Delta Thermo is the Pennsylvania company in negotiations to purchase a shuttered waste plant in Hampden. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

As a Pennsylvania company comes closer to purchasing a shuttered waste plant in Hampden, experts and some who have worked with the company say its novel technology has potential.

But the company, Delta Thermo Energy, appears to have mischaracterized its work overseas and listed people as technical advisers on its website without their knowledge or permission. In 2019, the company appointed the former head of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to its board of directors more than a year after he left that position facing allegations that he sexually harassed an employee and inflated his compensation.

Delta Thermo has been negotiating to purchase the $90 million plant for several months, with a deal expected by the end of June that could determine how 115 Maine towns and cities dispose of their waste for years to come. If it closes the deal, it would be the company’s first time running a full-scale waste processing plant in the U.S.

Delta Thermo plans to restart the plant using its existing technology. Eventually, CEO Rob Van Naarden has said, the company’s goal is to deploy its own patented technology, through which it mixes wastewater sludge with household trash, then burns the mixture to produce electricity. It would be the first large-scale application of that technology in the U.S.

Technological promise

Delta Thermo’s technology has potential and appears to be compatible with the existing processes in Hampden, said Marco Castaldi, a waste-to-energy expert and chemical engineering professor at The City University of New York who reviewed the process overview on Delta Thermo’s website and information on the Hampden facility.

However, the pre-processing of waste before it’s burned — which involves sorting and a process called hydrothermal decomposition that breaks the waste down into separate components — represents a significant expense, he said.

“In principle, that is not a bad thing,” Castaldi said. “Economically, it’s been shown over and over again to be prohibitively expensive.”

For example, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Orrington that took in the region’s waste for decades converted recently to a model that eliminates most upfront processing to reduce costs.

Nearly a decade ago, Delta Thermo tested its technology in a pilot project at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority in New Jersey. During that project, from January 2012 to around August 2013, Delta Thermo practiced mixing household trash with wastewater, though it did not incinerate the waste to create electricity, said Greg Seher, a senior analyst with the utilities authority.

“They seemed to be very successful,” Seher said. “There were no issues that we ever ran into with the actual process of the system.”

Delta Thermo’s proposal was appealing because it was unorthodox, Seher said. He described Delta Thermo’s operations there as a “lab-size” demonstration. In January, Van Naarden said tests conducted there yielded more than 10,000 pages of results.

A few years ago, Delta Thermo was a candidate to run a larger-scale waste-to-energy system for the utilities authority. The agency did not choose Delta Thermo, however, because of worries that New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection would not approve the permits needed for the incineration part of Delta Thermo’s process, Seher said.

“It wasn’t a concern with how it worked,” Seher said. “It was a concern that New Jersey wasn’t going to allow that to be permitted.”

The introduction of Delta Thermo’s technology in Maine would also require new permits for the Hampden plant.

Overseas work

In introducing his company to the Municipal Review Committee, the organization that represents the 115 towns and cities that send their waste to Hampden, Van Naarden touted Delta Thermo’s work overseas.

In a January meeting, Van Naarden said Delta Thermo had “developed a bunch of processing facilities overseas,” as he showed a slide listing Dresden, Germany; Seoul, South Korea; and Shari in Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island.

However, Van Naarden has shared few details about the company’s foreign work, and the Municipal Review Committee — which owns the land on which the Hampden plant is located — has referred questions on the company’s overseas work back to the company itself.

Van Naarden declined to comment for this article, but it appears he exaggerated Delta Thermo’s role in at least one of those projects.

Shari is the location of Hokuto Kogyo, one of the technology partners Delta Thermo lists on its website. Yet Delta Thermo has not been involved in any of Hokuto Kogyo’s Japanese operations, said Deon Baard, a research associate and engineer at the company.

“Hokuto has some facilities here in Japan, using the hydrothermal reactor technology,” Baard said. “DTE has no part in this. Our agreement with them is for North America and Mexico.”

Hokuto Kogyo developed hydrothermal technology that Delta Thermo planned to use in a waste-to-energy plant it was slated to build in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Baard said.

While the Allentown City Council approved that project, the city nixed it two years later, in 2014, after Allentown solicitor Jerry Snyder wrote in a letter that the company had “consistently failed to advance” plans for the facility. City officials were also concerned the company had not lined up financing.

In a January interview, Van Naarden called the accusations in the letter “completely false,” tying the decision to scrap the deal to corruption in city hall that landed the former mayor in federal prison for 15 years.

Hokuto Kogyo and Delta Thermo have not collaborated since the Allentown project, Baard said.

Another technology partner Delta Thermo lists, the Frontier Research Organization within the Tokyo Institute of Technology, no longer exists after organizational changes, said Tokyo Tech spokesperson Emiko Kawaguchi.

Kawaguchi said she could not locate records concerning Frontier Research Organization’s relationship with Delta Thermo. Other foreign companies Delta Thermo lists as partners did not respond to requests for comment.

‘That’s news to me’

Delta Thermo lists a Technical Advisory Board on its website that includes five of the nation’s top academic experts in waste to energy. However, one of them said he hadn’t heard of Delta Thermo, much less agreed to serve on a board. Another said he hadn’t been in contact with the company in nearly a decade.

“That’s news to me,” Nickolas J. Themelis, a professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University, said when asked about his membership on the advisory board. He said he did not know the company.

Castaldi, the City University of New York chemical engineering professor, is also listed on the board. However, he was unaware until a reporter informed him. He said he had agreed to a four-year term from 2010 to 2014 but had not been in contact with Delta Thermo since around 2012.

The other three people listed as board members did not respond to requests for comment.

Delta Thermo does not list its board of directors on its website, but it announced in April 2019 that it had appointed former U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Javier Palomarez to that board. That appointment came about a year after Palomarez resigned from his chamber post amid allegations that he sexually harassed his former chief of staff and used chamber money to add to his pay, The New York Times reported.

Palomarez has denied both allegations and settled a lawsuit with a woman he claimed had orchestrated his ouster two months before Delta Thermo announced he had joined its board.

Van Naarden did not answer a question from the BDN about whether Palomarez continues to serve on the company’s board.

The technical advisory board has played no role in negotiations with Delta Thermo on the Hampden plant, said Michael Carroll, the Municipal Review Committee’s executive director.

“MRC dealings have been with the people who will operate the plant, the boots-on-the-ground operational, engineering managers from DTE, as well as the CEO, Rob Van Naarden,” Carroll said. “Actual people, whom we’ve been working with for many weeks and who will be involved in this project.”

“These people know what they’re doing,” Carroll said, and some have been in Hampden over the last three months preparing for improvements to the plant.