Mark Lembo of CEA Energy with consultant Vic Prusinowski pitch their anaerobic digester plan to the Riverhead Town Board at the June 30 work session. Photo: Alek Lewis

A company looking to build a commercial food waste-to-energy facility at the Enterprise Park at Calverton has asked the Riverhead Town Board to change the zoning code to specifically allow the facility there — a little more than a week after the board held a public hearing to consider a ban on the facilities entirely.

CEA Energy CEO Mark Lembo and consultant Victor Prusinowski soft pitched their plan to bring an anaerobic digestion facility to the industrial park during the Riverhead Town Board’s work session on Thursday, after Prusinowski requested a meeting during the June 21 public hearing on a proposed ban on the facilities.

[See prior coverage: Town board hears comments on proposed ban on food waste-to-energy facilities]

After hearing the presentation and asking questions of Lembo and Prusinowski, Town Board members were still hesitant to set a public hearing on a code change to allow the digester in the Planned Industrial Park zoning use district at EPCAL by special permit of the Town Board.

“I think there’s material here that we can all sit and review and maybe discuss it,” Councilman Ken Rothwell said. “I think maybe it should go to code revision [committee] first too, as well…”

Councilman Ken Rothwell said the proposed code change should go to the Code Revision Committee for further discussion.
Photo: Alek Lewis

CEA Energy is currently in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals for a determination on a decision by Riverhead Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree, the town’s zoning officer, that the current zoning does not allow the use. In his decision, Murphree cited a February 2019 decision by then-Chief Building Inspector Brad Hammond, who said while the use is neither specifically permitted nor specifically prohibited by the zoning at the site, the proposed “use is akin to specifically prohibited uses: ‘Dumps’ and ‘Garbage disposal dumps, landfills, incinerators, or transfer stations,’” and closer to a salvage/recycling use than a manufacturing use.

[See prior coverage: Riverhead Zoning Board asked for ruling on proposed waste-to-energy facility at EPCAL]

Board members were hesitant during a work session in May, when Murphree and Town Attorney Erik Howard first took the issue of the zoning code’s ambiguity to the board in the hopes it could make a determination as the town’s legislative body. CEA Energy, which has yet to file an application with the planning department pending the Zoning Board of Appeals decision, was not invited to the May work session.

[See prior coverage: Town board looks to expand solar moratorium to all renewable energy facilities]

The Town Board then set a hearing to explicitly prohibit anaerobic digesters in the zoning use district and heard public comment on the proposed code change last week.

During the hearing, 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. But the same residents advocated for a smaller-scale project than that proposed by CEA Energy. Residents suggested sizing the facility to handle the volume of food waste produced in Riverhead, aline, rather than sized to accept food wastes from out of town.

The commercial facility proposed by CEA Energy would have a capacity of 200 tons per-day and be sized to handle food wastes within a 25-mile radius of the site, in keeping with state Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines.

Anaerobic digesters use biological processes in an oxygen-free environment to convert source-separated food and organic wastes to biogas and compost products. The company plans to sell the biogas as fuel to National Grid and businesses within EPCAL.

Prusinowski said the facility should be built at EPCAL to allow for use of the rail spur and gas pipeline in the area.

Lembo said during the presentation that the digestor will allow local food distribution businesses like restaurants and supermarkets to process their food waste in a facility. The process is an alternative to burning fossil fuels and storing organic waste in landfills, which cuts down on carbon emissions, he said.

Lembo disputed board members’ claims that the facility was “experimental.” There are roughly 1,200 facilities in the United States, including nine in New York, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’re not trying to, you know, to basically use the town as a guinea pig,” Lembo said. “This has been proven throughout the United States, throughout the world.”

The facility, however, would be one of the first on Long Island, Lembo said. There is currently one other anaerobic digester facility being proposed, which is in Yaphank, he said..

Prusinowski said, if the code is amended to allow anaerobic digesters by special permit, the board would be required to hold a public hearing on the special permit application, where representatives would answer any questions from the board and the public. 

Town Board members expressed interest in what benefit the facility can have for the town.

Lembo said he would like to have a small walk-up facility on the site for residents to bring their food waste and get it composted. He said the facility would also be able to process the town’s yard waste, something he said was “becoming very, very hard to basically process and do away with.”

Lembo also mentioned having an agreement with the town to get part of the tipping fee received when the waste is dropped off. “Since we’re doing this in Riverhead, and we may be taking things from adjacent towns, then the town should have a benefit,” he said.

Councilman Tim Hubbard remained skeptical of the digester proposal. Photo: Alek Lewis

Councilman Tim Hubbard said the facility would serve a “minute purpose” for Riverhead, since it could only be taking in around 20 tons of waste from Riverhead, and the rest in towns throughout Suffolk County. 

“[Y]ou’re going to service in a 25 mile radius, similar to solar. Solar uses our land, right, they use the sun, they produce energy, but solar gives us back community benefits,” Hubbard said. “Would you be interested in a community benefit to the town of Riverhead and the nature that solar does? Because you are not just purposing the Town of Riverhead, you’re purposing outside the area,” he said.

“Riverhead seems to be a catch all for purposing everybody around us, not just us. And I’m starting to get a little bit concerned about what we do just for our Riverhead folks and not as concerned about what we do for everybody outside of us,” Hubbard said.

“And in what sense besides what I’ve laid out?” Lembo responded.

“Oh, way beyond what you laid out… because you didn’t lay anything out to me, you told me that you would probably take most of our leaves. That means nothing,” Hubbard said.

“Well, no, also there’s a cash on the tipping fee,” Prusinowski said. “The town would get a portion of the tipping fee from the from each [delivery].”

“I’ve heard that. But our concern is, if you’re if you’re doing 200 tons a day, you should know exactly whether you can or can’t take our leaves right now,” Hubbard said. 

Lembo said he does not have the town’s data on the volume of leaves the town needs to process and will request data from the Riverhead Highway Department.

“Well, I’m just, I’m leery about this, be honest with you,” Hubbard said. “And I know some of the board members went over to Connecticut and toured the plant and everything was good when they toured the plant. But I’ve also read articles from neighbors and neighboring businesses that say it’s not as hunky dory as you promote that it is.”

“So you know, there’s always two sides to every story,” Hubbard said. “And I’d like to get both sides before I make a decision. And I’m sorry. I’m still out on this, the jury is still out for me on this. I’ve got to do some more reading and research.”

Hubbard said in a call Friday he was referring to a review listed on Google of the anaerobic digester in Connecticut that commented on the odor coming from the facility. 

“I remember it said some days were good, some days weren’t. Nobody really said it was horrible, like horrid and rancid,” Hubbard said in the call, referring to an odor from the facility. “But when they tell you that doesn’t give off an odor, that’s not completely true, because it does.”

A Google search by RiverheadLOCAL for reviews of Quantum Biopower, the aforementioned facility in Connecticut, returned no such results.

When asked by board members, Lembo said there is no odor and everything is processed indoors, with an odor control system utilized in the site.

The facility also does not process any sewage biosolids. Biosolids produced by the facility are shipped off site to be used in the production of other products, like fertilizer.

Murphree told the board that the planning department will be preparing a draft code for reconsideration. “It has to be a lot more extensive than what Vic has presented to you,” he said, referring to a copy of draft code Prusinowski gave to the board. 

“Because there are obviously a lot of issues raised with this,” Murphree said. “And the code is not specifically tailored for this one applicant, it’s addressing the whole PIP zoning district, so it can’t be spot zoning for one individual,” he said. “So if we allow for this individual, it’s gonna be allowed for every other property within the PIP. So we have to be very mindful of that.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]