Quasar draws praise from city officials in Ohio, ire from Town of Wheatfield
by Autumn Evans
For more than a year now, grassroots activists in Wheatfield have fought against Ohio-based Quasar Energy Group, a company that creates alternative energy from wastewater and uses the byproduct as fertilizer.
With operations throughout Ohio and in Massachusetts, and now two plants in Western New York, the controversial company has made a lasting impact in the Northeast. Curiously, arguments on whether this is a good or bad thing are largely based on location. In contrast to the opposition in Wheatfield is an Ohio city that credits the company with saving its failing treatment plants. Even there, however, residents in the outlying areas don't quite see things eye to eye.
Energy versus sludge
Quasar's main operation is in producing alternative energy, by taking hard-to-dispose-of waste products, extracting and capturing methane from them and running that methane into a generator to produce electricity.
It's an innovative process, one that has earned Quasar President Mel Kurtz awards, including one from renewable energy nonprofit Energy Vision.
However, alternative energy is not where Quasar's controversy comes from. Instead, it's from a byproduct it produces: equate.
So what exactly is equate? To proponents, it's biosolids, which opponents refer to by its original name, a type of sewage sludge. Nate Carr, Quasar's biomass account executive and the company's first local employee, explained it as what's left after an anaerobic digester extracts all the methane biogas it can from waste products.
When Quasar does not take the materials, he said, "We waste them. We waste the energy that's in them. We waste the nutrients that's in these materials by putting them into landfills, which is a very unsustainable practice, which leads to greenhouse gas production."
He added, "All around it's a very beneficial, valuable product to be used on soil to grow crops."
The state DEC has approved the use of biosolids on farmland, but across the country, some people are still concerned about its safety.
Among those people are Wheatfield activists Julie Otto, who works for a medical device company, and Monica Daigler, an assistant principal who taught high school biology and anatomy for 10 years.
"It's the stuff that we can't consume, the stuff that's taken out of our water so that our water is clean," Daigler said. And by the time it is equate, "The waste product is still the waste product that came in and it's dangerous things - there can be tens of thousands of chemicals in there."
Informational items from Quasar say equate contains "tiny amounts of organic chemicals" but not enough to harm people or the environment. It also argues most chemicals and metals are not absorbed by crops. Carr referred to an EPA's risk assessment profile for biosolids use, which he called "one of the most extensive the EPA has ever taken."
However, Daigler said she believes Quasar's research to be biased, and pointed out independent scientists have found different results. She also said biosolids are only tested for a small number of metals and not at all for antibiotics or hormones.
"They tout things as green and good for the environment. Really, when you look at it, maybe the creation of the energy piece is, but the waste product afterward is not good," Daigler said. "I felt really passionately, and still feel really passionately, that we can't let this into our community."
Four years ago, Otto was fighting an antibiotic-resistant infection after complications from surgery. For 10 weeks, she was confined to a single room in her house, a situation she called "very tiring."
Describing her frustration, Otto said, "One day the nurse came to me, and I'm just like, 'Gosh, I can't believe that this isn't going away.' And she said, 'Well, your body's antibiotic-resistant.' And I said, 'I haven't been on antibiotics for years' ... and she said, 'Dear, it's in your food.'
"And that just changed me, that moment. I thought, all right, as soon as I get through this, I'm going to change."
From then on, Otto began keeping a close watch on where her food came from, working with a nutritionist and asking local farmers at the market about their practices.
In 2013, when Quasar set up an anaerobic digester on Liberty Drive and announced plans to begin using its equate as fertilizer on local farms, Otto decided to do something about it.
She and other residents began collecting research and evidence to present to the Town Board, eventually succeeding in getting a ban on the use of equate last summer. As a result of that ban, Quasar is currently suing the town.
And although Otto's main argument was against the land application of equate, she also questioned some practices by the company.
Last summer, Otto and other activists collected about 600 signatures of residents against Quasar's operations, which were submitted to the Town Board. Otto said Quasar then obtained the petition through the Freedom of Information Law and used it to send the listed residents promotional materials for the company. Carr confirmed Quasar had done so.
"The reason we did that was because we wanted to reach out to those residents and invite them to tour our plant and to informational meetings that we held," he said. "Those are the interested parties who had concerns about it, so those are the people who we wanted to reach out to."
Otto also said she was suspicious of the relationship between Quasar and the state DEC, because it permitted the use of equate on what was originally classified as unsuitable soil. Later, the DEC reclassified the soil as suitable for biosolids. She compared the situation to the government's handling of Love Canal.
"That leads people to believe that there's a relationship, let's just say, between Quasar and the DEC," Otto said. "And even if you look at their website, the DEC website, you see Quasar, Quasar, almost like they're advertising for them. ... It's questionable."
Over the past year, the situation in Wheatfield has become heated. However, Carr referred to the activists as a "vocal minority."
In response, Otto said, "If it was a vocal minority, the town never would have enacted a ban and spent several thousand dollars on three people."
Still, Carr said, "Largely, Quasar is a company that's embraced and admired."
That's certainly true in some areas of Ohio, where two years ago, Quasar received a very different reception. The company had just formed a public-private partnership with the City of Wooster to bring the city's struggling wastewater treatment plant up to code. Now, officials there say the company has saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"They've really been a good group to deal with, and they've saved us a heck of a lot of money down here," Mayor Bob Breneman said. "They've been good neighbors to us."
In 2007, the city spent about $20 million upgrading its wastewater treatment plant, but it still didn't meet Ohio EPA regulations, said Kevin Givins, utilities division manager in Wooster.
That's when Quasar, which had a research facility in Wooster's regional branch of The Ohio State University, stepped in.
"We really needed to get things turned around and then Quasar presented this proposal. ... At that point, it was just deemed the best fit for us," Givins said. "And it didn't hurt that they were local, they were nearby. They had a research facility just up the road and a digester that was already online that we could use."
He added that before Quasar, "We had a span of about three years, we probably had about 1,400 permit violations. And I think in 2014, we had two. We felt that impact right away; they definitely helped us get back into compliance."
According to Breneman, the plant, which used to cost about $30,000 per month, now produces more than enough energy to sustain itself.
The plant also produces equate, which is used in towns surrounding the city. Breneman said residents haven't raised any opposition, and he thinks most of them are happy with Quasar's involvement.
At least, he said, "I know when you hear the cost savings in energy costs to run those plants, you know, savings of a quarter of a million dollars a year, then people are pretty happy when they hear that."
Both Breneman and Givins pointed out, however, that Ohio has been storing and land-applying sewage sludge for decades.
"We didn't have to do a lot of public relations work with this project because it wasn't anything cutting edge. We had digested for decades. We had done land applications around the city, again, for decades," Givins said. Noting the issues raised in other parts of the country surrounding the use of biosolids, he added, "I understand the concern, but as someone who works in the field and in this industry for the last 15 years ... for the most part, land application of biosolids, at least in Ohio, has been an acceptable practice for years."
Outside the city, in nearby Canaan Township, however, resident Dawn McLaughlin said otherwise. As a farmer who grew up in the county, she said she was strongly against the use of biosolids as fertilizer, though she knew of other farmers who used it.
Like Daigler, McLaughlin worried about dangerous chemicals entering the food chain. "It's horrifying to me to think about what's coming up through that stuff, into the plants and then ultimately into the people who consume the products," McLauglin said.
She added, "I get really irritated when I see farmers using that stuff. It's cheap, that's why they do it, it's really cheap. And it's easy to get and they'll come haul it to anybody, they'll even apply it for you."
Still, farmers in Ohio do use it, indicating at least some of them are comfortable with the practice. Familiar with the acceptance of those farmers in Ohio, Carr said he was surprised by the response in New York.
"I think there's been a lot of misinformation out there that has incited people to be opposed to the product," Carr said. "It's in contrast to other areas where we work - in Ohio, we've got communities that embrace us, that understand what we do and are glad we're there. We think that with further education, with more community outreach, once people fully understand what we do ... people, similarly to Ohio, will start to see the value in what we do and understand the safety of it as well."
"I didn't anticipate that we would receive opposition here, and I am a local. And the company didn't anticipate it," he added. "We were a little taken off guard when that opposition emerged."
He said if the company had experienced this type of pushback in Ohio, they might have tried more community outreach before installing the plant in Wheatfield.
However, evidence suggests Quasar was facing a coalition of grassroots organizers in an Ohio township at least a year before they began expansion into New York.
According to Jenn Abram of Pittsfield Township, Ohio, after Quasar made plans to build a storage tank for sewage sludge in the area, her community fought back.
In December 2012, she and her neighbors found out Quasar's French Creek BioEnergy branch would be building a 10-million-gallon lagoon in the area to store biosolids, a term which Abram said the township was unfamiliar with.
After researching biosolids, she said, "I'm like, 'Oh my God, this can't possibly be legal,' because I'd never heard of it."
She added, "I was frantic, I was freaked out. I had just retired after 46 years of work and finally, I thought, OK, I'm going to do my organic gardening, my bees, all that kind stuff. And 14 feet above our heads here, knowing the history of Quasar, where they let these things go, they stink. ... What they say and what they do are two different things."
Abram quickly requested documents from the Ohio EPA, and found the coordinates Quasar supplied to the office were about half a mile away from the actual project site.
Carr said the construction manager for the project decided to move its location in order to keep it away from homes and maintained the final location was more than 900 feet away from any residence.
However, Abram also said she was suspicious of Quasar's relationship with the OEPA, because Scott Nally, its director from 2011 through 2014, left the agency last June to become Quasar's senior vice president of environmental operations. Seven of Quasar's digesters in Ohio were built while he led the agency.
In the end, Quasar withdrew its plans for the tank, and Carr said there was no longer an issue there. For the citizens of Pittsfield, however, that's not the case. They're still fighting the EPA to have the building permit officially withdrawn before it expires later this month.
"The EPA never wants to admit that it's wrong," Abram said. "We think they're just going to let it go through statute of limitations and then you're never going to be able to see or find what happened with Quasar's permit; it's just gonna say it ran out of time, when really it was a violation and the people demanded it be pulled."
And though the pit has been closed for a year and a half, Abram said no remediation had been done to the area of lost wetlands.
Carr said he didn't consider the situation in Pittsfield similar to the one in Wheatfield other than that both involved opposition.
"The scope and magnitude of opposition was much smaller in Pittsfield and it was mainly limited to the storage pond," he said, "whereas in Wheatfield, the opposition began with a storage pond/tank and then grew further into opposition to the land application and eventually to the mere existence of our anaerobic digestion facility."
Although the town has passed its new law, the Wheatfield residents against biosolids have not slowed down. Now, they're focusing on remediation in case of a spill. For Otto, as long as Quasar produces equate, the digester is still very much a health issue.
"They say they're good neighbors, but they're not. They don't want to be responsible, they just want the money," she said. "I just want to make sure that I'm healthy, and the community is healthy, and that our land isn't ruined."