MOUNT CARMEL - The message was clear during Tuesday evening's public hearing on the use of biosolids as farm fertilizer or in mine land reclamation: Don't.
A Democratic Policy Committee hearing on the issue, hosted by state Rep. Robert E. Belfanti Jr., D-107, at the Mount Carmel Area High School auditorium, drew 200 people and provided a panel of speakers who voiced reservations about the substance, byproducts of the sewage treatment process.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) allows Class B biosolids - sewage sludge - to be spread on farms or for reclamation, Belfanti said.
And Reading Anthracite Co.- related firms - including Gilberton Coal Co. and Waste Management Processors Inc. - are proposing to import the substance from Philadelphia to be used in reclamation projects at several sites in Schuylkill, Northumberland and Columbia counties.
Controversy over the safety of biosolids erupted since the proposals became public, although the firms for several years applied biosolids in the Ellengowan Ridge area of Mahanoy Township between Mahanoy City and Shenandoah, and biosolids from the Cressona sewage treatment plant have been spread on farm fields in western Schuylkill County for a decade.
Several legislators, including Belfanti, suggested changes in the DEP administration are needed.
Speakers during Tuesday's hearing included panelists from the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, the Pennsylvania Environmental Network (PEN), federal Environmental Protection Agency and the United Mine Workers of America.
None favored using biosolids.
One speaker, Joseph Cocalis, a retired captain of the U.S. Public Health Service, said his comments reflected his personal views and not necessarily those of his former employer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Public health is not being protected in Pennsylvania," he said. "The system has been broken. Something tells me we're creating future Superfund sites. A surface mining site is very fractured. What pathway will it (sludge) take?"
His remarks drew applause from the audience.
Another panelist, Lawrence Breech, Bloomsburg, a member of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, said the sludge isn't adequately monitored.
"I believe that sludge is wasted when it's incinerated or put in a landfill," he said. "When it's properly regulated and tested it can be recycled. But as it is now, I don't believe we should spread it on cropland. "
Dr. David L. Lewis, Athens, Ga., a research microbiologist for the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said that scientists researching sludge are met with challenges.
"Every scientist who tries to research it faces obstacles, opposition from federal and state government (and) industries," he said, drawing a standing ovation.
Like Breech, Lewis said that there were "technical solutions" to the problem of disposing of biosolids. However, he added, those solutions won't happen until federal and state agencies "move off the position that there is no problem with sludge."