Biosolids -- Building a public consensus for land application

A year after the WERF/EPA-sponsored Biosolids Research Summit, public opposition to applying treated sewage sludge to agricultural, forest, range, and reclamation lands continues to nearly overwhelm wastewater treatment plants and sanitation districts...

By Juliana E. Birkhoff

A year after the WERF/EPA-sponsored Biosolids Research Summit, public opposition to applying treated sewage sludge to agricultural, forest, range, and reclamation lands continues to nearly overwhelm wastewater treatment plants and sanitation districts.

While much public opposition centers on the odor from municipal waste, people also raise concerns about human health, water quality, and heavy metal build-up in soil. Much of the public outcry occurs around specific proposals or specific sites.

Several municipalities and counties have passed ordinances or bans on land application of biosolids. Moreover, local resistance has coalesced into national opposition.

Here's a typical scenario of that opposition: You are standing at the front of the room in the high school gymnasium. The lights come up after the presentation "Highland County Biosolids Project: Technical Specifications for Biosolids Application". You ask if there are any questions. As you look around the room, several people are rising, and they are beginning to grumble, and some are now asking loud questions-"What about the smell?" "You are applying S**T to our corn?" "This stuff is dangerous - don't you know there is a school nearby?"

Now more people are rising... you take a step back to look at the county sanitation engineer. He steps up to the microphone and says "People, people, you just don't understand! We've done a risk assessment and this is not as dangerous as eating a high fat diet or driving your car¿." The roar of the crowd is now deafening.

How did your simple treated sludge plan go so wrong?
Ignoring public concerns doesn't work. Our experience with unwanted local land uses teaches us that ignoring public concerns rarely works. Public relations campaigns that downplay risks or concerns almost never convince worried municipalities and neighbors to accept a residuals program.

While public involvement can help citizens learn about risks and project details, public meetings often disintegrate into public shouting matches. This article reviews a project designed to address conflict over land application of biosolids by actively including public stakeholders in priority setting, decision-making, and project implementation. At the conclusion there are tips for managers and staff of publicly owned treatment plants, sanitation district officials, and public utility staff faced with potential opposition.

Instead of the first scenario, try this one: 70 people are sitting in a large conference room. The presenters finish their technical presentations about the latest scientific information on the risks and benefits of land application of sludge. The facilitator thanks the panel, reminds everyone of the ground rules, and tells the group there is one hour on the agenda for questions and discussions. He prompts the group to "go tough on the problems, easy on the people".

Several people are raising their hands. The facilitator calls on a woman who asks "Why haven't you reported on any epidemiological studies? If you don't do the research, how will we understand how and why people are getting sick?" The panelists respectfully address her questions and the facilitator asks her if they answered her question. She says she disagrees with the answer, but understands what the panelists have said.

The questions, answers, and discussions continue for an hour. On the way out of the room, several people from different backgrounds share how much they have learned.

This second scenario actually happened. In July 2003, these 70 people gathered in Alexandria, VA, to for a summit to discuss how scientific research could address concerns and questions about the land application of sewage sludge.

Organized by the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) the summit was focused on developing a research agenda to address gaps and identify research to ensure public health and environmental protection.

Stakeholders included citizens, farmers, environmental advocates, elected officials, county health officials, university researchers, state and federal agency staff, wastewater utility staff, and biosolids management companies and consultants. The EPA helped sponsor the Summit.

To organize the summit, WERF formed a steering committee, (comprised of both opponents and proponents of land application of biosolids), to define the goals of the meeting, keep the focus on scientific issues and ensure balance.

Then they joined with a program planning committee to work with neutral facilitators to interview people from a range of perspectives on land application of sewage sludge.

The program planning committee used the information gathered from the interviews to develop an agenda for the summit that would encourage learning and sharing of different points of view in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

It also developed the list of prospective summit participants representing a wide variety of points of view on the issue. It also developed ground rules for the summit.

Five key tips when including the public
From the summit, it was concluded the most important tips to remember when including the public are:

-- Expect disagreement and difference: Assume there will be conflict and plan for it. Differences and disputes are normal and unavoidable in all human relationships. Conflicts are caused by the differences in the ways that diverse people understand the world, one another, and their interests and goals for themselves and others. These differences can often provide the creative impetus for change. The real problems come from not expecting these differences and not planning how to handle them inclusively, productively and respectfully.

-- Involve the people who will be affected by the plan, project, or decision in defining the problem and creating options to solve the problem: Stakeholders should help frame what the problem is that land application of biosolids is meant to solve. Work with them to develop criteria for a good solution. These steps build trust among the parties, establish "problem solving" interactions, and create a setting in which the parties can share their values, interests, and concerns. When the parties understand one another in this full way, choices and final agreements are more likely to emerge that are better for each participant than the alternative of having no agreement.

-- Engage the public with the scientists: The traditional approach deals with these kinds of conflicts as public outreach or community relations. The traditional approach says: call a meeting, let people vent, try and educated them about the issues if you can, then let the scientists and technicians do the real, valid work. But the fact is, science separated from the public leads to science that isn't trusted and science that isn't informed by "on the ground" knowledge and experience. Thus, much as scientists and the public may hate it, get them together in intensive situations to build shared understanding, an increased understanding of one another's perspectives, and let them wrestle with hard technical questions together.

-- Listen actively; there is much wisdom in the group: Better decisions emerge when diverse interests, knowledge, and expertise are brought to bear on framing, analyzing, and creating solutions. Disputes, over complex technical, social, and environmental issues, can only be solved when all the important information is available. Much of this information comes from project planners and various technical experts. However, significant information about the land, watershed, agricultural practices, comes from local people.

-- Don't obscure or conceal negative information; it will hurt your credibility: Share information about the costs and benefits of different ways to solve the problem. Share the information you are using to make decisions. Make the assumptions behind models transparent.

Summit discussions
The summit participants met for 2-1/2 days that began with a morning session devoted to learning about the research, science and knowledge gaps on biosolids.

Then for the next day and a half, the participants worked in small groups to develop in-depth research ideas. The summit concluded with the opportunity for the participants to come back together to prioritize research needs and share final thoughts with one another.

It was not a love fest by any means. Participants strongly disagreed and were assertive in expressing their views. Yet everyone stayed through the meeting. This diverse group accomplished an impressive list of tasks:
-- Brainstormed a list of biosolids research needs and developed specific recommendations for research priorities;
-- Developed principles and strategies for widely credible and legal research;
-- Prioritized a wide array of ideas into 31 priority research topics.
Importantly, the summit participants ranked the most important research project as the development of a rapid response system to examine reported health effects from land application of biosolids.

In the first phase of this research project, WERF and the EPA, using a $200,000 WERF grant, will be organizing a workshop to develop the rapid response system.

Additionally, the EPA responded to the summit recommendations by funding two priority projects that will develop and carry out representative risk assessments to microbial pathogens from exposures to biosolids.

Lessons learned
The summit was the first step in WERF's effort to include public partnering in its research work. It's learning how to work with the public to improve decisions, develop public support, and build credibility in sponsored research.

WERF has sponsored several research projects to better understand public perceptions and conflict over biosolids and water reuse. From these projects, WERF framed an approach to involving the public more actively in agenda and priority setting for sponsored research projects and in research oversight.

WERF staff worked with risk communication and conflict resolution experts to develop a protocol to guide their public partnering work. Over the next several years, WERF will use the protocol to guide their work as well as to continue to improve their relationships with the public.

Most importantly, WERF staff understands that its partnering improves its overall relationships with the public and also the credibility of the research, and that the public involvement improves the research itself.

About the Author: Juliana E. Birkhoff, Ph.D., is a senior mediator with RESOLVE, a, non profit public policy mediation organization headquartered in Washington, DC. She can be reached at 202-965-6390 or She and Patrick Field, from the Consensus Building Institute in Boston, facilitated the Biosolids Summit. For more information, see the home page of National Biosolids Partnership, a joint effort of the EPA, WEF and AMSA, at

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