Saturday, September 26, 2015
Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means that localities, like Goochland County, have only those powers ceded to them by the state. Counties, for instance, cannot ban or meaningfully regulate the land application of biosolids regardless of community sentiment on the matter.
An informational meeting about biosolids and industrial permits— the fancy name for the practice of spreading the stuff on farmland—filled the board meeting room on the evening of September 21.
Pending permits to land apply biosolids—residue from wastewater treatment plants and industrial sludge from meat processing plants and paper mills—to more than 2,000 acres in Goochland was the impetus for the meeting. A session held by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) last month at the library raised more questions than it answered. Representatives of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and that state water control board did little to mitigate general suspicion of the practice.
County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson facilitated the September 21 event, which lasted almost three hours. Four supervisors: Board Chair Susan Lascolette, District 1; Manuel Alvarez, Jr. Distract 2; Ned Creasey, District 3; and Board Vice Chair Bob Minnick, District 4, were present.
(Meeting recordings and additional information is on the county website at: http://www.goochlandva.us/162/Biosolids-Program )
Dickson said that there are different stages of understanding about the process among the citizenry. Each person needs to evaluate their own circumstances and, if warranted, file their concerns with DEQ during a public comment period on the permits, which has not yet begun. Those who live near application sites will need to file a complaint form, available at the link above, explaining their specific opposition, such as potential run off on adjacent property due to steep slopes; inadequate buffer distance from application site; and specific health issues.
The county website includes information on the medical review process, which requires a signed physician form to even consider an increase in buffers between biosolids application and a home. The standard setback is 200 feet from an occupied dwelling and 100 feet from a property line.
It seems as though the land application permits will be granted by DEQ and the State Water Control Board in spite of local opposition. If enough Goochlanders register complaints, DEQ might deign to hold a public hearing, but probably not in the county. Supposedly, DEQ felt it was mistreated at a hearing held here a few years ago and will not return. (State employees allegedly hired to serve citizens and paid with tax dollars got their feelings hurt? What’s wrong with this picture?)
Dickson explained that DEQ has final say on biosolids matters. Localities can monitor the practice and approve storage sites for sludge. A conditional use permit for a sludge storage facility on the Lanier property near Chapel Hill Road was issued in the past year or so.
Proponents of the practice contend that it is highly regulated- the permitting process can take years—and, if applied properly poses no environmental or health risks. Test results for the substance at the plants where it is produced, according to DEQ; indicate minute levels of heavy metals and pathogen levels well below EPA minimums.
Nutrient management plans are part of the permitting process and biosolids may only be applied in amounts sufficient to correct deficiencies for things like potassium and nitrogen. Excess application can be detrimental to the fertility of a field. Nitrogen runoff pollutes waterways.
Dickson said that DEQ contends that years of test results were so consistent that it has greatly reduced required testing. As details about the testing process were discussed, the image of a chubby fox swaggering around a hen house in pursuit of terrified chickens seemed to float over the conversation.
After the intial presentation, citizens spoke.
One woman claimed that the smell from biosolids makes her house nearly inhabitable and her husband deathly ill. A man who lives near Lickinghole Creek contended that the high pollution of that waterway is caused by biosolids application on a steep slope that runs off into the creek.
One speaker reported on a tour of a wastewater treatment plant in Washington, D. C., which produces only Class A biosolids, like those sold in garden centers. Another contended that Class B biosolids are processed only to remove as much water as possible. A few years ago, citizens reported that used toilet tissue was clearly visible on fields treated with biosolids adjacent to their property.
While the rules for land application of biosolids are very specific, inspection to ensure they are followed, is spotty at best. DEQ has four inspectors for the region that includes Goochland. Inspectors claim that they address all complaints in a timely manner.
One man said he would not apply biosolids to his property, but does not feel he has the right to tell others what to do with their land.
Owen Lanier, a major applicator of biosolids to Goochland fields, contended that he has been involved with the process for decades and knows of no ill effects. He said that foraging livestock must be kept off of land treated with biosolids for 30 days after application. A speaker pointed out that deer and turkey are unaware of that prohibition.
Others raised concerns about the residue of pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Indeed, we are flushing very different things down our toilets today than we were a few decades ago. No testing is being done to measure those substances or research their effects on soil and water.
Some speakers advocated that the county take legal action to stop the process, or at least, do its own testing to find out what’s in the stuff.
Dickson said that a 2008 DEQ report on the matter left many unanswered questions. Long term effects of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and industrial waste was not studied.
She encouraged those who object to the practice to submit complaint forms, but said they must be site and reason specific. An “I don’t like it” submission will be ignored. Instead, citing the permit in question, how it will impact the complainant, as in “the slope they plan to use is too steep and too close to my property boundary so the biosolids will runoff into my pond” might resonate more with DEQ.
Jonathan Lyle, Monacan Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioner contended that farmers are stewards of the land and probably not getting rich by using biosolids. He believes that farmers would not knowingly apply anything that would harm their land. Lyle added his voice to those who believe that an impartial, comprehensive study of the long term effects of the practice is needed.
Dickson explained that, for the past few years, the Board of Supervisors have included in their legislative agenda—essentially a “wish list” for our delegation to the General Assembly—more local control over biosolids application and the need for an impartial, state-funded comprehensive study of the issue. At this year’s GA, legislation for the study failed the last minute over a disagreement over who would perform the report.
Studies done by Virginia Tech are suspect, critics contend, because some involved have ties to the companies that profit from land application of biosolids.
Dickson, replying to demands that the county perform its own tests, contended that DEQ would not recognize or do anything about those test results. The supervisors, she said, are studying the issue.
The remedy for this, if there is any, lies with the General Assembly, which supposedly makes the laws governing state agencies. Goochland’s delegation is supportive of local concerns. It remains to be seen if those who represent populous areas will take action.