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Proposed food-waste plant causes outrage in community

Community members filled the Riverhead Town Board meeting Wednesday night with feedback on the proposed “anaerobic digester,” a food-waste-to-energy plant on Youngs Avenue, across from the landfill.

The town is being asked to contribute more than $500,000 to a group called CEA Energy LLC for the proposal, which would be built on town-owned property. The facility’s profits would be split between the town and the group. 

The 12.7-acre site on the north side of Youngs Avenue includes a town yard-waste facility and was the site of the former animal shelter.

Commercial food waste would be processed at the facility to produce compressed natural gas, which would then be fed into National Grid’s pipelines, The Riverhead News-Review previously reported. The total cost of the project would be between $20 million and $22 million.

The CEO of CEA Energy, Mark Lembo of Wading River, presented the proposal at a Feb. 14 work session. At the time, he said the deadline for state grants being sought for the project was March 7. He asked that the Town Board pass a resolution in support of the project prior to the date. 

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said a there was miscommunication in the “local paper” that pushed townspeople to believe the date of the state grant deadline was synced with the town’s resolution — meaning the board would have a resolution on the issue Wednesday night.

The supervisor cleared the air on that point: The board is not prepared to make a decision on the proposal and further investigation is necessary to understand the economic and social implications of the project. 

Regardless, residents voiced their concerns on the food-to-waste plant. Roughly half of audience members were from Old Orchard Estates at Baiting Hollow, near the potential building site. 

The secretary of the Greater Calverton Civic Association, Toqui Terchun of Baiting Hollow, submitted three letters in opposition to the board. “Everyone is very surprised. The information just didn’t flow,” she said. “We feel forced [to be here]. My understanding was that because there was an end-of-the-month deadline, it would force a vote to come.”

Ms. Jens-Smith said she was surprised, too, saying she asked Mr. Lembo to reach out to the civic association prior to his presentation at last week’s work session.

Ms. Terchun said community members attended the board meeting because Mr. Lembo failed to heed the supervisor’s suggestion and speak with the civic association.

Joseph Graziano, who lives in Old Orchard Estates and is a member of the civic association, said he never heard of an anaerobic digester prior to Thursday night.

Councilman Catherine Kent, town engineer Drew Dillingham, the  deputy town engineer and a representative from CEA Energy visited a similar food-waste-to-energy plant in Southington, Conn., last November, which she said produced no odor outside the plant when the doors were closed, but did have an odor inside. 

Mr. Graziano said he contacted local businesses near the Southington facility for their feedback on the plant. 

“After I spoke with most of those businesses, the overwhelming response was, ‘You know the plant is there, but on a day the wind is right, close your doors and lock your windows.’ That doesn’t sound like something I want to be part of at all,” he said. 

Councilman Tim Hubbard said the project could be beneficial, but the location is not ideal. His statement was met with applause from the audience. 

Ms. Kent said she understands why community members are outraged. 

“The way this all came out, it sounded like something that was happening fast — all of a sudden, you’re hearing that this is happening down the street from you,” Ms. Kent said. “Still, I have questions about it, I think we all have questions about it. But we hear your concerns.” 

Councilman James Wooten said that while he was eager to listen to the community response, the board was not prepared to make a final decision on the proposal. 

“I find myself defending an action that we haven’t even considered,” he said. 

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Photo caption: The secretary of the Greater Calverton Civic Association, Toqui Terchun, spoke at Wednesday’s meeting. (Kate Nalepinski photo)