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Sewer sludge could go to farms

November 17, 1997

Sewer sludge could go to farms

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

By next July, 3,700 tons of sludge could be coming to farm fields near you.

Washington County officials are considering spreading sludge generated in its sewage treatment plants on local farms instead of hauling it to the county landfill.

Water and Sewer Director Greg Murray said it will save taxpayers about $90,000 a year. Farmers also will benefit from the sludge because it can replace other fertilizers.

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Murray said the county now dumps the treated sludge at the Washington County Sanitary Landfill on Resh Road at a cost of about $220,000 a year.

He said the county could contract with a private firm to store, manage and dump the sludge. Murray estimated that would save $25 a ton, or about $90,000, compared to putting the sludge in the landfill.

"It's a very high-grade, stable, organic fertilizer. When it goes into the landfill you take up valuable landfill space and you lose all the beneficial qualities," Murray said.

Sludge application has been pushed hard by County Commissioners Vice President John S. Shank and R. Lee Downey, both farmers and developers. Shank said it saves money for the farmers and doesn't smell as bad as hog manure or fermented cow manure.

About 4,400 tons of sludge were dumped on county land in 1995, according to Martha Hynson, head of the sewage sludge program at the Maryland Department of the Environment. Hynson said 1,800 acres on 20 farms in the county are permitted to accept sludge.

Donald Schwartz, Washington County Cooperative Extension Agent, said plowing sludge into fields makes sense when it's done right.

"Mother Nature is still the recycling point as long as we can properly manage those nutrients," he said.

"You're saving our landfill space, and you are providing nutrients to continue to grow crops that go back into our food chain. Some folks are going to get all bent - 'Oohh, sludge is all dirty.' I wish people would get out of that mindset," he said.

Most people flush their toilets and don't think about what happens next, Schwartz said.

"The pelletized sludge from Hagerstown is the exact same stuff. It's still going on land in Washington County. It's just that we spent a lot of money to cook it and make it into cute little pellets," he said.

Hynson said the state "very intensely" regulates sludge spreading.

The sludge must be treated to kill most germs and viruses, she said.

"The risk is so low that it's basically no risk. We have not known of any health problems or environmental problems from the use of a treated sludge," she said.

Hynson said buffer zones from water supplies are required, and everything from the slope of the land to the type of crop and the quality of the soil must be approved.

Hynson said 86 percent of the 950,000 tons of sludge generated in the state each year is spread on land.

Some county residents said they think the county should be very careful in its sludge application plans.

Betty Beeler of Hancock said she's concerned about the sludge getting into wells and harming the environment and that she doesn't trust the government.

"I know we've got to do something with it. It's not like this stuff is going to go magically away," she said. Beeler said she'd like to see the sludge microwaved until it is sterilized before it's spread on fields.

Clear Spring farmer Jack Manuel lives near one farmer who did apply sludge and said he's not convinced that the process is safe.

Manuel also said the sludge smells terrible. "It was a sickening type smell. It penetrated into your clothing."

Hynson said MDE can order the farmers to take measures such as applying lime to minimize odors.

"I think it's probably a pretty good idea," said Commissioner James R. Wade. But Wade said the commissioners probably should hold a public hearing on the issue.

"It could be the safest thing in the world but if the perception is that it's bad then you are not going to be able to do that," he said.

"I'm not against sludge that's generated in Washington County and that has Washington County farmers using it," said Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers.

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