HJR 118/SJR 117: Commission on the
Future of Virginia’s Environment
May 28, 2002
Chairman Bolling began the meeting
by announcing the adoption of a work plan derived from the public hearing
held by the commission on April 29, 2002. Both the May 28 and the June
18 meeting were dedicated to the issue of the land application of biosolids.
The purpose of the May 28 meeting of the commission was to provide education
and background on this issue.
Definition of Biosolids
The Virginia Department of Health
defines biosolids as a sewage sludge that has received an established
treatment for required pathogen control and is treated or managed to reduce
vector attraction to a satisfactory level and contains acceptable levels
of pollutants, such that it is acceptable for use for land application,
marketing or distribution in accordance with 12 VAC 5-585.
Senate Bill 618
Senate Bill 618 was referred
to the commission by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation
and Natural Resources during the 2002 Session of the General Assembly.
If enacted, SB 618 would grant localities the authority to ban the land
application of sewage sludge (biosolids) within its boundaries.
A representative from the Northumberland
County Board of Supervisors presented the bill to the committee on behalf
of its patron, Senator Creigh Deeds. The county supervisor characterized
SB 618 as "simple in nature and broad in scope" and emphasized the need
for clarification in state law so localities will know exactly what authority
they have in this area. He asserted that the bill would provide such clarity
and prevent further "regulation" of this issue by the court system. He
also questioned the ability of the Department of Health to effectively
oversee the land application of biosolids statewide with only two full-time
employees assigned to the statewide program.
Staff then provided a review
of state laws relating to the land application of biosolids. Any sewage
treatment facility that land-applies sewage sludge must obtain a permit
from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), while anyone
contracting with a sewage treatment plant to land-apply sewage sludge
must obtain a permit from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). The
VDH has promulgated regulations dealing with the land application, marketing
and distribution of sewage sludge pursuant to statutory authority.
The Virginia Right to Farm Act
prohibits local ordinances from requiring a special use permit for agricultural
practices in areas zoned for agriculture. The act specifically excludes,
however, the land application of sewage sludge from the agricultural practices
it protects from such local regulation. Similar language is also found
in the zoning statutes of the local government title.
In Blanton v. Amelia County
(2001), the Virginia Supreme Court held that a local ordinance prohibiting
the land application of sewage sludge was invalid due to its inconsistency
with state law. State law, the court held, expressly authorizes the land
application of biosolids conditioned upon the issuance of a permit. In
response to a question from the commission, staff explained that the court’s
decision in Blanton was limited to consideration of that particular
ordinance and that the court did not offer examples of local ordinances
that would be permissible. Staff then provided a brief analysis of other
states’ biosolids programs.
History of EPA Involvement
The EPA began an extensive research
and development program studying sewage sludge land application in the
1960s. Both the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the
Clean Water Act (CWA) emphasize the recycling or reuse of waste materials
whenever possible to divert such material away from landfills or to prevent
them from being destroyed in a manner that creates pollution in other
areas, such as incineration. In the late 1970s EPA worked with states
to develop guidelines for land application pursuant to the Part 257 rule
under RCRA and CWA. During this period, states were at the forefront in
issuing permits and tracking individual projects. In the early 1990s,
due in part to activity in the courts, EPA developed more comprehensive
sewage sludge standards under 40 CFR Part 503. Currently, EPA is in the
process of developing a comprehensive biosolids data management system
(BDMS) to track biosolids’ quantity, quality and practices.
In the 1970s a study of farm
families land-applying class B biosolids showed no adverse health effects.
Currently, EPA is in the process of studying dioxin and radiation levels
in sewage sludge. So far, problems in these areas appear to be site-specific
and formal guidance should be issued by the end of the calendar year.
Studies on the potential health concerns related to odors and bioaerosols
are being coordinated with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Also, the
National Academy of Sciences is currently reviewing the scientific methods
used in formulating the Part 503 standards 10 years ago.
40 CFR 503 addresses use and
disposal of sewage sludge. Today over half of the sewage sludge produced
is land-applied. EPA standards are minimum requirements and it is not
unusual for states to implement stricter standards. The federal rules
are self-implementing; therefore no federal permit is required to land-apply.
Nothing in Part 503 directs local facilities to incinerate or land-apply,
which leaves the method of sludge disposal a state or local option. Part
503 standards include sludge quality requirements concentrating on nine
heavy metals and field loading limits (at agronomic rates), vector attraction
reduction requirements, management practices dealing with nitrogen levels,
and record-keeping requirements. The federal rules distinguish between
class A (pathogens reduced to below detectable levels using specified
methods) and class B (significant reduction of pathogens combined with
site restrictions) biosolids. Pasteurization, heat drying and composting
are treatment methods used to reduce pathogen levels.
A two-year moratorium on land
application of biosolids was lifted in New York after a series of studies
was conducted. A number of counties in California have restrictions or
bans on land application. New York City and Boston both export sludge
to Colorado, where tipping fees are assessed. The EPA representative was
not aware of any states that have imposed a ban on this process.
The current EPA position is that
if applied in accordance with minimum 503 requirements, biosolids can
be safely applied. EPA views the states as having the lead in the implementation
of land application procedures.
The director of the Virginia
Department of Environmental Quality explained the department’s role in
the sewage sludge regulatory scheme. DEQ requires a Virginia Pollutant
Discharge Elimination System (VPDES) permit for any sewage treatment works
land-applying sewage sludge. Land application is by far the most utilized
method of sludge disposal pursuant to VPDES permits (as opposed to landfilling
or incineration). The plant owner (sludge generator) is responsible for
the quality of the sludge to be land-applied unless he contracts with
a land applicator.
Regulations provide sludge quality
standards and soil monitoring requirements for pathogens, metals, vector
attraction, nutrients, etc. Groundwater monitoring is required in locations
where sludge is applied more than once every three years. Sludge quality
data is made available to owners of the land where the sludge will be
applied, and notice is given to adjoining land owners. Other environmental
protections include buffer requirements (minimum distances from occupied
dwellings, wells, springs, property lines, roadways), slope restrictions
(must be less than 15 degrees), pH management requirements and storage
requirements. Such conditions are consistent with EPA standards. In response
to a question from the commission, the director explained that large wastewater
treatment plants (those treating over 1 million gallons of water a day,
of which there are 90–100 in Virginia) are required to provide annual
quality reports to DEQ, whereas smaller facilities are only required to
keep records on-site to be available for periodic inspections.
When properly applied and managed,
biosolids provide essential plant nutrients, enhance moisture retention,
improve soil fertility and productivity, reduce soil erosion and runoff,
and save diminishing landfill space.
The director of the Office of
Environmental Health Services at the VDH described that agency’s role
in the land application of biosolids.
- 50 percent of biosolids generated
in Virginia are land-applied, while the rest are either incinerated
(20 percent) or landfilled (30 percent).
- 50 percent of all biosolids
applied to land in Virginia comes from out of state.
- Since 1997, VDH has approved
more than 100 permits covering 300,000 acres, many of which are currently
due for re-issuance.
- Over 40,000 acres receive
- 42 counties contain permitted
- There are nine contractors
currently land-applying biosolids in Virginia.
- Biosolids contain nutrient-rich
organic material such as nitrogen and phosphorous, dry solids consisting
mostly of paper and hair fibers, trace elements from sewage, including
very low levels of toxic chemicals, and millions of microorganisms per
VDH quality control measures
include monitoring of trace elements and vector attraction and verification
of the treatment process. The biosolids program staff consists of one
scientist and two full-time engineers who visit generators both in and
out of state. VDH receives monthly reports on biosolids quality from generators,
through the contractors. In addition to the federal requirements of 40
CFR Part 503, VDH’s biosolids use regulations also require the contractor
(land applicator) to obtain a permit for each site. The permit application
must include a land owner/farmer agreement setting forth management practices
and nutrient management plans in some instances. Once issued, each permit
is valid for five years.
During the permit approval process,
VDH staff inspects each site. After land application, staff visits are
limited to investigating complaints (approximately two per month) and
routine inspections of approximately 12 sites per year. Most land application
sites only receive biosolids approximately once every three years. For
in-state generators of biosolids, VDH relies heavily on information obtained
from DEQ. For out-of-state generators (e.g., New York, New Jersey), VDH
staff visits those facilities to ensure compliance with Virginia’s quality
Notification and Public Comment
Once VDH approves a permit application,
VDH staff notifies other state agencies (DCR, Agriculture and Consumer
Services, and DEQ), the county administrator, and the county board chairman.
VDH then holds a public information meeting, which is advertised in local
newspapers. The contractor and farmer are often present, in addition to
VDH staff, to answer questions from the public regarding the proposed
use of biosolids. The most common complaints from the public are related
to odor and truck traffic.
Setbacks and Buffers
Biosolids must be applied at
least 100 feet from drinking water wells and 200 feet from occupied dwellings
(see Table 1). Other setbacks are site-specific, depending on slope and
other conditions. Setbacks from streams are at minimum 35 feet. When local
ordinances are more strict than the state regulations, VDH works with
the locality in establishing setback and buffer requirements. Commission
members questioned the enforceability of more stringent local ordinances
in light of the Blanton case. The department is considering a petition
submitted by biosolids contractors with regard to posting, notification
of surrounding land owners, advance notification to local governments,
and identification of contractor resources to ensure ability to deal with
any problems resulting from a land application. Contractors have requested
agency review of these issues as typical standards being enacted by some
Table 1: Buffer Zones
of sewage sludge shall not occur within the following minimum buffer
||Minimum Distance (feet)
to Land Application Area
wells and springs
streams and other surface waters except intermittent streams
drainage ditches with slopes equal to or less than 2.0%
VDH is in the process of finalizing
regulations that would impose a $2.50 fee per dry ton of land-applied
biosolids. These regulations stem from HB 2827 (2001), which allows the
department to collect this fee and reimburse localities for their testing
and monitoring costs.
The commission was slated to
hear from representatives of Spotsylvania, Rappahannock and Henrico Counties,
the Hampton Roads Sanitation District and Alexandria Sanitation Authority,
but time only allowed for the first presenter, while the others were asked
to speak at the June 18 meeting. Accordingly, a review of the Spotsylvania
County presentation will be included in the summary of the June 18 meeting
with the other local government presentations.
The Hon. William
Jeffrey S. Gore
Division of Legislative Services
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