NY fines Cayuga County digester operator for environmental violations
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NY fines Cayuga County digester operator for environmental violations

Digester Tiger room

A pallet of food waste enters a machine at the Cayuga Regional Digester in Sennett on April 10. The machine separates the packaging, such as cardboard and plastics, from the organic waste that is put into the digester. 

The operator of the Cayuga Regional Digester has paid a $19,500 penalty for violations of its operating permit identified by state environmental investigators last year.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation and the operator, CH4 Generate Cayuga LLC, agreed to a consent order last month that resolves the case, DEC officials said this week.

The digester was built on County House Road in Sennett by the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District and is now run by CH4 through a private operating company called Denali ROI LLC. The facility processes farm and food waste to produce biogas that is converted into electricity. A byproduct from the process, known as digestate, is being stored at a newly built waste lagoon on agricultural land in Mentz and used as fertilizer by the landowner, Hourigan Farms.

According to a Dec. 20 DEC consent order, the digester was in violation of its state solid waste permit for, among other things, taking in unauthorized materials, failing to sample and analyze the digestate material to ensure it was in compliance with environmental standards, failing to sample incoming waste and other record-keeping violations.

DEC said the digester has been complying with its permit since the violations were first identified in March.

In addition to the $19,500 fine, DEC assessed a penalty of $35,500 that won't need to be paid as long as the digester remains in compliance.

"The facility is operating in accordance with the required permit, and is not accepting any unauthorized wastes," DEC said this week. "DEC will continue to monitor the facility and storage lagoon to ensure compliance with all permits and DEC regulations."

In an April 8 response to the DEC violation notice, CH4 Generate Cayuga acknowledged some violations had occurred and said issues had been addressed.

"We have since made changes to our project management staff that have resolved all the issues and we do not anticipate any further problems," the response said. "Our entire team strives daily to provide a safe and environmentally sound operation in full support of the State of New York recycling and renewable energy goals. Our CH4 facility is quite innovative and we recognize the challenges of tackling such ambitious and forward-thinking goals. But we are committed to working with state regulators, local governing bodies and the surrounding community to be a good neighbor and to provide continuous improvement to our operations on an ongoing basis."

The digester was subjected to a surprise inspection in March after a Mentz resident who lives near the waste lagoon filed a complaint with the DEC. The resident had been notified by a digester employee that the facility appeared to be accepting household trash from New York City.

Former digester employee Amanda Quill told The Citizen in March that she quit her job after the facility began accepting what she described as household trash and directing staff to separate out unorganic material by hand. Digester manager John Stapleton said the material was not household trash but rather source-separated organics "brought in from various locations throughout the state of New York." He also described how the process for separating out inorganic material included both manual work and a specialized machine. 

In its initial findings, the DEC ordered CH4 Generate Cayuga to stop receiving that waste "until all necessary reviews and approvals are obtained."

CH4 oversees the digester under a 2016 lease-to-own agreement with the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District in which CH4 Generate Cayuga is paying $4 million over a 20-year period. The digester cost the district about $10.5 million to build, using a combination of state and federal grants and money loaned from Cayuga County.

When it was originally built, the digester's purpose was to help local farmers get rid of excess manure while using the electricity created to help power county-owned facilities. The district first operated the digester itself, but shut it down in 2014 after struggling to make the operation cost effective and began a search for a private operator to take over. CH4 Generate Cayuga, owned by a California-based renewable energy investment firm, was selected to take over in 2016 and later contracted with Denali to operate the digester.

Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District Executive Director Doug Kierst, who expressed support for the digester operators following the DEC's violation notice last spring, could not be reached Friday for comment. Denali President Jeffrey LeBlanc also could not be reached for comment.

Jeremy Boyer can be reached at (315) 282-2231 or jeremy.boyer@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenBoyer


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