May 2001 update - compiled by Helane Shields - prepared for WWW by ESRA


Subject: sludge story
Date: Wed, 2 Aug 2000 ; John Borgmeyer
continued from previous page

Virginia Department of Health.

Bio Gro and Recyc bring sludge to Culpeper from the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C.--- the final destination for every sewer and drain in the city and one of the largest plants in the country. The plant cleans the water and releases it into the Potomac river.

What's left behind is sewage sludge, a semi-solid byproduct containing mostly human waste but also a hodge-podge of metals, chemicals, and pathogens. About 60 percent of the eight million tons of sludge America produces annually is treated with lime or heat to kill disease-causing pathogens, then sold or given away as biosolids. When every last pathogen is eliminated, biosolids are classified as "Class A," which the Albemarle Waste Treatment Plant sells as compost. But most biosolids that end up on farm fields are "Class B," with many-- but not all- pathogens removed.

Blue Plains tests the sludge before it's shipped. If it meets EPA limits for metal and pathogen content, it becomes fertilizer. If not, it may be burned or put in a landfill.

Despite a handful of protests, the Culpeper Board of Supervisors approved the use of biosolids last spring. Farmers who want biosolids need permission from the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission, who so far have approved almost every request. Application is limited to farmlands that have been designated by their owners as "agriculture and forest" areas. This means the landowner promises not to develop their land for eight years, using it only for agriculture or leaving it wild.

"We're trying to promote land use for agriculture in this county," Bowen says. 'This is a rural county, and that's how we want to keep it."

Bowen says the number of agriculture and forest acres in the county has more than doubled since Culpeper allowed biosolids, because farmers feel more confident in their ability to produce. As a Bio Gro truck dumps a fresh pile of sludge on Bowen's hay fields, he laughs off sludge critics. "This year I've got the best crops I've ever seen. If I thought it was toxic, I wouldn't use it."

But Bowen knew the issue would be divisive. "Biosolids were a huge issue when we first considered it," says Harry Atherton, a member of Fauquier's Board of Supervisors. "I don't envy any county that's in the process of introducing this policy."

At first, opposition to the sludge appeared as sporadic letters to the editor or three-minute speeches at a public hearing. The most immediately obvious problem with sludge is the stench, which Bowen admits can be bothersome, especially if one's nose is downwind on a hot day.

But as more trucks dumped more biosolids in more people's backyards, sludge became big news. While Culpeper's daily Star Exponent virtually ignored the controversy, David Swanson at the weekly Culpeper News followed Schrader and Harlow's story. All the elements of underdog journalism were there: everyday folks battling big corporations, wealthy landowners, and the government.

Mable Harlow has rented her house on a cornfield owned by Wayne, Edwin and Kaye Lenn for 20 years, a more or less pleasant pair of decades. "I ain't never had no hassle from the Lenn brothers until this water got messed up," says Harlow.

Like many other states, Virginia added to the EPA's rules. The Health Department demands detailed reports from everyone who handles the sludge-- treatment plants, spreading companies, farmers, and inspectors. A field's individual soil type, crops, slope, and proximity to water must be evaluated to minimize the chances of runoff. Biosolids must stay 1.00 feet from wells and surface water and 400 feet from homes.

But some say that's meager protection.

Every time there was a heavy rain, Harlow says, pools of standing water collected in the cornfields just uphill from the well, and her tapwater would get cloudy for a day or two. For her, this was evidence that surface water was seeping through the ground and into the well.No one inspected the well or talked to Harlow before the Lenn brothers allowed Bio Grow to spread biosolids in the fields. Shortly after the application, Harlow says rain created standing pools in the field. A


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