Pa. farmer is mystified by fight against sludge

March 04, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

Paul Martin, a lifelong Mercersburg-area farmer, said Monday he doesn't know why so many residents are up in arms because he spreads sewage sludge over his fields instead of chemical fertilizers.

It saves him money, he said.

"I don't think I could stay in business if I didn't have it," said Martin, 66, who has been working his family farm along Pa. 75 in Montgomery Township since he was 16. His father farmed it before him.

The biosolids - what's left after treatment of raw sewage in treatment plants - don't cost Martin anything. The company he gets it from spreads it on his fields and plows his ground for him, both of which save him money.


Spreading biosolids has been an approved practice in Pennsylvania since the 1970s. New regulations took effect in the 1980s.

More than 40 Franklin County farms have been identified as permitted sites to accept treated sludge as fertilizer, said Thomas Sweeney, one of two biosolids coordinators in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's southcentral region office in Harrisburg, Pa.

Sweeney inspects treatment plants and issues permits to companies that haul the sludge and apply it on farmers' fields.

Altogether, more than 700 farms in the EPA's southcentral region use biosolids for fertilizer, Sweeney told about 100 area residents Monday night in Montgomery Township. The township supervisors invited him to speak at the session so residents could hear Sweeney explain the EPA's position on biosolids - a practice that appears to be getting more and more controversial, at least in southern Franklin County.

Residents said they were concerned about the safety of the sludge, which contains some heavy metals, about airborne pathogens when the sludge dries out and about their property values.

One man told Sweeney the value of his property has dropped by 75 percent since a neighboring farmer started spreading biosolids.

Sweeney said the EPA investigates all complaints on health issues surrounding the spreading of sludge. So far, he said, such investigations have shown no connection between the sludge and reported illnesses.

Until 1993, much of the nation's sewage sludge was dumped at sea, especially by cities along both coasts. The federal government ended the practice in 1993. Since then, more and more is ending up on farmers' fields.

Sweeney said the only other approved methods for getting rid of it is in landfills or incineration, which is not available in Pennsylvania.

The state's regulations are stricter than those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Sweeney said. He said there were benefits and risks in the practice.

"The risks can be managed," he said.

The residents weren't having any of it. They expressed their fears about what the sludge would do their health, property and community.

Scott Blanchard of adjoining Peters Township, chairman of the Coalition of Residents Organized for Political Self Expression (CROP), a citizens opposition group organized to fight the spreading of sludge, said many farmers refuse to use it because of the dangers involved.

Another man said pathogens produced by the sludge will mean that there is "a 100 percent chance that people in this room will get sick. It's just a matter of time."

"You're jeopardizing our lives," a woman told Sweeney.

Martin, who milks 55 cows on the 425 acres of farmland owned by his family, said Synagro Mid-Atlantic of Whiteford, Md., is licensed to spread sludge on 250 acres of his land. He showed several areas on his farm Monday where some of the material is being stored until the fields are ready to receive it.

"You can't spread it within 300 feet of a property line or a well or within 100 feet of a stream," Martin said.

Martin said he's been spreading biosolids on his farm for five years.

"No one complained until now," he said. "I feel this is a lot safer than spreading chemical fertilizer and it's better than cow manure. With biosolids, you get organic matter and that's important to a farmer. This is the best thing I've ever used."

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