Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Don’t tell me he’s at the door again! Sure enough, it’s Uncle Riverhead. Some welcome him in, while others roll their eyes. He’s come to chat yet again about goings-on in town hall. This time he has a few things to say regarding the latest thing tantalizing the powers-that-be: a garbage-to-energy plant to be built on Youngs Avenue in Calverton. Someone mutters that he never has only a few things to say. Yep, he’s baaaaaaaaack…….

So it seems there are these developers called CEA Energy touting a $22 million project as a sure success, but only if things move fast (sound familiar?) or they will lose all kinds of money, in this case, grant money. Here we are again on the developer’s timeline. But the project’s success also depends on Riverhead Town’s becoming their equal partner. The deal calls for Riverhead to donate the land where the plant will be built, and pay the hefty fees for all the permits.

CEA isn’t comfortable to hear their project referred to as a garbage-to-energy plant. They prefer “food waste,” and assure us that there will be $4 million to split between them and the town each year as the garbage – sorry, food waste – is trucked into town, processed at their new, 25,000 square-foot plant, converted into natural gas and used or sold as alternative energy. Over the next 25 years, our town and CEA are in for a hefty $100 million. Moses thus brings us to the Promised Land.

Why is our town, asks Uncle Riverhead, so taken with huge projects that guarantee us everlasting prosperity? Back in the 1970s, the town fathers told us a nuclear plant on the Sound at Jamesport was Riverhead Town’s key to Shangri-la. After the town supervisor who championed that idea left office, his successor waxed poetic about an oil refinery for Riverhead. Then there was a Great Leap Forward in store for us with a jetport at the present EPCAL site. Note also the miserable and costly experience the Town of Hempstead in Nassau County had for years with its own garbage plant that hovered prodigiously over the Meadowbrook Parkway.

Uncle Riverhead offered a quote from Confucius, “True knowledge is when you know that you know what you know, and that you don’t know what you don’t know.” The folks at town hall, dedicated and well-intentioned as they are, don’t know SQUAT about setting up and operating waste-to-energy facilities. In fact, neither they nor we know much about CEA Energy, the proposed partner.

The principals of CEA, one of whom is from Riverhead, never had occasion to build or run such a plant. Not to worry, as they assure us that their plan to contract with the company that operates one in Connecticut will make up for their experience gap. Really?

But there’s another red flag here: One gets edgy when we hear how Riverhead can help bring a regional solution to a regional problem. After all, there’s a regional shortage of affordable housing, and a regional shortage of preserved farmland, and a regional shortage of sand mines, and now PSEG suffers a regional shortage of natural gas. There’s always a regional role for our town, unlike others, with little help from just about anybody.

And there’s a philosophical issue here that we really need to ponder: Should government go into private business partnerships at all? How does government regulate a large enterprise here in town when it’s a partner with it? What happens when the public interest conflicts with the private interest with which the town would be a part?

And here’s where Uncle Riverhead makes another interesting point: If our town is going to share in all this wondrous wealth, isn’t our town (and thus we) going to share in the liability as well? Every legal dispute and financial claim against the plant, whether by a bank, a utility, members of the community or whoever or whatever, will be lodged against the town as a partner. Yes, there can be all kinds of agreements where CEA will hold us harmless when the going gets rough, but that’s a risky escape, as the courts have often thrown “hold harmless” deals right out the courthouse window. And if CEA goes belly-up, guess who’s stuck with the plant, for better or for worse?

Some have said the Youngs Avenue site is far too close to people’s homes. That’s a big issue for a plant like this, particularly if it produces fertilizer, which is part of the plant’s design. (Riverhead as the regional kingpin for fertilizer – who could ask for more!) Is this why no other town, but for one way up in Connecticut, has been dazzled with this?

We’ve heard EPCAL, with its land buffers, distance from homes, and a railroad connection, is the preferable site for the plant, but recall that was all sold for peanuts. W’re told this is a great deal for the town, but how so? Because of the jobs it would bring? It will employ a grand total of six.

And as for tax revenue? It’s to be built on town-owned land, and therefore would be tax-exempt. The developer’s financial estimates assumer there will be no property taxes assessed on the facility.

So as Uncle Riverhead heads back out the door, he leaves us with this parting thought: Be practical, Riverhead, and remember, you’re on your knees financially. As well, you lack in many respects enough staff to do all the jobs at hand as it is. Keep an arms-length relationship with speculative stuff like this. Better to err on the side of caution. In this and all deals like it that emerge in the future, let the private sector muster the financing to make it work, with contracts that can be monitored. And that’s only if we would ever want such a plant here in the first place. You’re up to your eyeballs with enough problems. And when you are, we are.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg