Appomattox County pays $225,000 in settlement for illegal biosolids ordinances

Appomattox County has agreed to pay $225,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by eleven county farmers that challenged highly restrictive biosolids ordinances enacted by the county in 2002.

LYNCHBURG, Feb. 20, 2004 -- Appomattox County has agreed to pay $225,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by eleven county farmers that challenged highly restrictive biosolids ordinances enacted by the county in 2002.

The $225,000 payment is for the farmers' attorneys fees. The settlement follows a November 24, 2003 decision by the United States District Court in Lynchburg that struck down the County's ordinances as inconsistent with Virginia law.

Yesterday, the District Court issued an Order officially ending the lawsuit. In his November ruling, Federal Judge Norman K. Moon found "it is clear that the Appomattox ordinances forbid Plaintiffs from using biosolids on their farmland even though Plaintiffs have obtained licenses to do so and for that reason both the Zoning Ordinance and the Police Powers Ordinance are void and unenforceable."

He added that Virginia localities have only limited authority to conduct "testing and monitoring" and cannot restrict land application of biosolids.

Biosolids are derived from the treatment of sewage sludge and are used as an agricultural fertilizer and soil conditioner. Hundreds of Virginia farmers in over 40 counties participate in biosolids recycling programs to save money on fertilizer costs and to improve the quality of their soil.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regulate and monitor biosolids recycling programs to ensure the safety and quality of the product and its use.

Thousands of cities across the United States rely on land application of biosolids for safe and efficient recycling of their sewage sludge. Sixty percent of the nation's sewage sludge is recycled as biosolids onto farmland and for other beneficial uses.

According to the farmers' lawyer, James B. Slaughter, "the Court's November 24 ruling and the County's $225,000 payment settle the issue of what law governs biosolids. Virginia counties lack the authority to impose local biosolids restrictions, and cannot interject themselves into an area that is comprehensively regulated under state and federal law."

He added that "this case has been closely followed by farmers, municipal wastewater agencies, and local officials and sends a clear message to localities around the United States that they should defer to the expertise of federal and state environmental agencies that regulate and oversee land application programs."

The impact of the Appomattox ruling is already being felt throughout Virginia and elsewhere.

On February 9, 2004, in the case of Recyc, Inc. v. Spotsylvania County, a Virginia state court in Fredericksburg struck down a Spotsylvania County ordinance that imposed zoning restrictions on land application of biosolids. The court cited rulings in the Appomattox case as "necessary and appropriate" extensions of prior court decisions, and ruled that "all local zoning ordinances that now attempt to regulate or control land application of biosolids in agricultural zones are inconsistent with State law except those related to testing and monitoring."

The outcome of the Appomattox lawsuit is part of a trend of recent court decisions affirming the primacy of federal and state regulations concerning biosolids, which allow and encourage land application.

In December 2003, a federal court in Pennsylvania struck down most of the biosolids restrictions enacted by Rush Township, in Centre County Pennsylvania, because they conflict with state requirements. (Synagro-WWT, Inc. v. Rush Township). Similarly, in November 2003, another restrictive ordinance in Eastern Pennsylvania was struck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the case of Hydropress Environmental Services, Inc. v. Township of Upper Mount Bethel.

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