. Bill Gatewood watches as a bulldozer smooths out a field that will soon be covered in mountains of sewage sludge. Gatewood, a reservist who is a farmer in civilian life, is using composting techniques to rid Camp Bondsteel of waste that would otherwise have to be incinerated at a much higher cost. (Ward Sanderson / S&S)

CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo — The bulldozer rutted and ground its way through the field, an ordinary brown expanse save for the wafting of a metallic, muted diaper smell.

Fortunately, the scent was contained — at least temporarily.

Soon “we’ll have piles down here,” said Maj. Bill Gatewood, a man who speaks with bright eyes and a country cadence. “We’ll have an experiment rollin’.”

Gatewood, an Army reservist, is a Mississippi farmer. At home he has nine chicken houses, 250,000 chickens, 200 head of cattle, three children and 188 acres. Maintaining that operation has taught him certain skills the military plans to apply to the Balkans as well as its new bases in Eastern Europe and Iraq.

“I routinely compost a lot of animal waste and dead chickens,” said Gatewood, who studied composting at Louisiana State University.

The military here doesn’t have an excess of chicken carcasses. But it does have 800 cubic meters of sewage sludge stored in plastic-lined wooden boxes, and it is that sludge and a legion of outhouses that give the area near Gatewood’s experiment its pungent tang.

The sludge is about 18-months-worth of sewage produced by U.S. bases in Kosovo. The Army began boxing it up because locally run landfills weren’t up to American health standards. When fish turned up dead in a pond near one of the Kosovar landfills also used by the military, the Americans began storing their own sewage.

That fix, obviously, could only be temporary. The military considered trucking the sludge elsewhere in Europe for disposal, along with the fuel-contaminated soil the military stores.

Instead, it decided on sending Gatewood to the Balkans to set up a composting operation.

“I said, ‘Yeah, we can compost it all,’ ” Gatewood recalled. “No big deal. It’s routine.”

If it all works well in Kosovo, Eagle Base in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be next.

This week, the military and contractor Kellogg Brown & Root will set up four “test beds” at Bondsteel, with different mixtures of sewage and other waste and soil. The idea is to find which “recipe” works the best. They should know in a dozen weeks.

Gatewood said composting could also deal with scraps from mess halls, cardboard, even wooden pallets. “All biological waste produced by Camp Bondsteel is a potential ingredient to compost,” he said.

As inescapable as the scent was last week, the unboxing of all that sewage will be an eye-watering event.

“It can be, how do you say? Odorous?” said Gatewood, searching for a scientific term, then decided on bluntness. “Well, it gets pretty funky.”

Remarkably, the smell should vanish in just two or three days as temperatures inside the sludge piles reach 140 degrees, thanks to industrious microbes. The product of this composting will be fertilizer that Bondsteel could spread over its own rolling fields, or could distribute to locals.

“Maj. Gatewood’s composting process will save us half a million dollars in processing costs,” said Gregory Briggs, environmental specialist with Task Force Falcon — the U.S. military mission in Kosovo.

“It’s a very novel thing,” Gatewood said. “I never thought I’d be using my farm skills in the Army.”

Kosovars working on the project also hope to apply the idea to local problems.

“One day we might be able to use these ideas in local municipalities,” said Naim Preniqi, a Bondsteel public works employee.

“I think we’ll be more encouraged when we see the results of the tests,” said Bardhyl Rama, a public works operations officer. “… We have a lot of environmental problems as a country. But we’ve got to start somewhere. We’ll see.”

In the meantime, Gatewood also has life on the home front to worry about.

Each day he sends e-mails back to the farm. As the Mississippi sun glares harder, business gets serious.

“It’s kind of scary,” Gatewood said. Hot weather kills fowl. “When it gets 95 degrees, it can be a catastrophe.”

Gatewood’s employees are busy keeping the chicken houses chilled. When that goes well, the villas of chickens aren’t bad places to be this time of year in Mississippi.

“The inside of a chicken house is the most comfortable place on the farm in the summertime,” he said.

Migrated

stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up