The Jordan City Council will decide whether or not to allow Ballard Sunder Funeral & Cremation to add alkaline hydrolysis services to their downtown funeral home after the proposal cleared a planning commission last week.
The Oct. 8 public hearing drew a group of about 12 residents, in addition to funeral home owner Mark Ballard, funeral director Lindsey Ballard and Dean Fisher, director of the UCLA Donate Body Program, who worked at Mayo Clinic for 20 years developing the process.
Alkaline hydrolysis is a chemical process that reduces a body to micro-molecules using water, alkaline chemicals, heat and sometimes pressure. The intended result is an accelerated natural decomposition by using environmentally friendly chemicals that don’t produce toxic gas or air pollutants.
The process takes two to three hours and reduces the body to bone fragment and a fluid called effluent remains, which is made of salts, sugars, amino acids and peptides. Effluent remains can be discharged into waste water. Mercury from dental fillings is contained and recycled instead of vaporized.
At the hearing, Ballard-Sunder neighbor Maureen Carlson asked what kind of noise the machinery would produce, noting that she can hear the exhaust system when the crematory is in operation.
“It’s a 5-horsepower motor, so it’s like a whirlpool pump running,” Fisher said. “All it’s doing is it keeps the fluid moving during the process.”
Carlson also asked if the process produces a “sludge” that would be hard on the sewer system. Fisher said that wouldn’t be the case since the process uses liquid potassium hydroxide, which helps break down remains into a discolored liquid.
Another resident, noting that the chamber is heated to 302 degrees, asked about emissions. Fisher said steam and vapor are stored inside as the chamber is cooled to 212 degrees before the liquid is released. Approximately 270 gallons of water are used per cycle, he added.
Lindsey Ballard said of the 175-200 families served at the funeral home’s three Scott County locations, about 63% utilize cremations services, which are conducted in Jordan.
Adding alkaline hydrolysis will not replace flame cremation, Ballard said, but they hope to see the process overtake 25% of flame creations in the first year of operation.
“We think that would be a fairly easy goal to get to,” she said.
The process would come at a premium though, costing about $500 more than flame creation. Fisher said the machinery costs about twice as much as a crematory.
“This will be a premium offering just like hybrid cars are,” Ballard said. “You buy organic food at the grocery, things that are green are considered a premium offering and that’s how we plan on using it.”
Re-litigating the past
In addition to asking questions, a majority of speakers expressed criticism — most of which, however, was directed at ongoing flame cremation services rather than the proposed alkaline hydrolysis service.
Nearby resident Jim Fink told the planning commission that materials in the public meeting notice counteract claims made 9 years ago.
“This notice confirms from the city, that with the flame-based crematory we got, we have a polluting process including mercury vapors,” Fink said.
Margaret Fink expressed disappointment with the number of cremations that occur in Jordan.
“Body disposal is big business and big money — period,” she said. “It’s also big pollution they don’t want to talk about ... No matter how you glorify it, there is nothing pleasant about body disposal. You are either burying, burning or now ‘pressure-cooking’ corpses.”
Ballard pushed back on Fink’s choice of words.
“That’s not the business that we’re in, that’s not how our profession is defined — I find that offensive,” Ballard said. “I’ve cared for family members of the people in this room and that’s not what we’re doing. We’re providing a meaningful service and I just want to say that because we work really hard to do that.”
Michelle Bisek, who lives and operates a daycare across the street from the funeral home, asked how much safer alkaline hydrolysis is than flame cremation. Fisher said carbon emissions are 75% less than flame cremation.
Bisek said she and others were supporters of alkaline hydrolysis as an alternative to cremation back in 2010 when there was opposition to the crematory.
“If this is going to be so much better, I think that’s fabulous,” Bisek said. “We actually suggested it but nobody paid attention to us and we were ridiculed and gaveled and we were called ‘terrorists.’’
The alleged “terrorist” remark occurred at a 2011 city council meeting, in the midst of a two-year effort to install a crematory at the funeral home. During that period, a heated debate broke out between City Hall and a small coalition of citizens over whether or not the council legally issued Ballard-Sunder a conditional use permit to allow the crematory.
The citizens filed lawsuits against the city and state to stop the crematory. A Scott County judge initially ruled in the group’s favor, concluding that “funeral home” and “crematory” were not identical uses in the city’s zoning ordinance, which only listed “funeral home” at the time.
The city council ultimately voted to amend the ordinance to include crematory use, but then-mayor Pete Ewals — who was issued a restraining order that summer after allegedly assaulting Mark Ballard — refused to sign the ordinance for two months. The city once again returned to court, with a judge ruling that Ewals had to sign the ordinance by Dec. 19, 2011, which he did.
At last week’s public hearing, Councilman Robert Whipps said all of that is in the past.
“I understand there is a lot of tension over that, a lot of strong feelings over that, but to break it down simply: we’re either allowing them to offer this green idea ... or we deny it and we’re stuck at square one with no green option,” he said.
The Jordan City Council will take up the issue at its 6:30 p.m. Oct. 21 meeting.