hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues February-March 2023


The battle over biochar

Plant’s backers tout green benefits, but critics see a toxic threat


Gina LeClair holds signs opposing construction of the Saratoga Biochar Solutions facility that’s planned for a site at the Moreau Industrial Park in northern Saratoga County. Joan K. Lentini photo


Gina LeClair holds signs opposing construction of the Saratoga Biochar Solutions facility that’s planned for a site at the Moreau Industrial Park in northern Saratoga County. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


The developers of a multimillion-dollar biochar plant in northern Saratoga County say their new business would help solve a pressing environmental problem by transforming municipal sewage sludge into a beneficial “carbon fertilizer.”

But local opponents and environmentalists say they fear the plant could wind up spreading toxic contamination into the surrounding region if its proprietary process fails to work as promised. They are particularly concerned about the spread of PFAS, a class of “forever chemicals” that don’t break down naturally and are considered a health hazard even in small concentrations.
At the new facility it’s planning to build at the Moreau Industrial Park, Saratoga Biochar Solutions would use a process known as pyrolysis to heat dried sewage sludge to high temperatures, in the absence of oxygen, to remove contaminants. The end product of this process would be biochar, a charcoal-like soil enhancer more commonly created through the burning of crop and forestry wastes.

“The biochar market is getting really hot,” said Raymond Apy, the chief executive officer of Saratoga Biochar.

New state and federal agriculture programs promoting soil regeneration and climate resilience, he said, are boosting interest in biochar’s potential for improving soil health and sequestering carbon to limit the effects of climate change.

But while researchers have used pyrolysis to turn sewage sludge into biochar on a limited basis, no one has done so on the commercial scale Apy’s company is planning. When fully operational, Saratoga Biochar says its plant would have the capacity to process up to 15 percent of the sludge generated by municipal sewer systems across New York state.

And despite the company’s assurances that its process would be safe and that its biochar would be free of contamination, scientists disagree on whether pyrolysis can be used effectively to remove contaminants like PFAS.

Tracy Frisch, a board member of the Clean Air Action Network of Glens Falls, cited experts who say breaking down PFAS compounds would require far higher temperatures than what Saratoga Biochar would use in its process. (Frisch is also a freelance writer who contributes stories to the Hill Country Observer.)

“Saratoga Biochar’s claims don’t hold up to what EPA and peer-reviewed studies find,” she said.
In September, the Clean Air Action Network filed a court challenge to the biochar plant, arguing that the town of Moreau erred in its determination last year that the project would not have a significant environmental impact.

Apart from the outcome of the pending court case, the proposed plant’s fate now depends on successful completion of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s permitting process.


A greener alternative?
Disposing of the sludge left after wastewater treatment is a vexing problem for New York state, which annually generates about 375,000 dry tons of sewage sludge, also called biosolids.
Biosolids contain the nutrients — carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — that remain after human digestion. They also contain contaminants from people, food and anything else that went down the drain: pathogens, pharmaceuticals, microplastics, cleaning and personal care products, and toxic chemicals, including heavy metals and some of the many varieties of PFAS.
The current options for disposing of sewage sludge — landfilling, spreading on land, or incineration — all have problems. They either waste nutrients, spread contaminants, or both.
According to state Department of Environmental Conservation data, more than two-thirds of the biosolids from New York’s municipal sewer systems wind up in landfills. Disposal of the rest was about evenly divided between incineration and land application.

Apy said he and his partners at Saratoga Biochar Solutions – company president Bryce Meeker and chief operating officer Lee Wulfekuhle — are offering a better solution at a time when landfill space is expected to become more scarce and expensive.

Sewage sludge sent to landfills “consumes a lot of space and has a horrible odor problem,” Apy said. “And landfills are going away.”

By comparison, he said, the biochar that his company will produce will be environmentally beneficial. Tests and field applications of biochar show significant improvements in soil structure and plant growth, he said, and the biochar process also keeps carbon out of the atmosphere.
“The carbon will all be locked up in the soil,” Apy said. “It will last centuries.”

He dismissed opponents’ concerns about PFAS, saying tests on pilot runs of the equipment the company plans to install show a virtual destruction of all contaminants, including PFAS chemicals. The manufacturer of the plant’s thermal oxidizer “guarantees 100 percent PFAS removal,” Apy said.


Developers’ past at issue
In December, The Post-Star of Glens Falls published a package of stories that raised questions about the background of the company’s three partners.

The stories detailed Meeker’s involvement with an ethanol plant in Nebraska that was shut down by state regulators for environmental violations — and how Wulfekuhle operated a business in Iowa more than a decade ago that was accused of sickening its neighbors by storing sewage sludge on nearby farmland.

Apy said that, at the time, Wulfekuhle, who comes from a farming background, “didn’t really understand what’s in biosolids.” He has also maintained that Meeker was merely an employee of the Nebraska facility and didn’t have decision-making powers there — and that both men learned from their past experiences and are trying to find a better way to handle waste.

The newspaper report also pointed out Apy’s lack of experience in the industry. Although Apy earned a master’s degree in environmental science, he spent much of his career running an information technology business until he left about four years ago when a new owner took over. He then joined forces with Wulfekuhle and Meeker.

The reporting has fueled questions about the developers’ reliability.
“Saratoga Biochar makes a ton of unsubstantiated claims,” Frisch said. “There is no confidence in these people.”

The Post-Star reporters contacted two experts who were recommended to them by Saratoga Biochar as well as a soil biochemist who isn’t involved in the project. Their reviews of the company’s proposal were mixed.

One of the experts recommended by the company, David Walker, a professor emeritus of geochemistry at Columbia University, told the paper he had yet to see evidence that PFAS could be eliminated from biosolids.

“This is definitely not stuff I would want to put in my vegetable garden,” Walker said.
But another of the experts argued that even if pyrolysis removed most but not all of the PFAS compounds, that would be better for the environment than landfilling the biosolids. And a third expert, Cornell University professor Johannes Lehmann, suggested that the problems posed by landfilling sewage sludge are bad enough that another solution is worth trying even it’s not perfect.


‘People are furious’
Despite the company’s assurances to the contrary, some townspeople in Moreau say they fear Saratoga Biochar will expose them to vile odors, noise, truck traffic, and potential poisoning from PFAS and heavy metals from the plant’s smokestacks.

“The people are furious,” said Gina LeClair, an organizer of Not Moreau, a group of opponents that maintains a Facebook page.

“If PFAS are crawling out of the stack, they’ll go over homes, yards, schools, and the Hudson River,” LeClair said. “We want people in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls and Glens Falls to know this will affect them.”

The town has endured decades of problems with contamination from PCBs, solvents and other industrial chemicals -- mainly from the former General Electric Co. factories in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, just across the Hudson River from the Moreau Industrial Park. Opponents of Saratoga Biochar say they’re determined to avoid exposing themselves to a potential new source of environmental toxins.

After deciding earlier last year that a detailed environmental review of the project wasn’t needed, the town Planning Board granted conditional approval to Saratoga Biochar’s proposal in a 4-2 vote in August.

The decision set off a wave of anger at town officials -- and particularly at town Supervisor Theodore Kusnierz Jr., who was seen as a leading proponent of the project.

Kusnierz has long called for attracting new businesses to the Moreau Industrial Park, which has had only one tenant since its creation more than two decades ago. But he has said he had no role in deciding the fate of the Saratoga Biochar proposal, noting that two of his Planning Board appointees voted against the project. Contacted by email, he declined to comment for this report.
Last month, The Post-Star reported that Kusnierz had received thousands of dollars in campaign donations from individuals with an interest in the project in late 2021, as he was running unopposed for re-election.


Making biochar
Saratoga Biochar says it has designed a five-stage process to convert biosolids to biochar. That process starts with biosolids arriving at the plant and being mixed with wood waste. Apy said the plant will accept woody debris from area departments of public works and scrap from a pallet manufacturer. The material, about 75 percent water when it comes in, would go to a dryer that would reduce it to 5 percent water.

Next, a kiln would heat the material to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, which the company says would destroy pathogens and most contaminants. This process of pyrolysis would give off a mixture of gases, called syngas, which would include any PFAS chemicals.

The syngas would then be burned in a thermal oxidizer at 2,300 degrees, which, according to Apy, would destroy the PFAS. The oxidizer’s exhaust would be released through smokestacks equipped with scrubbers.

“New York has the most stringent air quality regulations in the U.S.,” Apy said. “We’re going exceed them.”

Cooling water from the Glens Falls water treatment system would be returned to that system. The plant expects to use about 11,000 gallons per day, an amount well within the system’s capacity, Apy said.

The process is expected to be powered by syngas from pyrolysis, some natural gas, and electricity. The company has applied to the New York Power Authority for a reduced electricity rate.

Saratoga Biochar says its plant has a 10-year agreement with Casella Organics, an arm of Casella Waste Systems of Rutland, Vt., to deliver biosolids from municipal sewage treatment plants. It also has letters of intent from distributors in the Northeast to sell its biochar in bulk.
The company says it plans to use equipment that has already proven itself in similar industrial applications. It says it has done extensive test runs and third-party tests to verify that the process will work. Neighbors’ concerns have been taken into account, Apy said.

“We are 100 percent committed not to have an odor problem,” Apy said, whether from the trucks hauling in biosolids or from the plant itself.

Based on neighbors’ concerns, Apy said the company’s proposed rotary grinder for wood waste has been replaced with a smaller, quieter hammer mill. The plant will not be permitted to accept any kind of hazardous waste, he added.

Apy said the plant’s start-up operations would increase in three phases so it can deal with issues as they come up.


Debating PFAS risks
Opponents of the plant are highly skeptical of the company’s claims.
Municipal wastewater generally contains PFAS chemicals because of their presence in a wide range of consumer products including food packaging, nonstick cookware and some personal care and cleaning products.

PFAS — perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances — made headlines locally in recent years when they turned up at unsafe levels in drinking water supplies in Hoosick Falls, North Bennington and other local communities. Those cases were mainly the result of industrial uses of the chemicals, however, not from wastewater contamination.

Frisch said the temperature at which Saratoga Biochar claims PFAS contamination would be destroyed “is far below the temperature needed to destroy PFAS.”

In addition, the presence of PFAS in biosolids has been poorly studied, and the chemicals are difficult to test for, Frisch said.

She has lined up her own experts to review the company’s plans and test results. One of those experts cited test data from a demonstration plant in Australia that operated at similar temperatures; the data showed PFAS compounds were reduced in number and concentration after treatment but were not eliminated.

LeClair pointed to the experience in Maine, where PFAS contamination discovered at dozens of farms in the past few years was attributed to municipal sewage sludge that had been spread on fields in the 1990s. Back then, state environmental regulators assured farmers that the material was safe to use. But when PFAS was found in high concentrations nearly three decades later, vegetable farms shut down and dairy farmers had to dump their milk.

“The farms are ruined,” LeClair said.
Apy said the situation in Maine was the result of a wastewater treatment plant that took in water from a factory that used PFAS chemicals in the manufacture of nonstick disposable tableware. The factory, in turn, was careless about its procedures.

“That’s exactly what we want to avoid,” Apy said. “That’s not going to happen here.”
He also noted that the Wheelabrator trash incinerator in nearby Hudson Falls is already burning about 7,500 tons per year of biosolids from the Glens Falls sewage treatment plant. Its air emissions treatment, he said, is nowhere near as rigorous as what his company plans.
LeClair, however, said the quantity of biosolids handled at the Wheelabrator incinerator are “a drop” compared to the volume that Saratoga Biochar is proposing to handle. At full capacity, the company expects to receive 50 tractor-trailers per day of biosolids in Moreau.

Although the proposed site is an industrial park, it has had only one tenant, a specialty chemical manufacturer, since it opened more than 20 years ago.

“These are neighborhood-type roads,” LeClair said. “Diesel exhaust causes asthma and lung cancer. I think of all those families with little kids. Some of them just bought their homes.”
Frisch suggested the plant will turn Moreau and surrounding communities into a “sacrifice zone,” where people who haven’t created an environmental problem have to live with the consequences.

“There’s no good solution,” Frisch said, when asked what should be done instead with the biosolids. “It’s not the responsibility of the town to come up with a solution.”

Moving to Moreau
Apy’s partners had floated two previous proposals in recent years to build a sludge-to-biochar facility but were spurned by local officials in Orange and Ulster counties. They chose their current plant site in Moreau after joining forces with Apy a couple of years ago. The site was chosen because it has water, sewer, electric and natural gas service, is close to the Northway, and is permitted for industry, Apy said.

The partners approached the Moreau Planning Board in July 2021 with their proposal. The board voted in December 2021 to seek review by an outside consultant, but after further meetings with the partners, the board decided the consultant was unnecessary.

In March 2022, the board voted 4-2 that the project would not harm the environment — a “negative declaration” under the State Environmental Quality Review Act — and thus did not need to undergo the additional review required to produce an environmental impact statement.
As discussion with the partners continued and opposition grew, meetings became raucous. Police were called in to keep the peace.

On Aug. 25, the board voted 4-2 to approve Saratoga Biochar’s plans. The board set 16 conditions, including specifying hours and days of operation; obeying state permits and notifying the board of changes and violations; meeting standards for odor, noise, and traffic control; posting contact information for complaints; and returning to the board before starting the plant’s second and third phases of operation.

The Clean Air Action Network challenged the project in a legal action filed Sept. 26 in Saratoga County Supreme Court. The action names the town Planning Board, Apy and Saratoga Biochar as defendants. The group is being represented in court by Pace University’s environmental litigation clinic.

The environmental group is seeking to have the negative SEQRA declaration ruled invalid so the company will be required to do an environmental impact statement. Hearings are scheduled for Feb. 28, Frisch said.

Apy called the group’s lawsuit “an extreme longshot.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has the company’s applications but won’t issue permits until the lawsuit is settled, probably sometime in March, he said.
Saratoga Biochar’s applications for air emissions and solid waste management permits are “in the final stages of review” at DEC, Apy said.

As part of the process, the company held an online public information meeting on Dec. 19 and will hold two more, probably in the second half of February, Apy said. The meetings are required because communities within two miles of the site are considered an environmental justice zone, with significant minority populations and low income. A 30-day public comment period comes next.

Apy said he expects the DEC will decide whether to approve the project’s permits in April or May. He didn’t want to predict how the agency would rule but said, “There’s nothing about our facility that isn’t permissible.”

If the DEC gives the go-ahead, the company will close on its financing and request bids from contractors. Construction and installation of equipment would take 12 to 14 months.
“We’ll most likely start operations in the first quarter of 2025,” Apy said. “We’re a full year behind our original estimate. The Planning Board put us through an exhaustive review. That took 13 months. The lawsuit added another six or seven months of delay.”
The project’s opponents aren’t backing down.

“There’s grave concern that town officials aren’t working in the best interests of the community,” Frisch said. “It’s a really difficult situation. Opposition is only growing. Why would anyone want to live with this?”


Editor’s note: Evan Lawrence is a freelance writer who also contributes stories to The Post-Star of Glens Falls.