- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Every day, 1,200 tons of human waste from D.C. residents is spread over rural farmlands in Maryland and Virginia.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority sterilizes 370 million gallons of wastewater daily and refines it into a fertilizer containing “biosolids,” or human waste.

WASA then pays companies such as Synagro Technologies and Recyc Systems to pick up the biosolids and ship them to area farmers for free.

“To me, it’s not that big of a deal, I don’t see any difference between it and commercial fertilizer,” said Jim Lewis, a farmer on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

For the past eight years, Mr. Lewis has asked Synagro employees to load and distribute tons of sewer sludge across his 60-acre farmland in Greensboro, Md.

But some residents living near the farms are fed up with the bad odor and risk of illness from biosolids, and they want it stopped.

“My main concern is my own children and their health,” said Jennifer England, a mother of five and the president of Citizens Against Toxic Sludge, a community group in Campbell County, Va., just southeast of Lynchburg.

“But this is something that everyone should be concerned about, primarily because food is being grown on it,” she said.

The process is regulated by regional health departments and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“More than 45 percent of all biosolids in the U.S. are disposed of via land application, so it is a major option” for water-treatment plants, said Chris Hornback, a spokesman for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

Wastewater from the suburban counties of Maryland and Northern Virginia also is recycled into biosolids, by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, respectively.

Sewage authorities such as WASA downplay the dangers.

“The pathogen risk is similar to the risk you take when you are preparing raw chicken,” said Chris Peot, spokesman for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. “After you’ve handled it, you would want to wash your hands before touching anything else. Other than that, [the use of biosolids] is not a big question mark for me.”

Companies like Synagro also produce “class A” processed commercial fertilizer that is sold in nurseries and gardening centers.

In 1991, the EPA approved the farm use of biosolids because the practice is better for the environment than dumping sewage into lakes, streams and the ocean, a practice that ended with the passage of the Ocean Dumping Ban of 1988.

Since then, the EPA has set strict rules for growing crops with biosolids and it forbids farmers from using them near lakes and wells.

Nevertheless, Mrs. England has been working with grass-roots organizations in Bedford and Campbell counties to stop companies from spreading sludge in their communities.

Recently, Mrs. England’s organization proposed an ordinance to the Campbell County Board of Supervisors that would give residents more control over sludge use.

She is fighting against advocates such as Mr. Lewis who say spreading sludge helps reduce the costs of farming.

“Farming is not a high-paying occupation,” Mr. Lewis said. “And these biosolids represent significant cost savings for me.”

He said the annual cost to fertilize his fields with store-bought fertilizer would be $150 per acre.

Mr. Lewis, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat, said most of his crops are used to feed livestock, not humans.

“We sympathize with the farmers,” said Steve Stevick, a planning commissioner in Bedford County, west of Lynchburg. “And if we knew this stuff was safe, that would be wonderful, but there are not enough controls.”

Mr. Stevick and his wife, Nancy Raine, have been working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Chambersburg, Pa., to impose restrictions on the spread of biosolids in their county.

“Sometimes, people’s emotions get caught up in this, and they won’t listen to the science that goes into producing biosolids,” said Brooke Henderson a spokeswoman for Synagro.

“The reality is that sludge must be tested and treated with lime to make it safe,” Mrs. Henderson said. “I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I didn’t totally believe in what Synagro does.”

Mrs. Henderson said that biosolids are analyzed thoroughly at wastewater treatment plants and that farmers do their own testing to determine exactly what is in the soil.

Mr. Peot said he understands the concerns of neighboring residents.

“If I had this stuff dumped in my back yard, I would probably be upset, too.”

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