Sludge application suspended in Virginia town

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By JAY CONLEY

Residents worry about biosolids trucked in from New Jersey

ROANOKE, Va., Oct. 12, 2000 (Roanoke Times & World News)—A company that supplies a controversial free fertilizer to farmers has agreed to suspend its operations in Bedford County while the county's Board of Supervisors decides whether to ban or regulate the use of the substance.

Officials from Synagro, a company formerly known as Bio Gro, told county officials at a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday night that after Oct. 15, the company would discontinue the application of sewer sludge to about 250 acres of farmland for up to three months.

At issue is whether or not the foul-smelling, human-waste fertilizer poses short- or long-term health risks.

"If the odor didn't exist, no one would probably care about the safety issues because it would have gone unnoticed," said Pamela Gratton, a technical services director for Synagro.

Gratton, along with officials from the Virginia Department of Health, were invited to the meeting to address odor and health concerns related to the sludge, known as Class A and Class B biosolids.

Use of the sludge on the farmland has already been approved by the county under a current permit.

As Bio Gro, the company was granted a five-year contract in 1996 to spread sludge on 80 county farms totaling 5,700 acres.

Gratton said the company has been operating in Virginia under different names for nearly 25 years.

At the time the company was issued the permit, it was spreading sludge from Roanoke, which, according to Roanoke wastewater manager Scott Shirley, is composted for a year and tests at a high safety level - Class A - before it's distributed.

But after the company lost its Roanoke contract, it began to haul biosolids from New Jersey last fall. Sludge from these localities is processed in just a few hours using a lime treatment and is considered Class B biosolids.

Soon after, residents began to complain of a noxious odor. Health and safety concerns followed.

"I'm not going to tell you the stuff don't stink," said Jeff Holdren, 45, a third-generation farmer who spoke at the meeting. "But that's the nature of farming. We're doing all we can do to survive."

Holdren operates a beef and dairy farm in Moneta and uses the sludge on about 50 acres of pasture. He admits the newer sludge smells a lot worse and for a lot longer, up to two weeks after it is spread. But he estimates the free fertilizer saves him $100 per acre annually in lime and other fertilizer expenses.

In August, when Synagro applied to the Health Department for a permit to serve 12 more farms, County Administrator Bill Rolfe wrote the department explaining the county's health concerns.

Desiree Lopasic, a technical services engineer with the Health Department's Division of Wastewater Management, told the supervisors the permit wouldn't be approved until all of their questions were answered.

Lopasic told the board that the use of the sewage was safe as long as the land was properly monitored for heavy metals and other toxins.

"Most of the biosolids" being used in Virginia are so low on levels of arsenic, cadmium and mercury "that it would take hundreds of applications" to the same land to reach the levels considered under state and federal regulations to be unsafe, Lopasic said.

She said both Class A and B biosolids are considered safe, but it costs three times as much for a locality to bring its sewage from a B level to an A level in terms of odor reduction.

"Let's get down to the meat and potatoes here," said Supervisor Dale Wheeler. "Who do I send the bill to if there's a problem?"

Lopasic responded that the Health Department has never found biosolids to cause a health problem.

Banning the sludge may not stand up in court. The county is watching a court case involving Amelia County's decision to ban it.

Though the Bedford County attorney had drawn up proposed ordinances that could ban or regulate the sludge under zoning or health codes, the supervisors agreed to study the issue further over the next three months.

© 2000 Roanoke Times & World News via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.

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