by Susan Mikula Campbell
Quasar Energy Group brought a contingent of experts to Wheatfield's American Legion Post on Aug. 29 to answer questions about its plans to create energy from organic waste in Wheatfield.
The Ohio-based company decided to hold the public meeting after debate arose over creation of storage ponds here for equate, the nitrogen-rich material left behind after anaerobic digestion at Quasar's new plant on Liberty Drive. There, everything from old restaurant cooking oils to wastewater treatment plant leftovers will stew and be used to create electricity and fuel, while saving landfill space.
Quasar, which plans to provide the equate to farmers to inject in their fields as a cheaper alternative to chemical fertilizers, had first considered a large storage pond, but is now looking at smaller, individual farm-based storage ponds.
The meeting lasted about three hours, with some people staying afterwards with additional questions and comments.
Steven M. Smith, chief financial officer for Quasar Energy Group, said there would be no storage pond at the Liberty Drive facility, but that farm storage ponds would have to be established at farms in Wheatfield or other nearby towns to be cost effective.
Smith also emphasized that Quasar would not accept fracking waste.
The shadow of Love Canal loomed large over the meeting as several people commented that because of that experience, they didn't trust this company to do what was best for the environment. They even likened this situation to a local home developer who they said hasn't lived up to his promises. They questioned whether state regulations were adequate protection and wondered why there would be waiting periods after a field was treated with equate. They worried about possible harm from pharmaceutical products and cosmetics found in human waste. One person even mentioned that human waste from a heroin addict in Niagara Falls could end up in the food chain, due to equate.
When it comes to the environment, "we're part of the solution, we're not part of the problem," said Bruce Bailey, Quasar vice president for technical affairs.
Clemens Halene, Quasar's chief operating officer, moved to the U.S. from Germany, which already has some 7,000 digesters in an effort to reduce dependence on Russian energy. He said Europe is probably 17 to 20 years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to renewable energy.
Halene likened the digestion facility to "a big cow." He pointed out that items brought into Quasar are tested before being used in the digesters. Things like heavy metals or fracking waste would "wipe out my biology" and the anaerobic digestion wouldn't work, he said.
Farmers in the audience were mostly quiet. Although, one local fruit farmer pointed out that U.S. growers have to face a barrage of safety rules and regulations to grow food, while less than one percent of food brought into this country from elsewhere is inspected.
Farmer Rob Hoover said he was interested in learning more about the equate and planned to follow up on Quasar's offer to provide tours of its Ohio facilities. He noted that his land has been in his family for generations and his young son already is looking forward to continuing the tradition, so he certainly wouldn't do anything to endanger his land.
The experts kept their cool, even in the face of rude and loud comments by some audience members whose minds were already made up and didn't want to listen to Quasar's responses.
Kristin L. Savard, president of Advanced Design Group in Lewiston, was moderator for the meeting.
When a comment was made that these outsiders from Ohio didn't understand local problems, Savard pointed out that she grew up in Lewiston and that her father, who worked on the Manhattan Project locally, died of cancer. Savard said she started her career in New England, but returned here because she loves Western New York. Since her return, she has done everything possible to promote bringing in new business, but too many times unnecessary negativity sends industry and fantastic companies elsewhere, she said.
"Western New York has a problem ... people don't trust our government ... I've done my homework. They (Quasar) have my trust," she said.
When asked why the company had not previously discussed the need for storage ponds, Savard said, "I don't think we anticipated the ponds and storage would be the hot topic it has become."
She urged local residents to look at the history of Quasar and what it already has accomplished. She also said that it would be premature to discuss possible storage pond sites, now, but the public will be informed when viable sites are proposed.
Some people also were concerned about odors. Nate Herendeen, crop consultant for Western New York Crop Management, has worked with area farmers for 44 years. He said farmers have always recycled nutrients from manure to benefit their fields.
He has visited Quasar's Ohio facilities and found there is no objectionable odors. "It is an earthy odor, it kind of smells like plowed fields. It definitely does not smell like manure," he said.
Quasar collaborates with The Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural and Development Center. In addition to Wheatfield, the growing business, started in 2006, has a new plant in West Seneca, 10 plants in Ohio, one in Massachusetts and several more in the works.
Smith concluded the information meeting by saying, "What we're doing here is good across the board." By helping eliminate the need for fossil fuel, he said, Quasar helps reduce "sending money overseas to people who don't like us."