by Susan Mikula Campbell
Wheatfield Town Board members on Monday said they were ready to vote on a "ban" against Quasar Energy Group and its plans for storing and using equate in the town.
However, at the end of the meeting, they decided to approve the originally proposed six-month moratorium on the business to give the town time to develop a legally sound ban, while still protecting residents.
Another hearing on a possible local law to ban equate will be held at 7 p.m. May 12, this time in the town's larger community center, located next to Town Hall.
The town's meeting room was standing room only for the public hearing portion of Monday's meeting, which lasted about two hours, with people lined up against the walls and in the doorway.
Most were there to protest against the anaerobic digestion facility on Liberty Drive and express concerns about the safety of equate being used as fertilizer on farmlands in the town.
Emotions ran high, and even when the Ohio-based company's local representative Nathan Carr, biomass account executive, announced a reversal in Quasar's plans, people insisted they did not trust the company.
Carr said the company has dropped plans for a 5 million gallon equate storage tank on Liberty Drive and is looking at new technology that could eliminate the need for a storage tank or at least not require one as large. Even though the current Class B equate meets federal and state guidelines, the company is also looking at upgrading the equate fertilizer product to Class A, such as can be found in local home and garden stores.
"Quasar understands and respects the community's concerns for public health and safety. Unfortunately, their concern is not rooted in facts and sound science, but rather, in emotion and misinformation," Carr said after the meeting. "Quasar will continue to work with the community and town officials to focus on facts and meaningful data with regard to the safety of our product. When the smoke settles and science prevails, the Town Board and residents will understand that our product is a sustainable resource for the community and that a permanent ban is not viable or legal."
At the beginning of the hearing, Town Attorney Bob O'Toole presented an overview of the proposed moratorium, modeled after the one used in the Town of Marilla. He said the town can't shut down the existing business, but can prohibit new building or spreading of equate on fields. Last week, the town hosted a meeting of six town attorneys from Niagara and Erie counties to share research and case law in order to possibly develop a model solid waste law, he said.
The main sticking point for the residents who lined up to speak was the biosolids, which include human waste sludge from wastewater treatment plants, that is processed at Quasar along with items such as food processing residuals and restaurant grease. The company puts these items in its 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 insists is a safe and cost-effective alternative to chemical fertilizers in agriculture.
Residents point to the legacy of Love Canal and the continuing battle against the storage of hazardous waste in Niagara County.
Before the residents spoke, representatives of State Sen. George Maziarz and Assemblyman John Ceretto gave statements indicating the legislators' support for the battle against equate. Also speaking was Gia Arnold, a candidate for Maziarz' seat.
Several of the residents presented additional petitions against Quasar, adding to the growing pile of signatures collected thus far.
Local resident John Cunningham said the use of biosolids as fertilizer results in "toxic sewer sludge in your food" and that the problem is not just affecting Wheatfield, Niagara County or New York state. "This is a problem for the entire world," he said.
Many of the speakers said Quasar had mislead the board and the public when it first applied to build its plant in Wheatfield by not specifically mentioning that human waste would be a large part of the process. Some accused board members of not doing their homework and even suggested board members should be voted out of office.
Local resident Julie Otto pointed out that not only was the town involved in the decision to allow Quasar to build here, but also the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and the Niagara County Planning Board.
"What are we going to do so this never happens again," she asked.
She suggested the board should impose a ban, not a moratorium, even if it results in a lawsuit against the town.
"Let's end this now. Let us have a peaceful summer and not have to worry about this," she said.
The crowd cheered when Councilman Larry Helwig commented, "I think we're at the point now that this moratorium has to be a ban."
Councilman Gil Doucet said the issue over the use of human waste leftovers as fertilizers reminds him a little bit of another substance that government and scientific agencies said was safe, which time has proven wrong - asbestos.
Supervisor Bob Cliffe, a judge for more than 13 years, said, "I honestly believe that Quasar has told us the truth and nothing but the truth ... what they missed out on was the whole truth."
Cliffe added that only one Wheatfield farm already has a state permit to apply equate. That farmer has given him a verbal assurance he will not apply equate to his fields.
O'Toole warned that if the town is to have any chance of a local law involving a ban being upheld in court, it must have a thorough review. He suggested the town's engineer and newly hired environmental consultant be part of the planning for the new law and that in the meantime the moratorium be approved. The board vote approving his suggestion was unanimous.
Cliffe discusses Quasar moratorium/ban
by Bob Cliffe
To the residents of Wheatfield:
On behalf of the residents of Wheatfield, after the public hearing last evening (Monday), the Town Board unanimously voted in favor of a six month moratorium on the application or addition of storage of human biosolids. The Quasar plant will be able to continue operations at their facility but will not be able to add any additional field application permits nor lagoons, tanks or other storage units for the period of the moratorium.
With the tone of the hearing you may ask why? After the hearing was completed, we went into regular session. When it came to the question of the need for a moratorium, we first felt we should only consider a ban. However, in discussion with our town attorney and town engineer, since a ban would be a permanent law, it will take time. A new law will require that we follow the SEQR process; we need time to go through that process, and to make sure we have the right law. Our town engineer, town environmental consultant and town attorney are already working on the SEQR review.
We are working with our consultant, the other towns in the area and their counsel to ensure that our review of a possible law to issue a restriction on any material from Quasar or any other such manufacturer will be the right law for the residents of Wheatfield. We may retain outside legal counsel to assist us, which will also take some time.
Because we have the moratorium now in place, while we prepare the needed changes to our law, you have the added protection you desire. We are moving as fast as we possibly can to institute any needed changes to town law. However, taking the wrong action by moving too fast could lead to the exact opposite of the right results needed by the people of Wheatfield. In the interim, Quasar cannot apply equate on any farms in Wheatfield except the one already permitted, and I understand that this one farmer will not apply equate on his field on Nash Road. If he is true to his word, there will be no application in Wheatfield, nor any storage in Wheatfield for the moratorium period.
On Monday, May 12, at 7 p.m. at the Community Center we will be having another public hearing on a possible law to ban human biosolid application and storage in Wheatfield, as well as any other action the board may choose to take. Going through the full and proper process will be your best assurance of your safety.
I will continue to do my best to keep you informed of progress.