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Smithtown considers allowing industrial organic waste plants

Toby Carlson of Kings Park has said he

Toby Carlson of Kings Park has said he is interested in opening an organic waste plant. Credit: Ed Betz

Smithtown’s Town Council will vote by summer on a law permitting industry development of indoor organic waste plants to process some or all of the tons of food scraps and yard trimmings the town generates each year, officials said. 

Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said Smithtown officials are attempting to plan waste management with greatly reduced access to local landfills. Many of Long Island’s municipal landfills -- including the largest, in Brookhaven, now a destination for some of Smithtown’s waste -- are believed to be less than a decade away from closing.

“When that time comes ... we would have some answers and be prepared,” Wehrheim said. “The only alternative is to truck the waste off the Island or rail it off,” expensive options that will look worse if fuel prices increase or logistical problems arise.

Town officials are focusing on two processing strategies, composting and anaerobic digestion, that they say have proved effective elsewhere in North America and Europe. Composting uses bacteria to break down organic material often stored in rows or in vessels, in the presence of oxygen; an anaerobic digester decomposes material in an airtight container, yielding gas that can be converted to fuel or electricity. Both methods produce a nutrient-rich material that can be safely added to soil.

Legislation now being written will probably permit only fully enclosed facilities on industrial parcels large enough for 500-foot setback from homes and businesses, said Allyson Murray, a town environmental planner. A licensing requirement and other provisions would increase officials’ oversight of facility operations.  

Even high-tech waste management can stir concerns over smell, noise and traffic, though, and in a sign of the delicacy of the matter, town officials organized a September community meeting but did not invite the press. A town spokeswoman said that was at residents' request.

Linda Henninger, president of the civic association in Kings Park, where a businessman has already expressed interest in building a plant, said in a statement that her group hadn't yet taken a stance but that “the residents in that area already bear the burden of the Covanta Plant, the town’s municipal facility, and existing noxious land uses.”

She also noted that a digester capable of handling 180,000 tons of food waste per year is planned for Brookhaven. Toby Carlson, the Kings Park businessman, said he envisioned a plant handling less than half that.

A September town report said that the facilities should be limited to 300 acres along Old Northport Road near Sunken Meadow Parkway in Kings Park, but Murray said staffers have recommended that be opened to include other industrial areas.

The town report covers regulations and management practices at 51 indoor plants in the United States and Canada and suggests many ways to reduce their impact on neighbors: floors made of impervious material, air treatment and negative air pressure to keep dust and odor from traveling, high-speed doors to limit open-air exposure.

About half the plants said they’d had odor complaints, and about 10 percent said they’d had noise complaints. About 44 percent said they’d had no complaints.

Disposal costs at reclamation facilities on Long Island like the one Smithtown uses range from $70 to $75 per ton, said Russ Barnett, the town's top environmental official.

A 2016 report by Manhattan-based nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission put in-vessel compost disposal costs at $80 to $110 per ton and anaerobic digester disposal costs at $62 per ton after sale of gas, although comparison is difficult because of variables including plant size, transportation and collection cost.

A year of Smithtown's organic waste:

20,000 tons of leaves, trucked to Babylon for compost

7,000 to 8,000 tons of trees and stumps, ground into mulch and wood chips in Smithtown

Estimated 5,500 to 11,000 tons of food waste, trucked to Covanta Huntington and burned for electricity

Source: Russell Barnett, Smithtown Environmental Protection director  

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