Pictured Above: The former site of the Riverhead Town animal shelter, which moved to Aquebogue last year.

After the Riverhead Town Board heard a pitch on Valentine’s Day from an energy company to build a food waste-to-energy plant at the former animal shelter on Youngs Avenue in Calverton, stunned neighbors scrambled to put together a crew to air their concerns.

The plant, pitched by CEA Energy, whose CEO, Mark Lembo, lives in Wading River, would be fed with expired food supplied by local garbage carters, and would use the process of anaerobic digestion to produce natural gas, which would be piped into National Grid’s distribution system. It would also produce pelletized fertilizer.

The developers asked the town to contribute $500,000 toward permits for the project, in addition to providing the 10-acre former animal shelter and yard waste site on the north side of Youngs Avenue for the plant. They told the town board that the town would receive 50 percent of the net profits, after paying any private equity investors, if they are needed. CEA estimated the profits would be about $4 million per year, with $2 million going to Riverhead Town.

CEA Energy pushed the board to draft a contract be to be approved at its Feb. 20 meeting, in order to apply for New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) grants that have a deadline of March 7.

The board did not place a resolution on its Feb. 20 agenda, but neighbors packed the town hall meeting room with concerns about the project.

Joseph Graziano, who recently bought a home in Old Orchard Estates, said he did some research about oversees communities surrounding waste-to-energy plants, where neighbors complain that they stink to high heaven and trigger nausea.

He said he then called business owners in Southington, Conn., near a sister anaerobic digestion plant to the one proposed for Calverton. He said he was told that, when the wind is right, businesses near the plant have to close their doors and windows to keep the smell from getting in.

“I’ve deployed five times with the National Guard, and I never thought I’d trade the burn pits of Iraq and Africa for the terrible smells described above,” he said.

Janice Sherer, a town planner in Southampton who lives on Southfield Road, near Youngs Avenue, said the proposal would be an expansion of a pre-existing, non-conforming use at the site, which she said is already overwhelmed by truck traffic from Crown Sanitation, which has a yard next door to the proposed plant.

She said CEA’s assertion that four to five trucks per day would drop off garbage at the plant was “absurd and possibly reckless.”

“We want you to represent us and protect our quality of life,” she said. “The only location this makes sense is EPCAL.”

In Mr. Lembo and his associates’ Feb. 14 presentation, they said the plant would cost $20 million to $22 million, depending on whether the developers would need to pay for a pipeline to connect into National Grid’s distribution network.

Mr. Lembo said the plant, which would have a footprint of about 5 acres, could initially process about 100 tons of waste per day, and could be expanded to process up to 200 tons per day.

CEA Energy took town representatives on a tour of the Southington, Conn. plant, which is run by Quantum Biopower, earlier this year.

This type of plant, designed by the Belgian company Global Water and Energy, is known in the industry as an “anaerobic digester,” which unpackages food waste, converts it to methane and then converts the methane to natural gas. Trucks that come into the site unload inside the plant, which is under negative pressure to keep odors from making their way outside the building.

The plant could be designed either to use the fuel to power an electric plant, or to feed into a natural gas distribution network, but CEA Energy executives believe it makes most sense to distribute the gas through the National Grid network from this site.

Tom Carmady of TC Tech is working with Mr. Lembo on finding a steady source of food for the plant, and he told the board he has letters of intent from three local garbage carters who have commercial food pickup runs, which could provide 100 to 150 tons of food waste for the plant each day.

He said this plant is an economic boon for the garbage companies, which are currently paying around $100 per ton to dispose of the garbage, in addition to trucking costs. At the waste-to-energy plant, he said, they would pay about $43 per ton.

He did say, however, that the carters weren’t interested in multi-year contracts, in part due to the high price variability in the industry.

CEA Energy’s financial advisor, Steve Solar, said there are numerous potential funding sources for the project, including a total of $19 million in NYSERDA grants, some specifically earmarked for anaerobic digestion. The deadline to apply for those grants is March 7.

The project could also be financed with RINs, a renewable energy credit generated by the production of biofuels, said Mr. Solar.

While board members expressed cautious interest in the proposal at the Feb. 14 work session, by the Feb. 20 meeting, they were vocal about their need for more time to look over the details.

“It was left that they were going to bring some information back to us,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard at the Feb. 20 meeting. “I love the idea that they’re taking waste food and turning it into energy. I’m not so sure I agree this location is the best place for it. I think that’s a big issue.”

His comments were met with a big round of applause.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who wasn’t at the Feb. 14 work session, said at the Feb. 20 meeting that she’d been opposed to the idea from the start. She said Mr. Lembo came to her office to pitch the plant on Nov. 20 of last year and “I said ‘I’m not interested. Please leave my office.’”

“I can understand why people are upset,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who was one of the Riverhead employees who went to the Southington plant to learn more.

“The way it came out, it sounded like it was happening fast,” she said. “I do live in your area. I did go look at the plant. I was skeptical too. I still have questions about it. I think we all have questions about it.”

“We feel forced,” said Toqui Terchun, the secretary of the Greater Calverton Civic Association, who, along with helping to gather the neighbors, brought along three letters from residents who couldn’t attend who were concerned about the plant. Ms. Terchun said articles in local newspapers had made it seem like the board would vote on the plant that night in order to meet the NYSERDA grant deadline.

“The deadline is their problem, their issue, not ours,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard of CEA Energy.

Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said board members had suggested CEA representatives bring their proposal to the civic associations before sitting down with the town board, but that didn’t happen.

“It’s an interesting prospect, to be able to turn food waste that cannot go into a landfill here (into energy),” she said. “Does it fit in our community? None of that has been decided. We’re not looking to ram this forward and get it done. There’s a lot of community concern about it. You coming tonight and having a dialogue is great.”

Another Youngs Avenue proposal, across the street from the former animal shelter at the town’s capped landfill, went forward without public opposition Feb. 20, when the board agreed to solicit proposals for a solar array there. 

The town had considered building a solar array atop the landfill in 2011, but it stalled in the process of attempting to get the Long Island Power Authority to buy the power produced there. LIPA typically issues requests for proposals for alternative energy, and picks the project that best suits its needs from among the bidders.

Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz told the town board at its Feb. 8 work session that he’s heard from solar companies that are interested in bidding on an array there.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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