The Riverhad Town Board at its June 21 meeting. Photo: Alek Lewis

The fate of a proposal to site a food waste-to-energy facility at the Calverton Enterprise Park — and whether or not the Town of Riverhead will allow such facilities anywhere within its borders — remains uncertain following hearings before the Town Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

CEA Energy, the Melville-based developer looking to build an anaerobic digester facility on an 8.3-acre property it would purchase on Scott Avenue in the enterprise park, saw its application for a use permit rejected by Riverhead Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree earlier this year. Murphree, the town’s zoning officer, ruled in March that the proposed use is not allowed by the zoning code that governs land use within the industrial park.

CEA Energy appealed Murphree’s decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which held a hearing on the appeal at its April 14 meeting. The company’s appeal remains pending.

Meanwhile, town officials moved forward with a code amendment that would specifically prohibit anaerobic digesters anywhere in the town. The Town Board held a public hearing on the proposed code amendment last week.

At the hearing, Murphree explained his March 4 denial letter. “I felt it was too close — akin to one of the other prohibited uses (in the Planned Industrial Park zoning code) which is garbage disposal dumps, landfills, incinerators or transfer stations,” Murphree said.

“The public hearing before you tonight seeks to clarify what an anaerobic digester is and a prohibition of that use in the PIP and industrial zoning use districts,” he said.

Anaerobic digesters use biological processes in an oxygen-free environment to convert source-separated food wastes to biogas and compost products.

Community members expressed tentative support for digesters as a means of diverting food wastes from the total volume of municipal solid waste produced in the town that might otherwise be disposed by carting to an incinerator. But residents advocated smaller-scale digesters, sized to handle the volume of food waste produced in Riverhead, rather than sized to accept food wastes from out of town.

Marc Haubner, co-chairperson of the town’s Environmental Advisory Committee told the board the town produces “far less than 20 tons per day” of food wastes.

According to the town’s solid waste management plan, the town is currently producing about 14.5 tons per day of food wastes, representing about 14% of the total municipal solid waste generated in the town each year.

Haubner and other residents signed a letter read aloud at the hearing by Toqui Terchun, president of the Greater Calverton Civic Association, urging the Town Board to only allow a food waste processing facility sized to meet the town’s needs and to explore a “decentralized” approach that might allow siting of smaller food waste processing facilities in various locations throughout the town, which would “provide cumulative capacity to 20 tons per day.”

The technology should be further studied and the town should address the issue in its comprehensive plan update, according to the letter.

Barbara Blass of Jamesport, a former member of both the Town Board and Planning Board, said “an anaerobic digester may have a place in a municipality’s overall (solid waste) management strategy. However, I fully support the prohibition of anaerobic digesters of the size and scope that would require importation of waste from outside of the Town of Riverhead.”

Blass said Riverhead Town has a “long history of addressing regional issues, while absorbing significant impacts.”

She also urged the board to look at “the concept of permitting smaller decentralized systems strategically located throughout the town, which would have few if any significant environmental impacts” and limit the cumulative capacity to 20 tons per day “to ensure that we’re managing waste generated from within our community only.”

Victor Prusinowski, representing CEA Energy, told the board a 20-ton-per-day digester would not be practical for private sector investment and operation.

“If you build something as small as 10 or 20 tons a day it will have to be municipally operated because there’s not enough profit in it for anybody to build it,” Prusinowski said. “I don’t think Riverhead wants to get back into the garbage business and build its own digester.”

Prusinowski said he does not believe a food waste processing facility should be located anywhere but at the Calverton Enterprise Park, which has, he said, the infrastructure, including a rail spur.

The facility proposed by CEA Energy, which would have a capacity of 250 tons per day, is sized to handle food wastes within a 25-mile radius of the proposed site, in keeping with State DEC guidelines, Prusinowksi said.

State law requires food wastes generated within 25 miles of an operational food waste processing facility to be brought to that facility for processing, he said. “That’s where we would get food scraps from, not New York City or out of state.”

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar told Prusinowski the hearing was on the proposed code change only, not any specific proposal. The board will have CEA Energy attend an upcoming work session to further discuss their proposal, Aguiar said.

The ZBA reserved decision on CEA’s appeal again at its meeting on Thursday evening. The adjournment, said ZBA Vice Chairperson Otto Wittmeier, was at the applicant’s request.

CEA pitched a 100-ton-per-day anaerobic digester to the Town Board in 2019. At that time, CEA wanted to use town-owned land on Youngs Avenue — the 12.7-acre site of the former animal shelter and the municipal yard waste facility. Area residents and the Greater Calverton Civic Association expressed concerns about the location. CEA then began exploring possible locations within the Calverton Enterprise Park.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.