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State preparing tougher rules for compost, mulching operations

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, following a two-year study, will tighten regulations to protect groundwater at the dozens of compost and mulch operations that dot Long Island, officials said Wednesday.

The new measures will be built into regulations due out next year that will set new standards for mulch and compost sites, including some where elevated levels of metals such as manganese and iron have been found.

The DEC said in a statement to Newsday: "New technical criteria in the regulations will include groundwater monitoring and/or liners on these sites, as well as detailed engineering requirements for drainage swales, ponds, and infiltration areas used for runoff containment and treatment." The agency will release a draft of the new regulations in 2019 for public comment and review.

In the meantime, DEC said it's implementing some new regulations now. These first-time rules include pile size restrictions, temperature monitoring, buffer zones to neighbors and water bodies, and the requirement for groundwater protection plans. DEC is also developing individual assessments of each compost/mulching site on Long Island that will be used to "ensure that the sites control runoff and are in compliance with current regulatory requirements." 

Last month, Suffolk County’s Health Services Department released a long-awaited report that found elevated levels of metals at the Sand Land sand mining operation in Noyack, where mulching and composting has been occurring. Manganese, a metal associated with neurological problems at high levels, was found at more than 100 times drinking water standards, Suffolk said, while iron was around 200 times the standard.

Brian Matthews, an attorney for the Sand Land, said the company's independent testing found any elevated levels were "not coming from property. It's an impossibility based on our analysis." He declined to comment on any new state rules. 

DEC officials in June met with private and municipal mulch processors and engineering consultants to “discuss criteria required by the state’s new regulations,” the DEC said Wednesday.

The DEC report took note of the increased metals that are found in groundwater beneath the mulch and compost sites, noting water that contacts mulch before entering the subsurface becomes a “transporter” of carbon in a way that results in changes to the groundwater. Manganese levels were found to be particularly elevated.

The report offers a series of “recommendations” to control and assess groundwater impacts from the piles, including that “mulch piles should be placed in a manner that minimizes ponding around the piles,” and that storm water “produced on the site must be managed appropriately.”

It also recommends surface and groundwater sampling programs, and that mulch piles be covered with a breathable liner and underlayed with paved surfaces such as asphalt or concrete or impermeable liners.

DEC officials weren’t available for an interview, but in a statement, DEC commissioner Basil Seggos said that while compost and mulch can have environmental advantages, “producers must control potential impacts at their sites.” He called DEC’s approach to the address the impacts “comprehensive.”

Peter Scully, deputy Suffolk Couty executive and a former DEC regional manager who spearheaded studies of sites around Long Island, called the report “a very significant step.”

“It’s an acknowledgment by the state government that these groundwater impacts by vegetative waste facilities are a concern and need to be addressed,” Scully said.

Charles Vigliotti, chief executive of Long Island Compost in Westbury, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said while the final regulations haven’t yet been released, they must include a mandate for impermeable liners beneath the compost and mulch piles, covers atop them, and rules for collecting groundwater.

“We need composing and muchling but we also need to protect drinking water,” she said. “We need regulations that provide for both.”

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