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SENNETT — The manure lagoon project that many Mentz residents have been fighting to stop the past few weeks is part of a larger plan to more effectively operate a Cayuga County renewable energy facility 8 miles away, its developer said last week.

The construction for the roughly 10-million-gallon storage lagoon, off of Maiden Lane Road in Mentz, is currently at a standstill after CH4 Generate Cayuga LLC, the company building the lagoon on land owned by an Elbridge-based dairy farm, received a notice of violation from the state's Department of Environmental Conservation on July 27 citing lack of required DEC approvals. 

CH4 is the operator of the Cayuga Regional Digester, CH4 manager Jeff LeBlanc said in an interview at the Sennett facility last week. CH4 is owned by a large California-based investment firm, known as Generate Capital, that focuses on renewable energy projects.

The lagoon project caught nearby residents by surprise about a month ago, even though, LeBlanc said, CH4's engineer contacted the town of Mentz in October. Residents have been working the past several weeks to stop the project, saying they have concerns about the impact on roadways, air quality, property values and overall quality of life.

CH4 operates the digester facility through a long-term, lease-to-own agreement with Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District. At the same interview with LeBlanc last week, plant manager John Roser said any improvements to the existing facility are owned by CH4.

The digester has been under the leadership of LeBlanc, founder of WeCare Organics, and Roser for about two years. Contrary to what a county legislator had stated at a meeting last week in Mentz, WeCare is not involved with CH4 or the digester, LeBlanc said.

Roser explained that a combination of manure and both liquid and solid organics materials, such as food processing waste, is processed twice under many specific conditions — once in the digester, and again in a post-digester. The process produces gas that is then cleaned by a biological scrubber and subsequently pumped through a generator to produce electricity. 

The power generated runs not only the digester facility, but the soil and water district facility, the Cayuga County Jail, Cayuga County Sheriff's Office, the 911 towers and the former county nursing home building, Roser said. Whatever energy is leftover is then sold to NYSEG. The nursing home is expected to become re-occupied in the future, which will create a heightened demand, Roser said.

"We purchased another generator and we're going to be able to produce twice as much energy as we're producing now," Roser said.

The relationship between the digester and the manure lagoon project in Mentz involves the end product that the manure and other organic waste reduces to. That material is known as effluent or digestate and it will go into the digestate lagoon — as CH4 refered to it — planned for the 400-acre site in Mentz owned by Elbridge-based Hourigan Farms. LeBlanc said the effluent is tested monthly by third-party labs. Hourigan will use the digestate as fertilizer on its crop fields.

When it comes to the construction of the lagoon itself, "everything is done by a professional engineer," LeBlanc said. The open-air lagoon will be lined, have a fence, a leak-detection system and is engineered to have extra capacity in the lagoon that will never be exceeded, he added.

"I think the key takeaway is the lagoon is an engineered system, it is state of the art," LeBlanc said.

Elizabeth Meyer, director of consumer confidence of the American Dairy Association, joined the interview with LeBlanc and Roser along with a representative of the New York Farm Bureau. She added that the project's engineering firm, JESS Engineering PLLC in Alpine, has designed numerous lagoons throughout the state.

Roser also explained that, although likely to "never" be used, there will be a drainage system around the lagoon to collect runoff. In the case of a release of effluent from the lagoon, also an unlikely event, Roser said CH4 would follow the same obligatory protocols as for any regulated material and DEC would be notified immediately. 

CH4 also pointed out that any any breach would flow toward the Owasco River, which eventually discharges to the Seneca River. It would not affect Owasco Lake, the primary drinking water source for more than half of the Cayuga County population.

LeBlanc and Roser are also confident that residents' wells are not in jeopardy, which was a significant concern of residents. Similar to a swimming pool, there is no infiltration from the lagoon into the ground.

LeBlanc also said that the truck traffic will be minimal, addressing another one of residents' main concerns.

He said that there will be between three and six loads of effluent taken from the digester site on County House Road to the Mentz storage lagoon every day during daylight hours, but some days there may be none. He added that only a single CH4 truck will be making these trips, and the driver will take multiple routes to reduce truck traffic and impact to roads. When school is in session, he said, CH4 will try to work around bus schedules.

"The material will be utilized on site," LeBlanc said. "Nothing will be trucked back off the site."

Hourigan Farm is the only farm that will be taking effluent out of the lagoon, LeBlanc explained, to apply to its own on-site crop land.

Steve Ammerman, public affairs manager for the New York Farm Bureau, added that the effluent is going to be injected into the ground, which reduces odor, tillage of land and nutrient-rich runoff.

LeBlanc added that Hourigan Farms will have to comply with state requirements for when, and how much, will be spread. The effluent contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, just like fertilizer, he said.

In terms of smell, another large concern of residents, LeBlanc explained that manure and organic waste's odor is significantly reduced by going through digestion so the effluent actually doesn't have a strong odor.

LeBlanc said the public has been reacting to misinformation about the project, something the company did not anticipate. He said CH4 is looking forward to communicating with the town of Mentz and possibly taking town officials through the Sennett facility so they can better understand the digester and how non-offensive the effluent is.

"We have an image to uphold in the community and we plan on doing that," Roser said. "We take a lot of pride in what we have here, an awful lot of pride."

The DEC has temporarily put a hold on the project, although LeBlanc chalked it up to miscommunication.

"There was confusion on our part and the DEC's part on the ownership of the lagoon, not the land," he said. "So we voluntarily stopped and DEC sent us a notice of violation with the opportunity to correct it. We're just updating the documentation between us and the farmer. ... We were under the impression we'd done (the permitting process) correctly the first time.

"It's our belief that we fit under the (farm's) CAFO permit; we just need to make sure that we demonstrate how that is," LeBlanc said.

CH4 leases the land owned by Hourigan Farms, which holds a CAFO permit, to build and utilize the lagoon. When the project is completed, however, LeBlanc made it clear that Hourigan Farms, not CH4, will own the lagoon.

"(Hourigan Farms) owns the land and we have a lease to utilize the lagoon, to bring (effluent) there. They will manage the (effluent) and they will be doing all the spreading ... and we operate underneath their CAFO approvals, which is how the facility was permitted in the first place."

The DEC issued a one-statement response to The Citizen's inquiry about the situation this week, explaining that "DEC is in communication with CH4 and is continuing to investigate and evaluate information regarding the project to ensure it meets all applicable state rules, regulations, and environmental standards to protect public health and the environment."

The agency did not address specific questions related to what information CH4 has provided the agency on its agreement and arrangement with Hourigan Farms, if it is likely or not that CH4 will be allowed to operate under the farm's CAFO or the anticipated timeline of the DEC's review.

"We have a business relationship with (Hourigan Farms) to utilize the (effluent) and it's a fair deal for both people. They're looking to offset their fertilizer costs (and) we're looking to have stable facilities to go to with our material on a year-round basis," LeBlanc said.

He further explained it as "a partnership with a farmer" who wants to be environmentally responsible by using effluent and reducing fertilizer. In turn, he added, "we anticipate we'll be here for a long period of time, we're not going away. ... We're trying to protect our future here by putting a bigger investment, making sure that we always have a place to go with (our effluent) on a daily basis.

"We're looking to streamline our costs and/or increase revenue wherever we can," he said. "We know this product has value."

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Staff writer Megan Ehrhart can be reached at (315) 282-2244 or megan.ehrhart@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @MeganEhrhart.

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