by Jack Dodson and Rebecca Smith for The Pendulum (Elon University, NC)
Five hundred yards from Sylvan Elementary School in Snow Camp, N.C., a small town south of Burlington, biosolids were used for fertilizer on farmland and have sparked an environmental debate in the city. Biosolids, which are commonly referred to as sludge, have been a growing concern of environmental groups in the area for some time, Sewage Sludge Action Network Chair Myra Dotson said.
On the morning of Oct. 23, Synagro, the company contracted with the city to manage the biosolids after treatment, was spreading the sludge on farmland next to the elementary school when a citizen noticed and filmed the event. The citizen then called Dotson, who came out to look at the situation and take photos of the incident.
“They were just sludging so much,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”
The law of North Carolina states the spreading of biosolids, must occur at least 400 ft from any occupied structure, said the city’s Water Resources Director Bob Patterson.
“We were well away from that requirement,” he said.
“The rules and regulations need to be updated, and there needs to be research done — unbiased research,” Dotson said.
Dotson continued to say land application of biosolids can lead to sludge “leaching” into ground and surface water. According to Jon Risgaard the supervisor of land application unit for North Carolina Department for Environment and Natural Resources, there has never been a major problem with this as far as he knows, he said. He continued to say that if there was a problem large enough, there could be a clean up of the area that is ordered from the state level.
Currently, there are many regulations that must be met before the biosolids can be sprayed. There are metal limits and pathogen limits, and crops soak up the extra nutrients. There are also operational requirements.
For example, biosolids cannot be spread when it is raining, at certain slopes and spreading needs to be in an area with little human contact, according to Jon Risgaard, the supervisor of land application unit for North Carolina Department for Environment and Natural Resources.
“No one can say with certainty that it’s 100 percent safe … or even with certainty that it has detrimental effects,” Patterson said.
Both he and city water resources employee Eric Davis said if there was solid scientific evidence to suggest biosolids were unsafe, then the city would reassess their methods of waste water management.
“There’s a lot of quality assurances of the material before they put it out,” Risgaard said.
He listed numerous regulations that need to be followed by companies that apply the biosolids to land. These regulations, mandated by the state and the Environmental Protection Agency, include agronomic rate, which means the right amount of biosolids need to be applied to the crops, as well as 50 ft from any property line and 100 ft from a well or surface water.
Rick Asher, the lead operator and backup operator responsible of charge at the South Burlington Wastewater Treatment plant, said the facility operators are looking at the sludge regularly to make sure that it is meeting requirements before it is even handed over to Synagro.
“What we’re applying are (microbes) that have nutrients locked up inside them,” Asher said. “That’s basically what sludge is.
When it came to the issue of health risks raised by being exposed to biosolids, Asher said, “you’re more likely to pick up something off a Wal Mart buggy.”
He also said he’s never known anyone who had health problems from working at a treatment plant.
Risgaard said public education about biosolids is a major part of ensuring there is less confusion about the safety of biosolids. This includes “making sure that the community understands the requirements (of the law).”
The major issue for Dotson was that the land application, or the spreading of sludge as fertilizer on farmland, was happening next to a school while it was open.
“We’ve been fighting sludge for almost a year now,” Dotson said. “It’s never even dawned on us that they would be sludging near a school. It wasn’t even a realm of thought.”
The Principal of Sylvan Elementary School would not comment on the incident because she reported that it did not affect the school day.
“We were notified of the incident after 5 p.m. the night before by a community member,” said Jenny Faulkner, executive director of community relations for the Alamance Burlington School System. “We had no previous knowledge of this incident or any other similar incidents occurring before. This is not something we can stop, but we have asked the city of Burlington not to spray during school hours. What they are doing is legal and on private property.”
Faulkner said she has received no complaints from any parents, and as far as she knows neither has the principal of Sylvan Elementary School.
Some members of the environmental group approached the city of Burlington after the incident to discuss their concerns about spreading biosolids on farmland. They met with City Manager Harold Owen about the incident and expressed their concerns, Patterson said.
The city’s stance on the issue is that Synagro was within compliance with their permit, which is a position that was reinforced when a state inspector visited the site the following week to investigate. Beyond this specific case, Patterson said the use of biosolids can be mutually beneficial for farmers and for municipalities.
“(Land application) is considered a beneficial reuse of the nutrients that are in the biosolids,” Patterson said.
He also said the city uses a process called lime stabilization to kill pathogens in the sludge and deodorize it.
Another concern Dotson brought up was that the spreading of biosolids was happening while it was raining. Risgaard said the law currently requires that if there is half an inch accumulation of rain or greater within a 24-hour period, then land application must be put on hold. Less rain than that, he said, is “just not enough rain to really cause a problem.”
According to Patterson, “no water at all was collected in the rain gauge (during that morning).”
“It is part of our plan to address all of these concerns about biosolids,” Davis said. “We’re trying to get the most benefit out of this waste product as we can get. The land application of biosolids is not something that is unique to Burlington, N.C.”