Driving down a country road in Albemarle County, one would hardly think twice seeing the small sign posted along a driveway. About the size of a “For Sale” sign and forest green, it often escapes the notice of passing motorists.
This sign on Earlysville Road gives public notice that a farm is going to be applying biosolids as fertilizer. The sludge comes from wastewater facilities after it has been treated to reduce pollutants and pathogens. Biosolids can be disposed of through incineration or buried in a landfill, but they can also be used as fertilizer on farms.
Since 2007, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has been in charge of issuing companies permits, and ensures that the companies applying the biosolids follow strict regulations, such as not allowing livestock to graze on biosolid-affected land for 30 days. Although the permits cost the companies around $5,000, the fertilizer is free for the farmer.
Currently, the only two companies permitted to deposit biosolids in Albemarle are Remington-based ReCyc Systems and Synagro, a national organization. As of May, 277 dry tons of biosolids have been dumped in the county this calendar year, all by ReCyc Systems.
ReCyc Systems receives most of its sludge from the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, operated by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. Some is also received from the Maryland Correctional Institution Wastewater Plant, south of Hagerstown.
In past years, the use of the biosolids has raised concerns from members of the community, particularly over potential health risks. There have been complaints in the past of biosolids’ fumes causing coughs and sickness, and some feel that not enough has been done to disprove a causative link.
“It’s like smoking cigarettes,” said Vincent Lytle, an Earlysville resident whose land is adjacent to two farms that have applied biosolids on their property, relating the sludge to cigarette companies’ attempts to obscure the health impact of tobacco. “You haven’t proved it’s not bad.”
The issue was brought to Lytle’s attention in early 2011, when his neighbors began applying biosolids. He said his attempts to stop the dumping were largely ignored.
“In spite of our pleas of protest, they steamrolled right past us,” said Lytle, who complained to ReCyc Systems, the company in charge of dumping, as well as to Del. Rob Bell and all of the county supervisors.
However, government at the local level is preempted by state law from actively regulating their use. A bill entered into the General Assembly by Del. C. Todd Gilbert in January authorizing individual localities to prohibit the application of biosolids was tabled until 2013 and is unlikely to be passed anytime soon.
“Technically, [the bill] is still alive, but in all likelihood, the bill will not move forward,” David Blount, a legislative liaison for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said in an email. “There has not been support in recent years for any legislative changes that would provide more authority to localities in this area.”
In spite of the complaints, many continue to see the use of the material as beneficial. According to Carl Tinder, chairman of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, biosolids are a safe and efficient method of delivering long-lasting nutrients to crops.
“The product doesn’t move,” said Tinder about nutrient release and runoff. “You can see the lines where application has stopped. It settles in and breaks down slowly.”
Tinder is also the farm manager for Adventure Farm, LLC, a family-owned farm in Earlysville that raises livestock and produces soybeans and corn, among other crops. The farm has used biosolids as fertilizer for almost a decade and is on its third application.
“We’ve researched the positives and the negatives and we don’t see any downsides,” Tinder said. “It just works well.”
The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce agrees that biosolids are beneficial to farmers in the area. In July 2011, the chamber passed a resolution in support of regulated use of biosolids in the region.
“The regulated use of nutrient-rich, organic biosolids agricultural fertilizers have demonstrated improved production of agricultural products while meeting all applicable scientifically based federal and state environmental and health standards,” states the resolution.
In 2011, the State Water Control Board approved several biosolids regulation revisions, among which were stipulations that no application may occur within 400 yards of schools and hospitals or 100 yards of surface waters, unless 35 feet of vegetation is present as a buffer.
Regulations also hold that landowners must wait at least three years before reapplying biosolids. When asked if he would protest any future reapplications in his neighborhood, Lytle demurred.
“I’m extremely frustrated with my experiment in citizen action,” said Lytle, noting a resistance both with ReCyc Systems and the county to respond to his efforts. “I don’t think I’ll fight it again.”