Construction resumed Thursday on a controversial 10-million-gallon manure lagoon that state officials had recently ruled to be in violation of state regulations.
Neighbors of the rural site 30 miles west of Syracuse say they fear the project will foul the air, threaten their groundwater and ruin the value of their homes. They’ve flocked to public meetings, posted anti-lagoon yard signs and opened a Facebook page.
The lagoon is being built by CH4 Generate Cayuga LLC, a unit of a California investment group, on land it has leased from Hourigan Dairy Farm, an 8,000-acre, 950-Holstein megafarm in Elbridge, about 10 miles to the east.
CH4 (the chemical symbol for methane) is owned by Generate Capital, a San Francisco-based energy company that has operated Cayuga County’s regional methane digester in Auburn since January 2016.
The digester has been mired in controversy for years. Built in 2005 by the Cayuga County Soil and Water District, the facility has struggled financially, and officials have been reluctant to disclose details of contracts with CH4.
After Auburn’s local newspaper, The Citizen, won a Freedom of Information Law battle last year over details about the relationship, it reported that CH4 was in the process of purchasing the digester for $4 million over a 20-year period. The facility had cost the district $10.5 million to build.
The digester has mainly processed manure from local farms, which spread the unit’s processed effluent on fields. But CH4 has outlined a plan to begin using the digester primarily for processing food wastes rather than manure.
The lagoon is expected to provide excess capacity for both types of waste, Cayuga County Legislator Ben Vitale said at a public meeting Aug. 7.
“When a farmer brings in a load of manure for the digester, they take home a load of effluent,” Vitale said, as reported by Auburn.com. “So, when they start to take in more and more of the food scraps, the farmer isn’t going to be there to take care of the effluent so CH4 is going to have to provide storage for their own effluent. So that’s (the plan for the lagoon) out there right now.”
But local residents have questioned whether the state Department of Environmental Conservation has sufficiently studied the lagoon’s potential impact on the environment.
One neighbor, Jessica Marks, expressed worries about waste-laden trucks negotiating their way to the site at 1255 Maiden Lane along a narrow, irregular roadway flanked by ditches up 10 feet deep. She said she sees other problems as well.
”We’re looking at 10-million-gallon lagoon built on top of limestone hill,” Marks said. “It’s not stable and it doesn’t drain well. It’s a mile from the Erie Canal. With these recent rains, if this thing was up and running, it would be horrifying.”
Runoff from the site would flow toward the Seneca River and Cross Lake to the north rather than Cayuga, Owasco or Skaneateles lakes to the south.
The DEC responded a community group, Mentz Opposed to Manure Lagoon, with assurances that groundwater protection measures and other safeguards are in place. The DEC had granted CH4 a stormwater permit for the lagoon in December 2017.
But on July 27, the agency informed Richard Cisterna of CH4 by letter that the company lacked authority to build the lagoon.
On or about the same day, CH4 voluntarily suspended construction work and proceeded to rejigger corporate relationships so that the lagoon could be covered under Hourigan’s existing concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permit.
Earlier this year, CH4 had filed papers describing its ownership of the lagoon and acknowledging its responsibility to operate, monitor and maintain the facility, while assuming full legal liability for it.
It also shared its plan to use the lagoon as surplus storage for effluent from the digester in Auburn, 10 miles away.
But shortly after the DEC’s July 27 notice of violation, those plans were amended through negotiations between the DEC’s Reggie Parker, CH4’s Rick Cisterna and Hourigan’s A.J. Wormuth, emails show.
An Aug. 17 email to the DEC’s Parker explained that Hourigan would assume full responsibility for maintaining and operating the lagoon under its CAFO permit.
That decision somewhat crimped CH4’s stated business plan to dramatically shift the composition of material it processes at the digester because of CAFO permit restrictions on lagoons.
The typical mix of material handled by the Auburn digester has long been about 85 percent manure and 15 percent liquid food waste, documents show.
But according to a March 2018 report by the DEC’s Parker, the digester operator had plans to shift that mix to 90 percent food waste (a combination of pre-packaged food waste and municipal source separated organics) and 10 percent manure.
The DEC did not initially impose any special conditions on the material stored in the planned lagoon, which would have been accepting digester overflow made up primarily of food waste. But after complaints arose, it issued its notice of violation.
By reworking the business relationships so that Hourigan was responsible and liable for the lagoon (in order to qualify for the megafarm’s CAFO permit), CH4 was obliged to accept limits associated with that permit.
Under CAFO rules for lagoons, at least 50 percent of the material held in such a pit must be manure. That means CH4 must limit the amount of food-based digestate that it sends to the lagoon, or it must supplement the lagoon with pure manure to maintain the required 50 percent threshold.
Wormuth, manager of Hourigan’s farm, agreed in an email that Hourigan would take steps to see that the 50 percent manure minimum was maintained. In an Aug. 17 email to CH4’s Cisterna (with copies to Parker and other DEC officials), Wormuth wrote:
“Hourigan Dairy Farm LLC will be responsible for maintaining and operating the lagoon on Maiden Lane in the town of Mentz under its CAFO Permit and accepts responsibility for the environmental compliance associated with it as part of our CAFO Permit obligations. Hourigan Dairy Farm, LLC further provides assurances that the lagoon will remain under the CAFO Permit threshold for non-manure material.”
The controversy in Mentz comes as the DEC is preparing to overhaul its statewide regulations for CAFOs to comply with an April court order that found existing DEC rules illegally lax.
The agency is scheduled to release draft new rules by Sept. 7.
Current rules were issued five days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and they tended to coincide with the administration’s push to slash regulation.
In a lawsuit brought by Riverkeeper in state Supreme Court in Albany, Acting Justice David Weinstein concluded that the January 2017 state rules violated the federal Clean Water Act, and he gave the DEC six months to rewrite them.
The pending revision of state CAFO rules coincides with growing concern among expects that megafarms may be contributing to the spread of so-called toxic algae (cyanobacteria) blooms that have been plaguing New York waterbodies in recent years.
Manure is high in phosphorous and nitrogen, suspected fuels for cyanobacteria.
Owasco Lake, in particular, has been plagued since 2015 by toxic blooms that may have been exacerbated by a major liquid manure spill that flowed directly into the lake in 2014.
Peter Mantius is the founder of the Water Front, an all-digital publication dedicated to providing news and coverage of important environmental news in the Finger Lakes. His brings decades of reporting and editorial experience to his work, which includes frequent deep-dives into local, and regional issues. Contact him by clicking here or dropping him a line at [email protected]