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Virginia flooded with sewer sludge


Shannon Brennan
February 13, 2005

At the same time Virginia is trying to get excess nitrogen and phosphorus out of its waterways and bays, it is among the nation’s leading importers of sewage sludge, which is full of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Agricultural runoff is already the second biggest nitrogen polluter of the Chesapeake Bay. Why is the state permitting the land application of nearly 250,000 dry tons of biosolids each year, almost half of it from out of state?

Appomattox farmer Dennis Torrence is one of the people who finds this puzzling.

It doesn’t make sense to bring in tons of the nitrogen-rich material, he said, if the state is worried about nitrogen running off into streams and rivers.

“Don’t worry about our cows up here,” he said at a meeting last month with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation about its Clean Streams initiative. “Industrial sewage sludge is our future nightmare.”

State officials uniformly respond that if biosolids are applied appropriately, there should be no increase in nitrogen pollution to the state’s waters. They say the waste makes good fertilizer, and the farmer gets it free of charge. Any sludge that is not applied to the land has to be landfilled or incinerated, expenses localities want to avoid.

“If it’s properly done, and I would qualify it with that term, properly managed, it should be fine,” said Russ Perkinson, nutrient program manager for the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

To many opponents of biosolids, that’s a big if.

The state Department of Health has oversight of biosolids permitting, but only three employees who conduct enforcement statewide, in addition to other duties.

Cal Sawyer, director of the Health Department’s Division of Wastewater Engineering, said enforcement is increasing, with eight or nine counties that now have their own local monitors.

Sawyer also noted that biosolids are spread on about 42,000 acres in Virginia out of 2 million acres that have some type of fertilizer applied. That’s only 2 percent of the fertilized land in the state.

But that fertilizer gets a lot of attention.

In the last two years, the department has posted more than 100 complaints about the spreading of biosolids on its Web site from residents around the state. “We investigate all complaints,” Sawyer said.

“We’re here to protect health. ... We don’t disregard anybody’s opinion about the effect of biosolids.”

In most cases, the department finds no violation and takes no action. However, in 2004, Recyc Systems Inc. was cited for applying biosolids to an unpermitted field in Spotsylvania County, while Synagro Mid-Atlantic was cited for applying biosolids to buffer areas in Clarke County.

“That was one of the few times we’ve seen someone not adhere to the buffer,” Sawyer said, adding the fines for those two violations ranged from $500 to $1,000.

Synagro, one of the largest haulers of biosolids in the nation, was fined $35,000 last fall by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, for violations associated with storing and spreading biosolids.

Most citizen complaints about biosolids involve odor and trucks tracking the sludge on their roads. The most vocal opponents are those who report respiratory and skin problems after inhaling freshly applied biosolids.

Perhaps because health concerns dominate the biosolids debate, fewer questions get asked about the implications of runoff and groundwater contamination.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is concerned about nitrogen pollution from all sources, and has had biosolids on its radar screen for a couple of years, said spokesman Chuck Epes. In a white paper the group put out on sewage sludge, the CBF raised concerns about inadequate inspections and enforcement and lack of nutrient management plans.

“Virginia’s current sludge regulatory process is insufficient to protect against adverse water quality impacts that may result from runoff of nutrients and toxic substances,” the two-page statement said.

That matches an Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency report on biosolids in 2000, which said,

“EPA does not have an effective program for ensuring compliance with the land application requirements ... Accordingly, while EPA promotes land application, EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment.”

Sawyer said the Health Department relies on the expertise of faculty at Virginia Tech to determine appropriate land application guidelines.

Whether farmers use animal manure, biosolids or chemical fertilizers, they need to limit the potential to contaminate ground and surface waters, said Neil Zahradka, animal feeding operations program coordinator for the Department of Environmental Quality.

“We need to increase the number of farms that are following a nutrient management plan,” he said.

DCR’s Perkinson said the state has made great strides in developing nutrient management plans with farmers to control runoff and other contamination from animal manure.

Legislation passed in 2003 also requires nutrient management plans for biosolids, he said, but that law is not yet in effect. Sawyer said the process is under way. The Health Department will hold public hearings in early summer on regulations to require certification of biosolids applicators, and in late fall it will hold hearings on nutrient management plans.

Perkinson said his department also would like to see some restrictions on the timing of the application of biosolids, similar to those for animal waste.

If for example, biosolids are spread on land months before planting, there is increased chance for runoff because there are no plants growing and absorbing the nitrogen. Fertilizers should generally be spread within 30 days of planting, he said.

“Ideal is the day before planting,” Perkinson said.

Sawyer said there is talk of prohibiting the application of biosolids in the winter.

Phosphorus is also a growing concern, both Perkinson and Sawyer said, because plants need so little phosphorus compared to nitrogen, yet the two nutrients occur in similar quantities in animal and human waste.

The state’s current nutrient management plan for animal waste calls for buffers of 100 feet from wells and water supplies, 200 feet from dwellings and 100 feet from streams without vegetative buffers. With adequate vegetation to absorb runoff, the setback from streams is 35 feet.

Very few farmers with nutrient plans violate the buffer requirements, Zahradka said. The problem is there’s a whole lot more agricultural land without nutrient management plans than with them, he said.