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Out East, out of waste will come wonders

Long Island Compost located at 445 Horseblock Road

Long Island Compost located at 445 Horseblock Road in Yaphank. (Jan. 16, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

The long bitter fight over the Long Island Compost facility in Yaphank is coming to a most satisfying conclusion -- and it's a game-changer for how our region handles its garbage. So seldom does Long Island see something so bad transformed into something so good that it's worth applauding. Loudly.

Remember the history of the composting facility? Residents in its vicinity complained for years about its unbearable odors, frequent dust storms, and occasional raging mulch fires -- one in 2010 took 150 firefighters from 22 companies about 11 hours to get under control.

Now the facility is on track to be turned into an anaerobic digester, a fancy name for a system that takes in food waste and turns it into energy and compost. Lots of waste, lots of energy, lots of compost. It also will reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

There is much credit to be given for this remarkable turnaround.

Start with the plant's Yaphank neighbors whose unrelenting criticism got things rolling. The Citizens Campaign for the Environment formed a coalition with the Brookhaven Fire Department, South Country school district, South Country Ambulance, and a variety of civic groups and business owners. They asked the state to intervene, and the Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany brought the coalition and Brookhaven Town officials together with owner Charles Vigliotti and demanded change. And Vigliotti responded.

The result is a $40 million marvel that will solve resident complaints and help address Long Island's garbage problem. It also will assist the state in meeting its ambitious clean energy goals, the reason it received a $1.35 million state grant.

The digester received unanimous approval last week from the Suffolk County Planning Commission and goes before the Brookhaven Town Board next month. The board also should say yes.

When completed next summer, the facility will process 180,000 tons of food waste yearly from hospitals, schools, restaurants, supermarkets and the like. All of that otherwise would end up in landfills, where its decomposition would produce greenhouse gases such as methane.

Instead, processing the waste will produce natural gas -- enough to power the new facility and its trucks, and add the equivalent of 1.9 million gallons of diesel fuel back into National Grid's natural gas pipeline. Waste from the process will be sold to Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. for fertilizer. And the whole operation will take place in an enclosed building with negative air pressure, minimizing noise, odors and dust.

That's a long line of wins.

We make lots of garbage on Long Island. As much as 5,000 tons are shipped out every day. Organic material such as food is nearly 30 percent of the waste stream. Our region needs this digester.

So congratulations to everyone who turned the Yaphank facility from concept to reality. And let's make sure it's not the last of its kind on Long Island.