Piling On: LI Compost and the DEC

There’s already a permanent structure that surrounds all the organic material handled at Great Gardens. It’s called the atmosphere.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued its analysis of hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking”, in September of this year with the public comment period open until Dec. 12. The proposed regulations tackle what is arguably the most important environmental issue the already resource-poor DEC will have to wrangle with in decades.

Add this massive undertaking to the growing list of caustic environmental and public health hazards New York has to contend with and the DEC has its work cut out for it. Rampant groundwater contamination, an aging and dilapidated sewage treatment infrastructure, thousands of contaminated industrial sites, toxic air pollutants related to everything from crematories and incinerators to portable fuel containers and vehicle emissions from traffic congestion all fall under the purview of the overworked, underfunded DEC. Now the agency is being tasked with potentially overseeing thousands of proposed drilling sites that run throughout upstate New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale.

It is within this context that I draw your attention to the current bête noire of the DEC here on Long Island having nothing to do with fracking but everything to do with how the DEC thinks and operates. The Great Gardens facility in Yaphank owned by Long Island Compost, an organization that I have covered closely the past couple of years, has come under fire in recent months for its practices. In response to complaints made primarily by two residents who live adjacent to the commercial site, the DEC is attempting to modify the permit by requiring the operator to enclose the entire operation in order to halt all “odors and dust emanating” from the facility. The modification would effectively put Great Gardens out of business.

Seems simple enough. Preventing malodourous, noxious dust from a large waste transfer facility from drifting into a residential area seems like something everyone can get behind. It already has the support of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the DEC and a handful of local legislators. Even Newsday’s editorial page threw its support behind the residents, saying: “The agency seems justified in tightening the rules. For the sake of the long-suffering neighbors, we hope the appeals process and some ultimate resolution will not drag on for many more months.”

But it’s not that simple. This is one of those situations where the devil is in the details and the logic of all those who stand in opposition to the activities conducted at Great Gardens is flawed and rife with inconsistencies.

Allow me first to dismiss the technical arguments. The residents are not wrong to be concerned about the air quality in their immediate living space. Unfortunately for them their properties are adjacent to a facility that is zoned for industrial use and permitted as a solid-waste transfer station. Moreover, both the residents and the Great Gardens facility are in the shadow of the towering Brookhaven Town landfill, which was present long before Great Gardens began operating or the residents moved in. If you buy a home less than one mile from a landfill, you cannot feign ignorance regarding the potential health effects of this location.

Unless you have been to the facility, it’s difficult to imagine. Essentially, it’s a city of dirt, or finished compost to be exact. Organic material from yard waste to food finds its way to Great Gardens, where it is sorted and dispersed to a network of farms for composting. Once the material has entirely broken down, the farms have the option of taking either a payment for their participation or a portion of the compost for their own requirements. The Long Island Farm Bureau and the farmers themselves have lauded this arrangement, because rich, organic compost on that scale is expensive and hard to come by. The finished compost is then hauled back to Yaphank to be bagged and sold back into the marketplace.

You grow it and mow it, then throw it out. Great Gardens puts it all back together again and the cycle continues. It is quite possibly one of the most environmentally important and truly regenerative practices on the Island. Here’s the problem: compost stinks. Anyone who composts at home can tell you that.

The DEC has dismissed the vast majority of the complaints regarding this facility. Now it is suddenly and capriciously attempting to modify its permit by repealing a waiver it had granted Great Gardens, which was given because the original rule as written only contemplated refuse, not organic yard waste. There’s already a permanent structure that surrounds all the organic material handled at Great Gardens. It’s called the atmosphere. Enclosing this facility to contain the dust is like putting a roof over Central Park to prevent oxygen from escaping.

The bigger problem with the DEC’s action is that it ignores its own responsibility. In 1988, the New York State Legislature passed the Solid Waste Management Act, which “mandates that all municipalities in the state adopt a local law or ordinance… requiring that solid waste be separated into recyclable, reusable or other components.” It specifically references “Composting of Organic Waste – The process occurs naturally and is a critical component to soil health.” Essentially, Great Gardens and other facilities like it were legislated into existence.

Then there is the financial impact that favors local taxpayers. By Brookhaven Town’s own figures, it saves approximately $1 million annually by outsourcing its composting operations to Great Gardens.

I completely understand the frustration of the neighboring residents. And because I take a dim view of most politicians, I’m hardly surprised that a few have decided to jump on the anti-composting bandwagon. And, unfortunately, I no longer expect to find much wisdom in the editorial pages of Newsday. What I have a huge problem with is the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

The fact that CCE is effectively trying to halt the operation of a facility that takes organic material out of the waste stream by the ton, allows it to break down through natural processes and returns it to the market as a finished, organic product is ludicrous and shameful. Casting aspersions on a property that is the manifestation of our best legislative intent to provide for a more sustainable future is disingenuous at best.

Should we side with two local residents and sacrifice the greater good or allow the operation to continue and ignore their legitimate health concerns? The former feels more human – the “right thing” to do. The latter seems more Machiavellian, where we decide as a community that a couple of eggs will be broken while making this omelet. I don’t see it this way. It doesn’t have to be Long Island’s environmental equivalent of Sophie’s Choice.

This is a question of leadership that falls directly on Mark Lesko’s lap as Brookhaven Town Supervisor. Because Brookhaven allowed residential and industrial zoning to exist in such tight proximity, the town has the responsibility of dealing with these consequences. Lesko and the town board should act as expeditiously as possible to reach an arrangement with the two residents next to Great Gardens to purchase their homes and facilitate their relocations.

There. Wasn’t that easy? This solution would allow the DEC, CCE and every other acronym responsible for the environment to focus on stopping things like hydraulic fracturing that really hurt the planet instead of trying to shut down something that we can all benefit from.