A group of Lincoln County residents is asking the state to block a plan of a nearby farmer to apply a kind of fertilizer to his land that they say would put their water and crops at risk.
It’s a type of fertilizer the state Department of Ecology considers a “beneficial resource” when properly processed, applied and regulated. But that assessment is disputed by studies cited by the Mill Canyon residents and a Seattle microbiologist who calls it “entirely toxic material.”
The department and the people who generate, transport and use this fertilizer call it “biosolids.” The residents who have formed Protect Mill Canyon Watershed call it by its unprocessed name, “sewer sludge,” or some more scatological terms reminiscent of what is flushed into the sewer.
“There’s no such thing as biosolids. It’s an industry term invented to overcome the ‘yuck’ factor,” said Richard Honour, Seattle-based microbiologist whose goal is to stop the dumping of processed sewer sludge in Washington.
Mill Canyon residents are opposing a permit, requested by a company that handles the material and delivers it to landowners around the state, to apply it to nearby Rosman Farms. Morton Alexander, whose land has a natural spring that he and others use for drinking water and irrigation, worries about what would be in the sludge.
“With cow manure, you pretty much know what you’re getting,” Alexander said. “With this, there’s new chemicals being cooked up every day by the chemical industry.”
Rosman Farms is above the canyon, not in it, and the permit application argues that the groundwater table is low enough that anything in the biosolids won’t reach it. Canyon residents challenge that, but they also argue that dangerous materials could be washed off the treated land if heavy rains fall on snow and frozen soil as they did 2014, when those conditions led to flooding in the canyon.
The residents also worry about dirt that has been mixed with the material blowing down into the canyon during hot, dry summers and contaminating their lands, which include organic farming operations like Tolstoy Farms and Perianth Herbs. The permit, however, says the farm has a plan in place to prevent erosion and material will be applied “consistent with established farming practices.”
The application for a permit to spread biosolids on Rosman Farms was filed in 2016 and has been the subject of multiple hearings and about 200 letters. A decision is expected sometime this fall.
The yearlong fight over a state permit underscores growing concerns over what to do with the rivers of waste flushed and treated in communities around the country every day.
There’s a lot of it. The city of Spokane processes 30 million gallons a day at its wastewater treatment facility; the nonliquid material – sludge – left from that processed water generates 6,000 tons of biosolids a year spread on about 2,550 acres on farms in Spokane and Lincoln counties.
Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for the city’s Public Works Department, said the city is exploring the possibility of incinerating its sludge, but for now, it has contracts with farmers who get the material free of charge with the requirement that they plow it into the soil within 24 hours. The material can’t be spread on the same plot of land more than once a year.
Repeat that on smaller scales for municipal and county wastewater treatment plants around the state and local governments are faced with a need to dispose of mountains of waste. They treat the wastewater and sewer sludge with different processes designed to kill some harmful bacteria and strain out chemicals found in things flushed or washed down their drains.
While the city of Spokane transports its processed sludge, smaller treatment facilities often contract with companies that have permits to collect, transport and apply it to farmers interested in using it. The material is high in nitrogen, a key chemical in commercial fertilizer, but being free or at a low cost makes it attractive.
Fire Mountain Farms, an Onalaska, Washington-based company that transports the material from treatment facilities around the state, is seeking a permit to deliver and apply it to Rosman Farms near Mill Canyon. The permit request doesn’t list a specific source, but the cost of transport suggests it would be within a 30- to 50-mile radius.
The Department of Ecology makes a distinction between the sludge left over when waste water is pulled out, and biosolids, which have been treated with biological, chemical or physical processes, then monitored and regulated.
“The term biosolids distinguishes high-quality, treated sewage sludge from raw sewage sludge and from industrial sludge that can contain large quantities of environmental pollutants,” the department says on its website.
But Honour, the microbiologist who worked for years in the treatment of cancer and infectious diseases, said the state only tests for a limited amount of bacteria and heavy metals. It also ignores the fact that even if the material tests low for bacteria when it leaves the processing or storage facility, that bacteria multiplies rapidly in transit and after it is spread on the ground.
The state requires tests for nine heavy metals that were found in sewage sludge in the 1990s, before more stringent treatment of industrial and municipal waste began reducing the amount of those chemicals in sludge, said Wayne Krafft, section manager for Ecology’s Waste 2 Resources program that includes the regulation of biosolids. It tests for salmonella and E. coli as indicators of the levels of other pathogens, he said.
“If the concentration of E.coli is very high, all the other pathogens are high as well,” Krafft said.
Honour disagrees. Reduced numbers for E. coli and salmonella don’t indicate the level of infectious agents in the sludge and testing accurately for some agents that are present may be impossible, he said.
“Micro organisms don’t like to grow on a Petri dish,” he said. “Dump it on the ground, these microorganisms can’t wait to start growing.”
The state doesn’t test for heavy metals that aren’t on the federal list, pharmaceuticals, cosmetic chemicals, dioxins, furans, PCBs and fire retardants that are commonly applied to clothes at the factory but wash off in the laundry, Honour said.
But the concentrations of those chemicals, if they can be detected, would be so low that a person wouldn’t get a dangerous dose, Krafft said. Soil tests are required to make sure the chemicals aren’t going below the root levels, and any material that is blown off in the wind would be mixed with dirt to further lower its concentration.
Biosolids are spread thinly on the land similar to fertilizer on a lawn. When mixed in, they would be less detectable than the chemicals from commercial fertilizer or pesticides, he said.
It’s all about assessing risk, Krafft added. For example, exposure to the fire retardants washed off of clothes and left in the biosolids would be less dangerous than wearing those clothes every day.
Rules for handling sewage sludge have changed in the past 25 years. Until the early 1990s, it was regulated by local health districts. In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and set up standards, which the Department of Ecology uses.
In recent years, some legislators have been concerned about studies that show dangerous chemicals remaining in sewage sludge after it has been treated. Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, is concerned about the possible public health risks and thinks the department is “way too cavalier” about biosolids.
Last year, Pollet introduced legislation that would require any food that contained an agricultural product grown on land with biosolids to carry the label “Grown in Sewage Sludge.” Assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, the bill didn’t get a hearing, let alone a vote; but it was a way to call attention to what seems to be “horrifying science” of what can be found in biosolids, he said.
“We need a lot more work on this,” Pollet said. That should include the departments of health, ecology and agriculture as well as local officials and residents, he said.