Joint research between Stony Brook University and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) into the chemical reactions behind large-scale mulching contaminating groundwater could heavily affect the future of composting on Long Island, specifically in relation to an announced food waste processing plant.

Stony Brook University is involved in research on groundwater contamination from composting. Findings in past reports show high levels of manganese and alpha radiation. (PHOTO CREDIT: MCT CAMPUS)

Stony Brook University is involved in research on groundwater contamination from composting. Findings in past reports show high levels of manganese and alpha radiation. (PHOTO CREDIT: MCT CAMPUS)

A report released in July by the DEC, titled “Horseblock Road Assessment Report” (HRAP), outlined the results of investigations conducted from 2009 to 2011 into contaminated groundwater found in monitoring wells and a Horseblock Road/Yaphank Avenue residence’s private well, near Long Island Compost’s Great Gardens mulching facility in Yaphank.

The report found that, “samples from the upper portion of the aquifer down-gradient of the Great Gardens facility exceeded drinking water standards for manganese, gross alpha [radiation],” and other pollutants, and concluded that “the facility appears to be the primary source of the contamination.”

HRAP recommended the study into how exactly composting creates elevated levels of manganese and other heavy metals in plumes, or contaminated streams, in groundwater.

DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino confirmed that the department is collaborating with Stony Brook University’s Waste Reduction and Management Institute, part of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences on this study. While Severino could not comment further, a member of the School, distinguished service professor Henry Bokuniewicz, confirmed that he is studying the relevant groundwater data and working on a hypothesis to determine, “what chemical reactions are responsible for the changes in the water quality.”

“It may be that they’re coming from the source itself, something in the material on the surface that’s leeching down,” Bokuniewicz said. “Or that there’s some change in the chemistry of the groundwater that’s releasing chemicals from the aquifer naturally.”

Bokuniewicz’s research follows LI’s Compost’s announcement in June of a $50 million anaerobic digester, a waste processing plant, at the Yaphank’s 62-acre site. Plans were made in consultation with the DEC, the town of Brookhaven, the Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE) and Yaphank residents with the condition that the existing site incorporate enclosed composting facilities and a groundwater monitoring program, according to key negotiator and CCE executive director Adrienne Esposito.

While the DEC’s investigations helped create the aforementioned study and Long Island Compost’s new regulations, Esposito believes that the department has had ample opportunities to implement broader composting rules.

“[The DEC’s] quote-unquote ‘study’ is moving way too slow, it’s moving at what I call pre-global-warming glacial speeds,” Esposito said. “They started testing in December of 2009…and have done eleven different compost sites across Long Island, and at every single site they found this extreme increase in manganese and elevated other heavy metals.”

In citing the HRAP, Esposito stressed that the water sampled in the residence’s private well and monitoring sites grossly breached the safe drinking standard for manganese and alpha radiation, elevated levels of which can impact the central nervous system and mutate cells respectively.

In terms of these findings’ health effects, the HRAP reported that there, “would be no cause for concern unless someone consumes this water,” and the residence with the contaminated well was connected to the public water supply in 2011.

Notably, the report did not give specific information on the affected residence’s exposure, stating simply that, “until the full extent of the groundwater plume is adequately defined, definitive statements regarding potential exposures cannot be made.”

However the investigations have warranted the aforementioned regulations on Long Island Compost’s site, notably the sealed facilities and groundwater monitoring program.

Charles Vigliotti, CEO of Long Island Compost, told Newsday in September that the new standards would reduce the risk for groundwater contamination.

In a video presentation published Oct. 12, Vigliotti described the planned anaerobic digester as a “giant stomach” capable of transforming 120,000 tons of food waste, among other organic materials, into biogas which can be turned into electricity and compressed natural gas.

“Hopefully we’ll start [construction] first quarter of 2014, depending on what the DEC and town have to say about this,” he said. “We are hopeful that we’ll be taking startup material by end of 2014 and fully operational by 2015.”

In response to groundwater, odor and dust concerns, Esposito and the Yaphank community successfully negotiated Long Island Compost’s new regulations over a two-year period.

“Nearly 80% of their activities will [now] be done indoors,” Esposito said. “The anaerobic digester will be indoors, it will be enclosed.”

“The other 20% would be some storage outside, but the bagging and debagging facility will all be enclosed now,” she said.

Bokuniewicz said that while sealed facilities could stop further contamination, they should not be seen as an absolute solution because the contamination process has not been fully determined.

“You’ve got to remember that there’s a history; some of the contaminants that have been released are still going to be around after removing the source,” Bokuniewicz said.

“It’s always a danger to say ‘well we’re going to put this stuff in a plastic bag, problem solved’;

the problem might not be solved,” he said.

As to the future of the DEC’s investigation, Esposito remained frustrated at the DEC’s lack of widespread regulatory changes.

“They have now the science, they have a compelling need to change the policy,” Esposito said. “Now they need to get the political will; they can just change the regulations and require compost facilities to conduct activities on an impermeable layer so that rainwater and leachate can be filtered before entering groundwater.”

“I think they are concerned about the mulch and compost facilities; it’d be a political battle,” she continued. “I think they are not willing to take on the political battle, which is sad.”

Bokuniewicz, however, saw major regulatory changes as difficult because, “composting is favored; it’s a green solution to waste material.”

“If there is some sort of problem with it, we may have to rethink not just one facility but the policy on composting in general,” he said. “[Contained composting] is expensive, the concern is that if we force it unnecessarily it may just end the process altogether; it may be cheaper to just send it somewhere else.”