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Cloquet Planning Commission OKs bio-cremation option at funeral home

Nearly 50 people packed the Cloquet City Council chambers Tuesday night for two different Planning Commission hearings regarding operation of a bio-cremation unit within the city of Cloquet.

Bio-cremation
Joe Wilson, CEO of Bio-Response Solutions Inc., the Indiana company that designed and makes the alkaline hydrolysis unit, explains bio-cremation process to the Cloquet Planning Commission and audience members. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com

Nearly 50 people packed the Cloquet City Council chambers Tuesday night for two different Planning Commission hearings regarding operation of a bio-cremation unit within the city of Cloquet.

Unlike traditional cremation by fire, bio-cremation disposes of a deceased person's body using water and an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide, a form of lye. Essentially the opposite of fire, bio-cremation reduces the soft tissues of the body to a liquid form and leaves behind bone fragments, teeth and any metals or electronic parts, such as pacemakers and artificial joints.

The bone remains, or "ash," are returned to a family, as it is in traditional cremation. The sterile effluent liquid - an average of 65 pounds per body - goes into the sanitary sewer system along with water used to flush the bio-cremation unit. Using pressure, heat and alkali chemicals, it takes only a few hours to reduce the body to a mix of amino acids, peptides, sugars and soap. (See "FYI: Bio-Cremation" at the end of this online story for more on the science of bio-cremation.)

Bob and Karen Atkins of Atkins-Northland Funeral Home, who requested expansion of the funeral home's conditional use permit (CUP) to allow installation and operation of a high temperature/high pressure alkaline hydrolysis machine to do the bio-cremation, said it was a matter of retaining custody of a deceased person's body as well as providing a more "green" alternative to traditional cremation, which consumes substantially more energy and releases mercury from dental fillings and other pollutants into the air.

Location - in a residential neighborhood - and the fact that the liquid goes down the drain were the biggest sticking points for opponents of the permit, whose reasons ranged from emotional and/or religious objections to fear of a sewer backup or declining property values.

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In the end, despite a majority of audience members speaking in opposition to the procedure, members of the Planning Commission voted 4 to1 to amend the Cloquet City Code to allow operation of a high temperature/high pressure alkaline hydrolysis machine as an accessory use for a funeral home/mortuary. Commissioner Jesse Berglund cast the dissenting vote while Commissioners Michael Haubner, Kelly Johnson, John Sanders and Julie Kainu voted in favor of the change. After a second public hearing regarding only the Atkins CUP request, Commissioners Haubner, Johnson and Sanders voted to allow amendment of the Atkins conditional use permit to allow them to own and operate such a machine, while Berglund voted against the measure. Kainu recused herself from discussion or voting on the CUP because she occasionally works at the funeral home.

The Cloquet City Council will address both resolutions at its 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday, Jan. 17.

That meeting will likely run long as well, because the issue inspires strong feelings on both sides and would mean a $250,000 investment by Bob and Karen Atkins.

Emotions certainly ran high during the Planning Commission hearing and at the informational meeting held at Atkins-Northland Funeral Home prior to the planning commission meeting. Audience members on both sides of the issue stated their opinions on the relatively new process - Atkins would be the second funeral home in Minnesota to install such a system - and debated whether such a process is respectful or desecrates the human body.

Barb Wyman, at-large councilor, falls firmly on the "desecrates" side of the emotional debate. Wyman attended both meetings and spoke passionately against the permit and the process itself, stating that she found the idea of reducing a body to liquid to be treated at a sewage treatment plant "morally reprehensible."

Del Prevost, "interested citizen," said he thought after research that it seemed like a greener approach to cremation, and one that was allowed by the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) which provides solid waste oversight and wastewater services for a 530-square-mile region around Duluth, that includes the cities of Duluth, Cloquet, Hermantown, Proctor, Carlton, Scanlon, Thomson and Wrenshall, and the surrounding townships.

"A small business in our community trying to improve their business and do more for the community, I'm in favor," Prevost said after the earlier meeting at the funeral home.

In an interview with the Pine Journal prior to Tuesday's meeting, WLSSD spokesperson Karen Anderson said the sanitary district has been consulting on the issue with Atkins, Cloquet city staff, Rochester personnel - where the Mayo Clinic has been operating a similar machine since 2006 - and Bio-Response Solutions, the Indiana company that makes the alkaline hydrolysis machines.

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"We don't see the need at this time to [issue a] permit for the process," Anderson said, explaining that WLSSD is reserving the right to require a permit in the future. "When it's operational, we will sample the discharge and see what the characteristics are and if there are any concerns or any cause for a permit.

"We want to make sure that what they would be sewering doesn't contain any pollutants of concern, things we would be concerned about passing through to the receiving waters [in the St. Louis River and St. Louis River Bay]."

Neighbor Gerald Manthey said he didn't object to the process itself as much as the fact that it would take place in a residential neighborhood.

"People have the option of choosing burial, cremation by fire, burial at sea and now bio-cremation," Manthey said. "I respect that choice. Is it fair for people who live in a neighborhood - eat there, sleep there - to not have a choice? It creates a moral issue that does not sit well with everyone. Why put it here? Why not put it somewhere away from people's homes?"

Berglund said he voted against the conditional use permit because he didn't see the bio-cremation unit as being consistent with a residential neighborhood and because the state statute states that alkaline hydrolysis units fall under the same regulations as crematoriums, which are only allowed in Cloquet's heavy industrial zone.

Community Development Director Holly Butcher explained that city staff drew a line between the high temperature/high pressure alkaline hydrolysis units like the one at Mayo and the low pressure/low temperature units. Staff recommended the low pressure units be considered the same as crematoriums because there is more venting and the process takes longer. The high pressure units are different, she said.

"Staff has taken the position that this [high pressure/high temperature unit] is not the same as traditional crematorium with a stack [for smoke]," Butcher said. "It's really an examination of sterilization of effluent, proper discharge, management of chemicals - and working with the sanitary sewer district on that - and engineering."

After the planning commission voted to recommend approval of the process and his request for a conditional use permit, Bob Atkins said it's really all about the families they serve.

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"It's important to us to give our families peace of mind," he said. "They think the body is at our funeral home the whole time. When we tell them we don't cremate on site, they're not expecting that. With this, we keep the body on site and in our care. It's a process that's been approved. There's nothing disgusting or repulsive, it's only disgusting or repulsive if you think it is. It's for our families, just like our fireside room. It's just about service."

FYI: Bio-cremation

Bio-cremation, also known as chemical cremation, aquamation or resomation, is a relatively new alternative to burial and fire-based cremation. It requires less energy and fewer natural resources than burning a body through traditional cremation or building a coffin and concrete vault.

The technical process is known as alkaline hydrolysis, which is the same natural process that occurs with natural decomposition over time. Essentially the opposite of fire, the process uses water, temperature and alkalinity to reduce the soft tissues of the body to a liquid form. The chemical reaction converts the proteins, nucleic acids and lipids in all cells of the body into a sterile liquid solution of small peptides, amino acids, sugars and soaps.

It works like this: A corpse is placed into a rigid stainless steel basket within a stainless steel pressurized tube-shaped vessel that is filled with water and an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide and caustic soda. In the unit being considered for use in Cloquet, the solution is heated to 303 degrees F. and pressurized to 65 psi. After several hours, all that remains in solid form is the skeleton and teeth - now easily crushable calcium phosphate - and a coffee-colored liquid.

The process is fully automatic, similar to a "dishwasher," said Joe Wilson, CEO of Bio-Response Solutions Inc., the company that designed and makes the unit. Wilson said the high temperature/high pressure unit he sells uses a total of about 250 to 300 gallons of water, which is flushed down the drain with the (approximately 65 gallons) of liquid remains. The bone material remains in the stainless steel basket and can be easily retrieved - and returned to the family in an urn - along with any metal or electronic parts such as pacemakers and artificial joints. When possible, parts of stainless steel and titanium implants are recycled.

Mercury amalgam fillings remain safely bound in the teeth and are disposed of in an environmentally safe manner, unlike flame cremation, during which the mercury turns to a vapor form and goes up the smokestack, only to fall to the earth again as a contaminate in precipitation.

In Minnesota, alkaline hydrolysis was approved by the state legislature in 2003 and the first single-unit alkaline hydrolysis machine came online at Mayo Clinic in February 2006. The machine is used to chemically cremate cadavers donated to the clinic.

Terry Regnier, director of Anatomical Services at Mayo, was instrumental in getting the process approved in Minnesota. As well, Mayo Clinic was the first facility in the United States to have a single-body alkaline hydrolysis unit. Prior to that, the units had mostly been used for animal disposal, often in larger quantities. (The University of Minnesota has a 7,000 pound unit, while the individual units can usually handle up to 500 pounds.)

"We wanted to keep the bodies separate - in line with how we handle our donors," Regnier said. "We handle it like I would treat my mother. At the same time, we didn't want to do something the rest of Minnesota could not [do]."

For a long time, Mayo remained the only facility in the state using the process for bio-cremation of human remains. Now, the Bradshaw Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater, Minn., is (preparing to use?) the process, although an application for a conditional use permit to use alkaline hydrolyisis in White Bear Township was denied May 19, 2010.

Regnier said he hopes the state will add some standards for bio-cremation to the state statute, which simply state that alkaline hydrolysis shall be "subject to the same licensing requirements and regulations that apply to cremation, crematories, and cremated remains as described in this chapter."

He would like to see the state require that such units use high heat and high pressure and operate in sealed conditions.

"That [high heat, high pressure] process works for us," Regnier said. "It helps the chemical go through the bones and reach the places that are hard to reach, [which] takes care of the difficult diseases like prion diseases [such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease]."

Both the bones and the liquid remains are sterile after alkaline hydrolysis.

~ Jana Peterson/ jpeterson@pinejournal.com

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