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Treated waste on fields causes concern

January 20, 2003|by BONNIE HELLUM BRECHBILL

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - A large group of concerned citizens from Montgomery and Peters townships met with representatives of Synagro for more than two hours Saturday morning to discuss the agricultural use of treated waste.

Synagro, whose corporate office is in Houston, Texas, is a management company which is contracted by municipalities to recycle residuals from waste water treatment plants.

Waste from homes, hospitals, restaurants and businesses comes into the treatment plants as 99.9 percent water, said Sharon Hogan, public relations employee in Synagro's Baltimore office.

"It's concentrated to 2 to 4 percent solids and the water is squeezed out to create a cake, which looks like dairy manure," she said.

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The end product is spread on farmers' fields within a 50-mile radius of the waste water treatment plant.

Biosolids, as the end product is called, have to meet state and federal quality standards.

"They are tested and documented before being sent out for land application," Hogan said.

Biosolids are recycled for their nutrient value. Locally, they are spread on corn, soybean and wheat fields and on hay and pasture ground.

The biosolids spread locally are trucked in from Frederick, Md., and York, Pa., and spread at the rate of 30 tons to the acre.

Hogan cited scientific studies that indicate that biosolids are not harmful to human and animal health.

She said that although metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium are not broken down by bacteria, there are far fewer in biosolids than there were 20 years ago.

"Pennsylvania has a very clean biosolids product," she said.

The Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension Service estimates biosolids are worth $80 to $120 per acre in nutrient value. Synagro does not charge farmers for the biosolids or for their application.

A buffer area of 100 feet is maintained around wells, homes, streams and sinkholes, said Robert Weaver, Synagro technical service manager, who also spoke at the Saturday morning meeting at the Tuscarora Senior Center.

Eight farms in Franklin County have permits to use biosolids and three more are in the process of obtaining a permit, Weaver said. Farmers may store a three-month supply of biosolids on their farms when the weather is unfit for spreading. Five local farms do so.

Scott Blanchard of Greencastle countered much of what Weaver and Hogan said.

"My expertise is as a citizen," Blanchard said. "Last November, I was notified through the (Peters) Township Supervisors that 300 acres across the road from me was going to have biosolids spread on it."

He said he then researched the safety of such practices.

"Their livelihoods depend on getting farmers to take sludge," he alleged of companies like Synagro. "Rural America is becoming a dumping ground for biosolids. Waste water plants were designed to clean water, not produce something.

In his opinion, "Large cities aren't going to put it in their parks," Blanchard said. "It's human waste, folks."

Blanchard's biggest fear is that pathogens may be in biosolids.

"There's a reason they don't talk about pathogens," he said. "There are anecdotal allegations of disease (in humans). There is a critical need to update the scientific basis."

Blanchard said he had learned e-coli and legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaire's disease, have been linked to biosolids.

He emphasized that the farmer is not the bad guy in the biosolids debate, which he says is all about money. The end products of waste water treatment have to be disposed of, and it is prohibitively expensive to put them in landfills, he said.

"A sludge hauling company approaches the farmer and says, 'We've got a great deal for you. We'll spread the sludge for free, and you save on fertilizer and labor.' " Blanchard said.

He urged citizens to conduct research to get the whole story about biosolids.

"The real world is that you live under local government," he said, urging citizens to share their concerns with State Sen. Terry Punt and Del. Patrick Fleagle, both R-Waynesboro.

Several citizens shared their experiences with the odor of the biosolids and with practices they saw as violating farmers' conservation plans.

Scott Staley of Peters Township said one farm that has a permit in process was "practically underwater" three weeks ago.

"There were lakes out in the field" where biosolids will shortly be applied, Staley said.

He is also concerned about flies, insects and birds that are attracted to the biosolids coming on to neighboring property.

Sherri Moats of Mercersburg has a 7-year-old daughter and several horses. Her property is nearly surrounded by three farms that use biosolids.

"(Spreading biosolids on farmland) is a cheap way for the government to get rid of this," she said. "The quantity will catch up to us. What will this be in 10 or 15 years?"

Moats said she saw biosolids dumped into a pit on a farm near her before the farm's permit was issued. Synagro employee Weaver said the permit is to spread the biosolids, not to store them.

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