Preliminary findings from a yearlong probe of groundwater contamination at compost and mulch facilities in and around Yaphank are leading regulators to rethink rules that govern all organic-waste facilities in New York, a top state environmental official said.
The review, which follows years of complaints by residents, could result in new controls on water runoff and air quality, tighter management of compost and mulch piles, and closer monitoring of the materials that go into them.
Peter Scully, regional director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an interview that investigators have narrowed the source of the contamination at the largest site, which includes elevated levels of radioactivity and manganese levels well beyond drinking water standards, to activity at the Long Island Compost facility on Horseblock Road. Since 2009, teams of health workers have surrounded the 62-acre facility in Yaphank with test wells.
Similarly high levels of manganese were found at an unrelated mulching facility on Main Street in Yaphank, Scully said, and at a site in East Moriches that Long Island Compost vacated a decade ago. "It [all] appears to be linked to vegetative waste generally," he said, and not specifically to the practices of any one company.
Health officials say the level of radioactivity generally is below drinking water standards. And while manganese at the levels shown can be a health problem, the water is no longer being consumed, so officials don't believe there are any current health risks. Neighboring homes all have been connected to the public water system.
DEC seeks broader authority
The possibility of new rules for compost come as the DEC is reviewing waste management regulations statewide. Any changes can be instituted on the order of the DEC commissioner without the need for legislation.
The DEC is "actively pursuing modifications to existing regulations" that would give it "much broader authority" of organic waste management statewide, Scully said. "Public health, as always, is the primary concern."
Scully suggested that new rules won't come quickly. "It's a significant public process," he said. The report, in draft form, has not been publicly released.
In addition to considering the use of impermeable barriers beneath compost and mulch piles, Scully said other changes under consideration include the use of paved roadways at facilities to cut dust and groundwater contamination; "enhanced" record keeping of truck traffic into and out of facilities; the need for water-resistant covers on top of compost piles to allow them to divert water; and better management of pile size.
Charles Vigliotti, president of Long Island Compost, said the company already complies with state standards for organic waste recycling and will comply with any new ones.
"There is a plan in place with standards," he said. "If those standards should change, Long Island Compost will comply with them. We're interested in a dialogue to find out the ramification of changes they may make."
Groundwater concerns are the latest in a series of issues neighbors have raised with Long Island Compost since it began operations in Yaphank in 2000, when the company moved from East Moriches at Brookhaven's request.
Odor and dust complaints from neighbors persist, several residents said last month -- even after the DEC ordered the company to enclose transfer station operations last October. The company has appealed that order.
Vigliotti said the company itself is developing a series of "very concrete" operational improvements to address the problems, but he declined to disclose them until they are worked out with state regulators.
Public officials say issues of groundwater contamination aren't evident in the compost they've tested, and Vigliotti vouched for his products, which are marketed in retail stores under the Long Island Compost, Hamptons Estate and Great Gardens brands.
"We are as concerned about environmental contamination as anyone," he said. "We're using these products, too. My children garden with our products." He said Long Island Compost is "100 percent safe."
A chemical reaction
Composting has been considered an ecologically friendly form of waste management, and dozens of local municipalities rely on Long Island Compost and others to handle massive organic waste streams. But tougher regulations that apply to landfills, such as ground barriers to prevent wastewater water leaching, don't cover composting facilities.
On Long Island, long compost windrows are generally placed on open ground. The concern: Over long periods, elements in the compost may concentrate as they leach directly into topsoil, perhaps even altering the chemical composition of previously undisturbed earth.
For Donna Horton, whose family lives beside the Long Island Compost facility, the result was years of tainted water -- until Brookhaven Town paid for a city-water hookup last May.
"It was kind of yellow and toward the end it had suds in it," she said of her tap water. "It smelled like sulfur, and the dishes, the shower, everything just turned brown. It was really just disgusting."
Water drawn around the Horton home showed manganese levels above 25,000 parts per billion -- well above the drinking water standard of 300 parts per billion.