Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Seeking the poop on biosolids
On Wednesday, August 19, an “informational meeting” about applications for permits to apply biosolids—processed residue from wastewater treatment plants—on more than 2,000 acres in Goochland drew a standing room only crowd to the library.
Sources speculate that the organizer of the meeting, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), chose to hold the meeting at the library even though larger venues--including the board meeting room—were offered, to defuse the crowd and prevent confrontations. Indeed, it seemed like many people waded through the throng, collected some information, and left with few answers.
As usual, this event generated more heat than light. Local governments have no say in the granting of permits for biosolids application. Proposed legislation to add more local oversight in the matter tends to die an early death in the General Assembly.
People move to places like Goochland for “rural character.” They seem to have a theme park notion of rural that includes scenically deployed cows and horses; picturesque fields of crops, and verdant forests. In reality, “rural” means agriculture, which can be noisy, smelly, and not so pretty.
If you want rural, you’re going to get agriculture in all its glory. Farmers toil long hours for razor thin profit margins to put affordable food on America’s tables. They are the true stewards of the land.
Application of biosolids on farmland is touted to improve soil quality while replenishing necessary nutrients. It is applied at no cost to the farmer.
Representatives from DEQ as well as Nutri-blend and Synagro, the companies that facilitate biosolds application, were scattered around the room with lots of information supporting the practice as posing no threat to public health and safety.
People with respiratory conditions and compromised immune systems disagree.
Biosolids application is heavily regulated by DEQ, the Virginia Water Control Board, and the EPA, which is under a cloud for recently causing toxic materials to be spilled in waterways in Colorado, New Mexico, and Greensboro, Georgia.
Local farmers, including Robert Harper, and Monacan Soil and water Conservation District Commissioner Ronnie Nuckols, who have or hope to have biosolids applied to land they use for agricultural purposes, were also there.
Harper, who runs cow/calf operations on three sites in Goochland, contended that biosolids, from residential wastewater treatment plants--he was quite specific about the source--when applied, adhering to regulations that govern: amounts appropriate to existing soil conditions, slope, wind, runoff, and buffers, improves the soil quality and poses no environmental threat. Harper explained that biosolids application saves him $100 per acre versus commercial fertilizer. (Dairy manure application, which makes parts of Goochland fragrant from time to time, is different from biosolids.)
An inspector for DEQ (there are four for the entire Piedmont region), said that biosolid applications are carefully monitored. Infractions of regulations are promptly corrected, he contended. When asked about the number of application infractions and spills in transit, he said that, to his knowledge, no such information is collected by any regulatory agency. He further suggested that GOMM would need to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to ascertain if such a data base even exists.
Seth Mullins, another DEQ biosolids inspector, said that he lives about 800 feet from land treated with biosolids. He said that any lead or toxic substances that might remain in biosolids would be in the parts per billion or trillion, if found at all.
Mullins contended that biosolids currently being applied are different from those of even a few years ago, and are “cooked” until almost inert to kill pathogens and reduce odor to levels so low they barely register.
This all sounds great; however, people at the meeting contended that biosolids are often applied to steeply sloping land near streams before rainstorms without observing required buffers so the stuff can wash into streams and onto adjacent property.
Opponents of the practice contend that there is insufficient credible data, prepared by impartial sources to substantiate claims that the practice is safe. Synagro (www.synagro.com) distributed information stating that the actual level of pollutants in biosolids is far lower than state allowed limits. There is, however, no indication where that data came from.
A bill to prepare a state funded study of the cumulative effects of biosolids application on soil and waterways did not pass the Virginia Legislature in 2015. A proposed study, performed by Virginia Tech with someone involved who is believed to sit on the board of one of the applicator firms, was rejected by one side as was a more impartial study performed by William & Mary. A bill proposing the W&M study is expected to be introduced in 2016.
An extensive webinar about biosolids is available at http://www.ext.vt.edu/topics/environment-resources/biosolids/ (click on training) that discusses the subject in excruciating detail.
There was no formal presentation on the 19th. A computer-generated slide show touting the positive aspects of biosolids application ran on a loop at the front of the room that was largely ignored.
A tangential safety concern is the heavy truck traffic biosolids application generates moving the stuff from the processor to the application site. Residents of Whitehall and Chapel Hill Roads, two of the most heavily traveled local “sludge routes,” report that the trucks, which they describe as enormous, worry them. They believe that the weight of these trucks damages the road surface and may exceed the limit for the bridges. These trucks, they say, run down the roads all hours of the day and night, including when school buses use the relatively narrow roads.
A DEQ inspector said that the applicator, Synagro or Nutri-blend, determines the route between the point of origin and application or storage site—probably the Lanier facility off of Chapel Hill Road. They are required only to use public roads and avoid residential areas. How do you do that in western Goochland?
Efforts to mandate recordation of biosolids application on deeds have so far been defeated in the Virginia General Assembly.
Residue from wastewater treatment plants has to go somewhere. Alternatives to land application are landfills and incineration that have their own issues. The practice does seem like the ultimate in recycling, using waste residue to improve soil.
While some will never believe that land application of biosolids poses no threat to the health and safety of the public, many could be convinced with impartial, credible evidence. It would behoove those making the big bucks on the practice to make an investment in those measures to replace dog and pony shows that seem to hide more than they reveal.
Technology might also be able to increase transparency. If the applications are being done correctly, why not use drones to document how and where biosolids are spread.
Goochlanders seem to understand that our farmers can use all the help they can get to stay in business and are not necessarily opposed to biosolds application, but they would like more information as to the safety of the practice.
The supervisors are trying to request a public hearing on the biosolids land application permits, but it is unclear if they will be successful.