MOREAU, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Last week, the town of Moreau made a decision on a proposed fertilizer plant that has sparked no shortage of pushback from town residents. Now, it’s official: Saratoga Biochar is on its way.

On Thursday, Aug. 25, the Moreau Town Planning Board gave site plan approval to Northeastern Biochar Solutions, a company looking to build its first plant at Moreau Industrial Park, becoming its second tenant. The company’s process uses biosolids from wastewater treatment plants to create fertilizer, in a process that the company and the town have both hailed for its reportedly low environmental impact.

“While the Town Board plays no role in Planning Board activities and must respect the decision of the Planning Board, I would like to commend the Planning Board for their exceptionally thorough review of this particular project,” said Moreau Town Supervisor Todd Kusnierz on Thursday. “Although I have not yet seen the conditioned approval, I know that members carefully considered key areas of concern voiced by residents at the public hearing and made their decision within the confines of local, state, and federal regulations.”

Since its proposal, the plant has recieved pushback from residents who say that more research needs to be done on biochar, which puts biosolids through heat processes that release PFOAs and other toxins, which are then contained and burnbed. The biosolids would be brought in on large trucks, potentially over a dozen per day. Northeastern Biochar has submitted plans detailing how its facility handles those materials – but at a July Planning Board meeting, board member Ann Purdue brought up inconsistencies in submitted plans dating back to 2021.

That meeting led to the board calling a delay on a final decision regarding the biochar plant, in order to review details that had not yet been examined. Purdue pushed for the decision, saying that much within the hundreds of pages of provided documents had failed to fall under much scrutiny. The board member found that especially concerning, considering that the Saratoga Biochar plant would be the company’s first foray into business.

The road to biochar

Forty-five days later, the biochar plan’s approval comes with some requirements. Northeastern Biochar must present the town with proof of a NYSDEC Solid Waste Management Facility Permit and Air State Facility Permit before construction can begin. The town also imposed rules regarding noise, with noise testing required at property boundaries – answering another common concern by community members.

One more requirement has to do with odor. The company’s proposed facility would bring the solid waste leftover from wastewater treatment in, and pour it through an enclosed system not intended to let any materials escape outside of its own closed loop. That’s nice to say, but better to ensure, a determination emphasized by the town by requirements stating that all material must remain within the building, with air handled under negative pressure.

The trucks that would carry the biosolids used by the plant would travel a road that has its fair share of houses along it. Moreau Industrial Park has been zoned since the 1990s, but with only one business operating there in all that time – Hexion, an adhesive manufacturer – many residents are worried about a sudden uptick in industrial-scale traffic.

The town has required Saratoga Biochar to only operate truck traffic 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. It is also requiring that the trucks be timed so as to avoid backups on roads, either public or in the industrial park itself. The company is limited to 50 trucks per day – well above the 20 or so per day that the company expects.

Northeastern Biochar co-founder Bryce Meeker said that the company has no issue complying with whatever requirements are thrown at it. The company has agreed to pollution control requiremenets laid out by the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. In the months leading up to now, the company has volunteered to the monitoring and regulation procedures the town and state are putting in place with regards to PFOA emissions. Meeker says agreeing to those procedures is all part of acknowledging where companies have gone wrong in the past.

“Our business will establish many new benchmarks for the biosolids industry, but also for climate change entrepreneurs in general. We cannot forget the atrocities many communities have been exposed to in the past, particularly in states like New York where industrialization first took hold.  It is our duty, as climate change entrepreneurs, to adhere to all environmental requirements simply to demonstrate our commitment to human health and the environment. It is also our duty to look ahead and ensure we can adhere to new regulations on the horizon in a timely manner,” Meeker said.

Community still concerned

While the plan was approved last week, a crowd of Moreau citizens stood outside the municipal complex, holding signs. Some held more specific messages, but all met with a single declaration: “Not Moreau.”

That phrase is echoed as the name of a Facebook page for residents who feel the plant is a bad fit for the town – and who still worry about the impact on traffic, and the environment. On Wednesday, nearly a week after the town said OK to Biochar, the Facebook page continued saying “no way,” encouraging individual citizens to write to elected officials demanding change. Although the decision lies with the Planning Board, some residents point to Kusnierz himself as the bearer of responsibility for decisions that do not reflect the community at large.

“When faced with overwhelming opposition from concerned citizens, (Kusnierz) trots out his town Planning Board to review the project and face the opposition’s ire,” said Moreau resident and “Not Moreau” member Dominic Tom. “I doubt there is anyone on the Planning Board who even heard of the ‘pyrolysis’ process, yet were stuck using the developer’s documents, which are full of his own ‘puffery,’ to reach a decision.”

Community members are now turning to other voices. Tom said he has reached out to departments at Union College, RPI and UAlbany hoping to get more voices involved on what biochar means for the community. Tom hasn’t received a response as of Thursday.

Meanwhile, Saratoga Biochar hopes to break ground on its first phase of construction this fall, to be finished sometime in 2023. Should all go according to plan, operations are expected to start in 2024. When they do, the faces of the company know they will likely still face some who would rather see them take their biosolids elsewhere – and it’s not just Not Moreau.

“It is a shame that our application has become politicized,” said Meeker. “At the outset, we assumed many of the environmental organizations, such as Clean Air Action Network, would favor the science behind our eco-friendly solution. However, even after discussing our project at depth with CAAN, and having their scientific advisor, David Walker, Ph.D. and Professor Emeritus of Columbia University agree that we are taking the right approach, we still find CAAN remaining in complete opposition, uncompelled by the science.” 

The Clean Air Action Network of Glens Falls says that science has shown that not all PFAS chemicals can be detected. That means that studies showing what the plant can do may only be showing a fraction of contaminants removed. And that’s only one part of the puzzle.

“Whether or not PFAS remains in the end product, the so-called carbon fertilizer, evades the question of whether a sewage sludge biochar factory is safe for local residents, the Hudson River, nearby drinking water reservoirs, and the larger environment. If PFAS chemicals are driven from the sewage sludge in making biochar, we need to figure out where their constituents end up. Where they go in the environment is not currently known,” said Tracy Frisch of the network.

The organization argues that the only way to get a more accurate read on the contaminant makeup of the biosolids would be to account for the fluorine present in those materials. That work has yet to be done.