From The Editor | April 4, 2014

Biosolids Application Creates A Stink


By Kevin Westerling,

Well-meaning, sustainable practice confronts “Not in my backyard!” pushback in Pennsylvania.

In a perfect world, sustainability and public approval go hand-in-hand. Just look at the trend toward municipal projects that focus on the “triple bottom line” — social, environmental, and financial benefits (or “people, planet, and profits).” Biosolids application, wherein sewage sludge is land-applied as fertilizer rather than sent to landfills, seems to be one of those “everybody wins” scenarios. But not everybody is happy about it.

In Pennsylvania, the communities of Bell Township and Burnside Township are raising a stink about the practice, although they would say it’s the other way around.

“It smells like you took 40 Porta-Johns and kicked them over in July,” said one disgruntled resident.

"You can sit in our living room and feel like you're eating it,” described another.

Those colorful quotes came from a town meeting in Bell Township, reported on by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The meeting was held to protest the permit granted to WeCare Organics, which has applied biosolids — treated sewage sludge — to over 50 acres of land in Bell Township. Despite the concerns, state Rep. Tommy Sankey indicated that there is little to be done since proper procedure was followed, though he committed to taking the complaint to the state capital.

In Burnside Township, perhaps taking cues from their PA counterparts, the residents are fighting biosolids application before it happens, according to the Centre Daily Times.

The PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has approved the plan, again from WeCare Organics (based in Jordan, NY), to apply 150 acres of biosolids to private property.

In this case, residents’ concerns are not just about odor, but water quality. The proposed application site is in a local “source water protection zone.”

The DEP, via David Bisko of the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, stands by the safety of the Burnside Township biosolids plan, stating in a letter that it posed “no potential to impact groundwater or private/public water supplies.”

In general, the U.S. EPA echoes that sentiment. Addressing the “frequently asked question” of whether or not biosolids are safe, the agency defers to the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that “the use of these materials in the production of crops for human consumption when practiced in accordance with existing federal guidelines and regulations, presents negligible risk to the consumer, to crop production and to the environment.” (See more FAQs here.)

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) has similar confidence, calling biosolids “a safe, beneficial agricultural product,” and furthermore promotes land application through its National Biosolids Partnership.

In Burnside Township, the biosolids could even provide mine reclamation, if they are allowed. WeCare Organics plans to stabilize the biosolids with lime and combine it with native soil to help neutralize acid runoff and support vegetation.

The skeptical residents in both Pennsylvania townships are buoyed by national organizations such as the Sierra Club, which contends that biosolids pose a threat to groundwater, wildlife, and humans. Also, Whole Foods supermarkets recently announced that it will no longer sell produce fertilized by biosolids.

Fuel to the fire was provided in Bell Township by Rep. Sankey, who expressed his own misgivings on biosolids. According to the Tribune-Review, he stated to protestors: “Listen, you're getting a raw deal. I'm glad it's not by my house. I wouldn't want it either.”

It seems that biosolids, like wastewater reuse (and the dreaded “toilet-to-tap” moniker), has a public perception problem — which is not to say that some concerns aren’t valid. Odor, for one, is hard to argue when present. From a health standpoint, the EPA has strict guidelines in place, and different sets of rules for the designation and application of Class A (with no detectable pathogens) and Class B biosolids.

Having been land-applied in Pennsylvania and elsewhere for decades, the health risk of biosolids appears to be low when EPA guidelines are followed. However, “low is not zero,” noted Tom Richard, director of Penn State Institutes for Energy and the Environment, to the Tribune-Review. “It's not zero risk for all the things they've tested, for heavy metals, pathogens, etc. Anyone who tells you it's zero risk doesn't understand the way the risk analysis was conducted.”

The Pennsylvania conflicts raise questions for municipalities that may face similar circumstances:

  • How much risk is acceptable?
  • How do you (or should you) push forward a program intended for public benefit if that public doesn’t want it?

If you have thoughts or experience in the matter of biosolids land application, please share them in the comments section below.

Image credit: "Long Days," © 2010 tinkerbrad, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: