What goes down the toilet has to go somewhere — and sometimes that somewhere is a farm in Albemarle County.
Synagro Central LLC is applying to expand its existing permit to spread biosolids — treated sewage sludge — on participating farms in Albemarle. The modification would allow Synagro to deposit the biosolids on 2,447 acres at Nutmeg Farm and Greenmont Farm in Scottsville.
“It’s not excrement. It’s the product of the cleanup, if you will, of the excrement,” said Aaron L. Mills, an environmental science professor at the University of Virginia. “The wastewater treatment process fosters growth of tremendous numbers of new microorganisms, so the fraction of original excrement that’s in the biosolids is actually quite small.”
If the application is approved as is, Nutmeg and Greenmont farms could receive biosolids, as well as other products of water treatment plants, food waste and industrial sludge, at no cost. The waste would act similarly to compost to build soil on the farms. Nutmeg Farm participated in the program in 2016.
Mills teaches a class on soil chemistry, and his recent research has focused on agricultural runoff. Mills said that research has found few health mishaps related to biosolids.
“The straight poop will transfer pathogens or organisms that will cause you discomfort from person-to-person,” Mills said. “But in the biosolids, they’re pretty much treated so that … nearly all [pathogens] have been removed.”
However, Mills said that if the treated sludge is particularly dry, the dust can become an irritant similar to pollen.
Carrsbrook resident Ray Caddell said his family’s health was affected a decade ago when a neighboring farm applied the sludge.
“We were never able to prove that that was exactly what caused it, except every time it happens, my wife and my daughter, who has asthma, experience the same symptoms,” Caddell said. “We had months and months of trouble with my wife’s throat and my daughter’s asthma.”
Nearly 8,000 acres of land in Albemarle County are permitted as biosolid application sites.
Credit: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Caddell said the smell was a concern, too, but it disappeared after a few days.
“How about big tanker trucks of human waste driving through our neighborhoods? It’s not like that stuff just appears there,” Caddell said.
Between 2015 and 2016, the two locally permitted companies, Synagro and Recyc Systems Inc., applied 6,197 tons of dry biosolids to more than 4,000 acres of county land. Neither company applied industrial residuals to county land during that time.
Mills said that depositing industrial waste on farms was more concerning than biosolids.
“That’s why you have to get a permit,” Mills said. “It might contain those or other kinds of metals that might be toxic to plants and/or animals, including humans. It wouldn’t be a good idea to spread those, particularly on agricultural land.”
Nutmeg and Greenmont Farm produce grass and hay, respectively. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates the waste application, prohibits farmers from grazing animals on the sites for 30 days. If the animals are involved in dairy production, DEQ prohibits grazing for 60 days.
The DEQ will hold a public meeting on Synagro’s application at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Virginia Department of Forestry at 900 Natural Resources Drive, Suite 800, in Charlottesville.
Albemarle Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she plans to attend the meeting.
“With something that I consider to be a potential for environmental damage, we need to be super careful about where it’s applied, that we have substantial buffers, that the terrain is not too steep to have any buffer be effective,” Mallek said. “These are all things I’ll be looking for answers about when I go to the meeting this week.”
Mills said that if Synagro follows the DEQ’s regulations, the biosolid application can help the soil retain nutrients from fertilizers and prevent runoff.