Opinion: The dark side of composting

Firefighters battle a huge blaze at the Long Firefighters battle a huge blaze at the Long Island Composting Facility on Horseblock Road in Yaphank early Monday morning, July 12, 2010. Stringer News Photo Photo Credit: Photo by Stringer News

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Adrienne Esposito is executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. Rob Deshler is a Brookhaven firefighter, and both are executive board members of the Brookhaven Community Coalition.

 

Composting usually invokes images of doing something positive for the Earth; reducing, reusing and recycling all wrapped up together. After all, it turns waste into a resource we need. But there's also a dark side to this expanding industry. When not properly regulated, large-scale composting and transfer stations are downright damaging to surrounding communities. Potent odors, dust, truck traffic, groundwater contamination, fires caused by spontaneous combustion and equipment noise are serious problems plaguing many communities.

Time and again, residents near Long Island Compost, a business in Yaphank, have reported eye-watering odors that prevent them from going outside or opening windows. Blowing dust forces them to use windshield wipers when driving.

After 11 years of documented concerns, Brookhaven residents desperately sought relief. Last year, a diverse group -- including the Brookhaven Fire Department, South Country Central School District, South Country Ambulance, the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, and other civic organizations and business owners -- formed the Brookhaven Community Coalition to address public health and environmental concerns from the Brookhaven landfill and from Long Island Compost.

Information obtained through the Freedom of Information Law revealed that the compost facility was granted a variance by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to operate without enclosing the structure. Enclosing a compost facility within a building, which is normally required, would put a stop to the burdens that communities are experiencing and allow on-site humidity to be regulated, preventing fires and potentially saving lives of our firefighters.

The coalition presented these facts to the DEC and requested the facility finally be required to build an enclosure. The DEC's variance requires that the facility not be a source of odors, dust or a diminished quality of life. The agency agreed that adverse conditions violated the terms in the variance and rescinded it in October. Long Island Compost has appealed this ruling and requested mediation. To date, nothing has changed.

And the concerns keep mounting. Groundwater contamination south of compost facilities in Yaphank, Moriches and other locations are being documented. Tests taken in 2009 by the Suffolk County Health Department came back with high levels of radionuclides, manganese and heavy metals. According to health department data, radiation was detected in one homeowner's well at four times the drinking water standard. Manganese was detected at 31,600 parts per billion; the drinking-water standard is 300. The health department reports that the data point to Long Island Compost as the source.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, drinking water standards are set at the levels that best protect human health. The state DEC and our county health department are obligated to protect the public against such exposures.

A letter written on Feb. 7 to Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) by Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken states that expanded test results south of Long Island Compost found "contaminants consistently detected at unusually elevated concentrations." The bad news doesn't stop there. Heavy metals including strontium, chromium, barium and nickel were frequently found in groundwater samples. These metals are known toxins and are linked to serious health issues.

No business is allowed to contaminate drinking water. The DEC and the county health department have been collecting ground and surface water samples since 2009. The data clearly show we have a problem, and it's time DEC regulations were changed to better regulate compost and other materials processed at these facilities.

The state needs to toughen regulations and require these facilities to be enclosed, so that dust, odor, fires and groundwater contamination are no longer the tolerated, adverse effects of doing business.

Composting should continue, but it must be done without contaminating our environment or threatening the health of Long Island communities.

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