“Equate” is what Quasar Energy Group calls the fertilizer it produces in Wheatfield and West Seneca.
State and federal regulatory agencies use the terms “digestate” and “biosolids.”
Local residents have their own ways of describing the material, whose components include food byproducts and treated human waste.
Equate is “just a fancy name for sludge and sewage,” said Evelyn Lauer of Ransomville.
For the better part of a year, residents throughout Niagara County and the Town of Marilla in Erie County have been packing public meetings because they oppose the Ohio-based company’s proposals to store equate in their communities until it can be spread on farmers’ fields.
The anaerobic digestion plants where it’s produced opened last year. Niagara BioEnergy in Wheatfield and Buffalo BioEnergy in West Seneca are located in industrial parks and received combined tax breaks of more than $1 million from the industrial development agencies in their respective counties.
Here’s what’s going on at the plants: After being trucked to the plant, liquid wastes are pumped into a receiving tank and solids go into a hopper, where they’re ground by augers. After mixing, the slurry goes into a “feedstock” tank for further mixing and homogenization.
The mixture then travels through a pipe into an anaerobic digester tank, where the temperature is heated to 100 degrees and microorganisms “cook” the materials for up to 30 days.
The resulting methane gas is converted into electricity on site; the Wheatfield plant already is operating under its own power, with excess being sold to National Grid. The equate is sold to farmers as a less expensive alternative to traditional liquid fertilizer or animal manure.
“It reduces their cost substantially over buying chemical fertilizers or manure,” said Nathan Carr, a local account executive for Quasar. And there are other benefits, he noted.
“We help the food manufacturers reduce their costs and be more sustainable,” Carr said. “We are reducing the landfill footprint and extending the lives of landfills.”
Neighbors, though, are skeptical.
“Our watershed is huge,” Jim Hopper, chairman of Marilla’s Conservation Advisory Board, said at a packed public meeting in August. “I walked the whole thing, and a lot of farmers, animals and vegetation will be affected. There is not enough information and a lot of fears.”
While neighbors complain about the potential storage of the equate in large holding tanks, the material already has been used as fertilizer in some Niagara County fields.
What Quasar says
Widely used in Europe, anaerobic digestion processes have been regulated by New York State for more than 30 years. Since 2007, Quasar has opened 10 plants in Ohio and one in Massachusetts.
Locally, Quasar is partnering with Forest City Sustainable Resources. The latter is a subsidiary of Forest City Enterprises, former owner of the Summit Park Mall in Wheatfield and still a major landowner in town.
With both digestion plants up and running, securing storage facilities has proved elusive.
Public outcry first sounded last summer in Marilla, where farmer Stanley Travis inquired about leasing his million-gallon concrete fertilizer tank to Quasar. He has operated a 27-acre farm on Eastwood Road for more than three decades.
Travis declined to comment for this article, but previously said that he first heard about equate on a trip to Ohio and looked into it. He applied to the state Department of Environmental Conservation for a solid waste permit to store it.
“This product will reduce the fertilizer costs, won’t contaminate the soil and is a renewable energy product,” Travis said at a Marilla Town Board meeting. “I am as close to being an organic farmer as I can be. I use no pesticides. And no way am I going to contaminate any fields.”
The company defends the safety of equate, which is regulated by state and federal environmental agencies.
“We can’t speak for those who misunderstand our processes and products,” said Quasar spokeswoman Caroline Henry, when asked to identify the single most challenging public misconception about equate.
“We can say that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. EPA have analyzed and reviewed our operations and our products and agree that they provide a safe and environmentally beneficial nutrient source,” Henry said.
At a public meeting last August, a consultant from Western New York Crop Management, who has long-standing ties to the local farm community, also spoke favorably about it.
“In my opinion, being an agronomist for 44 years, it’s absolutely stupid to send this stuff to a landfill or incinerate it,” said Nathan Herendeen, a retired crop and soil specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. “Why not spread it on the fields if there’s nothing dangerous in it?”
What neighbors say
Bright red signs decrying “sewer sludge” have popped up around Marilla, a town of about 5,700 residents.
“Not in our town,” the signs say, above a black skull and crossbones.
There’s one in the Eastwood Road yard of Jeff Keenan.
Keenan, who grew up on a farm in Wyoming County, understands the sounds and smells that come with living in a rural community. But he says the plan to store equate directly across from his home goes way beyond a normal agriculture operation.
“I have not talked to one of my neighbors that lives around the Travis farm that is in favor of this,” Keenan said.
He’s worried about possible contamination of his water well and a nearby stream, should the tank leak. He and his neighbors also worry about the lack of definitive research into the safety of equate.
Keenan said the main concern of property owners and residents in Marilla is the unknowns.
“They say, ‘It’s safe, it’s safe, it’s safe.’ But facts have been brought forth by others to dispute that greatly,” he said.
What governments say
In terms of safety, the Environmental Protection Agency has stated this about class B biosolids, of which equate is one: “The National Academy of Sciences has ... concluded that ‘the use of these materials in the production of crops for human consumption when practiced in accordance with existing federal guidelines and regulations, presents negligible risk to the consumer, to crop production and to the environment.’ ”
But under those regulations, the use of farmland on which biosolids are applied is restricted for months – and even years – afterward. There also are restrictions for grazing animals and public contact.
The DEC requires digestate containing biosolids be injected below the surface, rather than spread on top. As for its position on the safety of digestate/equate as a fertilizer, the DEC cites the conditions Quasar was required to meet to obtain its permits.
Beyond the “ick” factor of human wastes, the treated municipal sludge that goes into equate also contains heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and pathogens.
Third-party testing is done on wastes that go into the digesters and those test results are submitted to the DEC, according to Carr, who noted that the company’s limits are stricter than those of the DEC and EPA. Soil tests also are done before equate is applied, to ensure that the addition of its nutrients would be beneficial to the fields.
But the EPA’s regulations were written in 1993, noted Murray McBride, a professor in Cornell University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Since then, studies have shown a wide range of toxic, organic chemicals present in sludge, such as flame retardants, which remain unregulated, he said.
“This total lack of action on regulating makes me nervous because a number of these chemicals could move into the food chain depending on what crops are grown and what animals are grazed,” he said.
Crops initially respond well and yields are high after biosolids are applied to farmland, McBride said.
“The question is what happens after five years, or 10 years or 15 years?” he said. “Are you just gradually building up this contamination level? And since no one is checking, it’s not a valid argument to say, ‘Well, there haven’t been any problems.’ ”
McBride attended a private meeting last month at which the company was represented.
“The Quasar representative was very much focused on this handful of toxic metals that are regulated and claiming that there’s been so much research done that everything is fine,” he said.
McBride said he doesn’t agree with that point. And he said it misses the bigger issue: There are a lot of other unregulated metals that are toxic and do occur in some sludges.
To study the effect of biosolids on agricultural soil is “a virtually impossible task,” he said.
“You’d need a hell of a lot of scientists working on this problem to even begin to tackle it because of the complex nature of this material,” McBride said.
In Niagara County, multimillion-gallon storage lagoons have been proposed in the towns of Cambria, Lewiston and Wheatfield, but none has been constructed.
The Cambria site was blocked because of zoning; the intended site is zoned single-family residential. One in Wheatfield never got beyond the town’s Planning Board.
The Lewiston site, on the east side of Porter Center Road, was approved by the Niagara County Planning Board last October, but remains in limbo. After presenting the project to town officials last October, Quasar representatives have backed out of three public hearings.
“The latest correspondence basically said until you hear from us again, we’re not on the agenda,” said Tim Masters, the town’s building inspector.
Another proposal in Wheatfield – for a storage tank on the plant’s Liberty Drive site and an open lagoon on the county sewer district property nearby – is before local officials. A public information meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday in Wheatfield Town Hall.
While residents have been protesting plans to store equate in their communities, Niagara BioEnergy already has applied it directly to fields in Niagara County.
Henry, the Quasar spokeswoman, said applications have been done “as weather has allowed.”
Niagara BioEnergy has a permit from the DEC that covers 10 sites comprising hundreds of acres in the Towns of Cambria, Lewiston, Pendleton, Wheatfield and Wilson. Applications are pending for two permit modifications that would add 10 additional sites in Niagara County and a total of 18 sites in the Erie County towns of Elma and Marilla, and the Wyoming County town of Bennington, according to a DEC spokeswoman.
“There is no additional public notice requirement before the land application of digestate actually occurs,” said Kristen Davidson, the DEC spokeswoman. “However, signs do have to be posted to restrict access to the site during application and for at least 30 days later.”
“Because farms are private property and the equate is directly injected into the soil, potential human exposure in the field is minimal,” Davidson continued. “The DEC-required posting is another approach to discourage trespassing and potential contact.”
While the DEC continues to evaluate public comments on Travis’ application for a solid waste permit, the Marilla Town Board enacted a six-month moratorium in November relating to solid waste and recycling and the disposal of sewage and sewage sludge.
A committee of town residents is researching the issue and is to report their findings in April.
“We understand that this has to do with people’s livelihood, their health and their well-being,” said committee chairman Joe Barbarits. “So we have to look at it objectively and make the right decision because this is very important.”
In the meantime, town officials say that Travis’ request appears to run afoul of local zoning regulations.
Though the land is zoned agricultural, storage of equate would be considered a commercial operation, said Town Supervisor Earl Gingerich Jr. The state Department of Agriculture & Markets has determined the same, he said.
Farmers and suburban home dwellers have always coexisted in the Town of Marilla, said Gingerich, who is also a farmer.
And although interest from farmers there in spreading equate has been minimal, Gingerich worries that the Quasar issue has cast farmers in a negative light and made nonfarmers more suspicious of legitimate fertilizer applications.
“Now the agriculture community is in the public eye and is being more scrutinized,” Gingerich said.