AUBURN, Mar. 15, 2019 — The former manager of the Cayuga Regional Digester, which was designed to generate electric power from reprocessed farm manure and food wastes, said he quit in January because he felt he was being “strong-armed” to process truckloads of illicit types of waste.
“I ran a methane digester, and they were turning it into a waste operation,” said John Roser, who had managed the CH4 Generate Cayuga LLC facility for about two and half years.
Up until the final weeks of Roser’s tenure, the digester processed manure from local farms and “source-separated organics,” including food wastes from hospitals and cafeterias, he said.
Then in early January it began accepting truckloads of household waste and other items not allowed under its permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, he added.
“They brought in a couple of sample loads and I said, ‘No way.’ I kept telling them, ‘No No No,’ and they kept bringing it in. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to be doing this for you anymore,’” Roser said in an interview Wednesday.
Another source close to the operation, who asked not to be identified, said employees were asked, beginning in January, to pick through the garbage by hand to sort out material unsuitable for the digester. Items they found included glass, cans, dirty diapers, needles, lunch pails, tree limbs and a brake drum, the source said.
In response to a citizen complaint, the DEC conducted surprise inspections March 11 of the digester and a nearby manure lagoon that has been accepting truckloads of the digester’s waste.
“DEC is reviewing information collected during these inspections and determining compliance with the digester facility’s permit and DEC regulations,” the agency told Waterfront Thursday.
Meanwhile, as many as six trucks a day continue to deliver digester loads to the lagoon near Mentz about 10 miles away, according to Jessica Marks, a neighbor of the lagoon whose inquiry prompted the DEC’s latest inspections.
“They started their investigation Monday, but they haven’t shut them down,” Marks said Thursday. “They’re still running six trucks a day to the lagoon. I see them from my house. Why are they allowing them to continue running when they know what’s in them?”
CH4 Generate Cayuga built the lagoon last year on land leased from Hourigan Dairy Farm, an 8,000-acre, 950-Holstein operation in Elbridge about 10 miles to the east.
Late last summer, the DEC briefly halted digging at the giant pit and told CH4 that it lacked the legal authority to proceed. Within days, as Waterfront reported, CH4 arranged for the lagoon to be permitted under the Hourigan’s existing concentrated animal feeding (CAFO) permit.
That CAFO permit requires that all mixtures of waste transferred to the lagoon consist primarily of farm manure. A 50-50 mixture is the bare minimum allowed.
Roser said that when he ran the digester, manure made up 60 percent or more of the waste loads sent to the lagoon.
Given the shift in the digester’s waste stream since January, Roser said he doubted manure made up half of the latest truckloads shipped to the lagoon.
Roser’s replacement as the digester manager, John Stapleton, declined to comment Thursday on Roser’s departure or on reports that the facility was accepting waste products that fall outside its permit.
Stapleton acknowledged that the DEC inspectors were on the site Monday. “We’re just waiting to hear back from them,” he said.
The Cayuga digester project was launched more than a decade ago by the local Soil and Water Conservation District to help area farmers break down their cattle manure and to produce biofuel for energy generation.
Designed to handle manure and food waste, the digester began operating in 2013.
According to reporting by The Citizen newspaper in Auburn, the digester cost the district $10.5 million to build. But after the facility fell on financial hard times, it entered into a lease-to-own agreement in 2016 with Generate Capital, a California-based investment firm, which agreed to pay the district $4 million over 20 years.
A portion of the electricity generated by the digester has powered a nursing home, a jail and several government buildings, while the rest is fed into the electric grid.
Generate Capital owns CH4 Generate Cayuga LLC (CH4 is the chemical name for methane). The investment firm has contracted with Denali Water Solutions to operate the digester facility.
“I resigned to Gen Capital,” Roser said. “They informed me they were going to get back with me. They never did.”
Jeffrey LeBlanc, president of Denali North America, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the Roser’s departure, the DEC inspections and the reported changes in the digester’s waste stream.
In 2017, Denali had acquired WeCare Organics LLC, a company LeBlanc had founded. WeCare described itself as a leader in managing solid separated organics, or food waste, from municipal trash.
WeCare Organics, which lists its address as 9293 Bonta Bridge Road in Jordan, continues to operate as a subsidiary of Denali Water Solutions.
Another company that lists the same address, WeCare Waste & Recycling LLC, was acquired in October by Casella Waste Systems Inc.
Roser said the CH4 digester has long employed Vermont-based Casella to pick up trash and recyclables and haul it away. Recently, however, Casella and others began delivering loads of waste to the digester, he added.
“It came in tractor trailers,” Roser said. “Until they opened the doors, we had no idea what was in there.”
(In an email received April 4, 2019, Casella acknowledged delivering packaged organic products to the Cayuga Digester but denied delivering any waste streams not specifically allowed under its DEC permit. “We take our compliance with such permits very seriously, as well as our role as a significant provider of organic resource management services throughout the region,” Liza Casella, director of development and coordination at Casella Resource Solutions, said in the email. See WaterFront’s Corrections and Clarifications section for more.)
Controversy surrounding the CH4 digester comes as the DEC is grappling with new strategies to streamline its statewide solid waste management plan.
The agency has been holding hearings around the state to hear public comments about how best to deal with municipal waste in particular as part of its initiative to update its decade old “Beyond Waste” strategy.
Separating and efficiently handling food waste has been a hot topic at several of those hearings. Food waste represents a significant portion of total waste that is currently buried in landfills — up to 18 percent by some estimates.
Digesters like CH4 offer an attractive alternative to burying food waste in landfills. By redirecting that waste, they save landfill space and cut landfill odors — a major public concern.
Several bills introduced in the state Legislature seek to encourage alternatives to landfilling food waste, including Senate Bill 2995.
Generate Capital has voiced support for that legislation, with certain caveats. Jigar Shah, president and co-founder of the firm, recently wrote the staff director of the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach ), chair of the Senate Committee on Environmental Conservation.
The bill would prohibit facilities that generate at least two tons of food waste per week from sending it to landfills. Instead, restaurants, hospitals, cafeterias and others would be required to donate edible food to food kitchens and send inedible food to compost, anaerobic digestion, animal feed or other organic recycling centers.
The bill would “give investors like Generate Capital the confidence to deploy large sums of capital in solutions like anaerobic digesters in New York State,” Shah wrote to Brielle Christian, the Kaminsky staffer, on March 8.
“We have the intention of investing several hundreds of millions of dollars into New York State food waste diversion infrastructure,” Shah wrote. “However, the current policy is not providing the right conditions to do so.”
While Shah expressed support for the bill generally, he urged legislators to cut out a provision that exempts any food waste producer that is located more than 15 miles from an organics processor.
Roser said he was not aware of the legislation or Generate Capital’s support for it. He said he suspected that Casella and Denali Waste Solutions would be at least as eager as Generate Capital so see such legislation pass.