by Susan Mikula Campbell
Quasar Energy Group brought a four-man team to Wheatfield's Community Center on Monday to answer questions about the safety of equate and the company's plan to build a 5 million gallon storage tank.
The occasionally raucous meeting drew more than 100 concerned local residents, many still haunted by the specter of Love Canal.
Not everyone was there to listen and learn. Overheard before the meeting even started were comments of "We don't need to have a meeting - just tell 'em we don't want them here and to go home" and "We've heard all this BS before." Some of these people went on to loudly interrupt Quasar speakers and others in the audience who had questions or comments.
Still, individuals who were able to stick it out for the more than three-hour meeting were able to either ask their questions or leave written questions for the Quasar representatives. Some of the audience members were fresh from an April 5 meeting organized by residents who wanted to share information on equate and potential risks to the environment.
The Ohio-based company's local representative Nathan Carr, biomass account executive, called the meeting "a productive session."
"It was an opportunity for Quasar to address a number of questions and present information about our anaerobic digestion process," Carr said. "We will hold more public meetings in the future and offered to take interested members of the community on tours of our facility."
The recently built anaerobic digestion facility is located on Liberty Drive in Wheatfield. The company takes in items such as food processing residuals, restaurant grease and biosolids, such as wastewater treatment plant sludge, and puts it in the digester for about a month to harvest the resulting natural gas (biomethane), motor vehicle fuel, electricity and heat. What's left after digestion is called equate, which the company says is a safe and cost-effective alternative to chemical fertilizers in agriculture.
Fertilizer application is regulated by the state and federal governments. Some Niagara County towns are taking steps to ban lagoons to store equate (which only can be applied at certain times of the year) on farmland. Quasar has applied to build a storage tank on its Wheatfield property, but the town has yet to give its approval.
"In Wheatfield, the Town Board members are concerned as to whether our town laws are sufficient to protect our residents. That is why, on April 28, we are considering a moratorium on the storage tank as well as the application of digestate products, giving us time to find and hire a qualified, third-party environmental consultant to advise our planning and town boards," said Wheatfield Supervisor Bob Cliffe. That meeting will start at 7 p.m.
At Monday's meeting, Carr described how the company creates renewable energy by taking organic materials that might otherwise go to a landfill. This material is put into a biological system (no chemicals) where bacteria eats the solids and creates methane gas. Once the energy is extracted, what the company calls equate is left over and that is rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
What seems to bother residents most at this and previous meetings is the human waste biosolids left after treatment at wastewater plants that is included in the mix that eventually creates equate. Many people question whether leftover pathogens or things like heavy metals from the process could go into farmland soil and from there to the water table or nearby rivers and streams. The potential of a failure at the proposed Liberty Drive storage tank causing leakage into the nearby drainage ditch and creek and from there to the Niagara River also is frequently mentioned.
Carr talked about the daily testing that is done at the Quasar facility. Testing is done on both waste brought to the digester, in the digester and the final product. Of all the materials brought to the digester, "the most tightly controlled is the biosolids," he said.
Ned Beecher of the North East Biosolids & Residuals Association pointed out that the last thing the company would want to happen is to allow something into the digester that would break down the process.
Wastewater treatment plants do similar testing. For example if gasoline is found at a wastewater treatment plant, the process is stopped so it can be traced back to the source, he said.
An audience member noted that he was driving near a field where a sign that indicated equate had been applied had fallen in a drainage ditch. It was raining and seagulls were in the ditch. He was concerned that the equate was being transferred both through the runoff and by the birds.
Clemens Halene, chief operating officer for Quasar, compared the consistency of equate to a milkshake. It is injected into the field in a manner to avoid runoff, because its purpose is to benefit the land.
In addition, where equate can be applied is regulated. Every field where equate is used has its own application to the DEC, and every nearby ditch and stream is marked on the application, he said.
Beecher said the advantage of equate is that it releases nitrogen slowly during the growing season, while chemical fertilizer could leach off to groundwater.
One resident questioned why only nine chemicals are checked in the testing. Beecher said most of the chemicals not included in the tests are completely benign and emphasized that trace chemicals are found in normal environments.
On a question on possible falsification of tests, Carr noted that the business could face "stiff fines and incredible public scrutiny" if that were the case, which wouldn't be good business for a company that plans to continue to expand.
Carr also noted that he is a Western New York resident (he grew up on Grand Island), so he understands the concerns of those who remember Love Canal. However, he pointed out, all the materials that are digested at Quasar are classified as non-hazardous materials.
Ceretto, Maziarz speak out on Quasar waste
Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-C-I-Lewiston, and State Sen. George Maziarz, R-C-I-Newfane, are asking the state Department of Environmental Conservation to revoke permits that allow the Quasar Energy Group to put equate on land in Western New York.
"I stand with my constituents who are worried about the health of their community. Industrial waste in our backyards is a major public health issue, and residents are justified in their concerns," said Ceretto. "I do not want to see this industrial waste dumped in our community, and I'll be working with my constituents and Sen. Maziarz to protect our community's health and make sure equate does not make its way onto our land."
"Many local farms use anaerobic digesters to produce energy from animal waste and then reuse the byproduct as fertilizer. This proposal, however, seeks to also include human waste, and that raises unique concerns that must be addressed," said Maziarz. "The Department of Environmental Conservation must step in to put the brakes on Quasar's equate spreading and storage tank plans. Residents have legitimate concerns about their health and safety and they need to be protected."
In addition, Quasar has a bad reputation for ignoring state and federal environmental regulations, the legislators said in their letter to the DEC. In a well-documented case in Ohio, Quasar was cited for allowing their storage tanks to be filled beyond capacity. More information about this case can be found at http://chronicle.northcoastnow.com/2013/02/23/quasar-cited-for-violations-at-other-sites/.
The letter concludes with the legislators' comment that "Quasar did almost no community outreach to discuss its intentions, and the recent public meetings, called only to respond to public outrage, have raised many more questions than answers. The spreading permits must be revoked because we have no confidence in the claims made by the company, and, more importantly, residents almost unanimously share that view."