HJR 118/SJR 117: Commission on the
Future of Virginia’s Environment
June 18, 2002
In its second meeting to focus solely on
the issue of the land application of biosolids, the commission heard various
perspectives, including local governments, biosolids contractors, farmers,
the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and citizen groups.
The meeting also featured a panel discussion with two scientists.
Local Government Perspectives
At the commission’s May 28 meeting, the
Spotsylvania County attorney said that a county ordinance requiring a
special use permit for the land application of Class B biosolids is currently
the subject of litigation before the circuit court. Spotsylvania favors
the use of Class A biosolids and applies them on county lands. Also, the
county interprets the Virginia Supreme Court opinion in Blanton v.
Amelia County (2001) to allow localities to enact biosolids ordinances,
as long as they are not inconsistent with state law.
The Rappahannock County Administrator explained
that his county is concerned with groundwater resources because 96 percent
of its citizens depend on private water supplies. Land application has
been banned in the county since 1985 due primarily to concern that the
water will become polluted. This position by the board has been supported
during local elections, and the board has defended itself in state and
federal courts. Based on a visit to Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plan
in the District of Columbia, a major biosolids exporter to Virginia, the
board believes that current controls and safeguards are completely inadequate.
Board members support SB 618 (a 2002 General
Assembly measure that would grant localities the authority to ban the
application of biosolids) because they feel they are best qualified to
make judgments in Rappahannock County. In response to a question from
the commission, the administrator replied that most of the biosolids produced
in Rappahannock County are landfilled, while the remainder is sent to
The Director of Public Utilities in Henrico
County spoke on behalf of a group of wastewater treatment plants. He asserted
that plants produce safe Class B biosolids for land application in Henrico
County. The Class B biosolids program costs $15 per ton at the wastewater
treatment plant, while a Class A program would cost $60 per ton—an increase
of $1.35 million per year for the county. This increased cost is due to
more treatment, not necessarily more technology.
Random monitoring for trace elements of
concern has resulted in civil and criminal penalties for lack of compliance,
including the prosecution of eight cases in Henrico County. The director
explained the wastewater treatment process as a biological process. Once
wastewater reaches the water reclamation plant, sludge is removed and
sent to a Class B treatment facility, where an anaerobic treatment kills
most pathogenic microorganisms. The sludge is then sent to a centrifuge
to spin out the water. Regulations require testing for nine trace elements.
He said that testing shows that these elements are reduced to levels well
below those required by the EPA and that years of empirical data show
no documented evidence of illness attributable to personnel working around
The director of water quality from the Hampton
Roads Sanitation District explained that land application keeps county
sewage costs down. Incinerator costs would be $5–$30 million, prohibitive
for small communities, and the cost to landfill would be approximately
double that of land application. Based on the 700,000 tons of biosolids
land-applied in Virginia, this practice saves $23 million annually, savings
that are passed on to citizens. He said the cost to land-apply is $27
per ton and to landfill, $60 per ton.
Regarding environmental impact, the director
asserted that fields with sludge application have less runoff than those
using chemical fertilizers. He said biosolids application minimizes nutrient
runoff, reduces the environmental impact of chemicals, restores organic
matter, and helps sustain open space. He added that there are no health
concerns at their facilities. As for agricultural impact, the director
explained that land applied with biosolids can result in as much as a
20 bushels per acre increased corn yield compared with chemical fertilizers.
The director of environmental services at
the Alexandria Sanitation Authority addressed public concern regarding
heavy metals and cited a recent Penn State study confirming that sludge
is good for crops. Regarding organic compounds, she cited an EPA release
saying that based on dioxin data availability, there is no risk caused.
As for pathogens and illness, she discussed site practices, saying that
risks with Class B biosolids could be reduced if site practices are followed.
Odors are not regulated, but the USDA is sponsoring research regarding
odor control. She said that better collaboration between federal and state
agencies is needed and "we need to work towards equitable solutions that
would allow biosolids application." In response to a questions from the
commission, the director explained that Alexandria land-applies 100 percent
of its biosolids.
Land Application Process
An industry representative explained the
biosolids application process. The applicators contract with the generating
localities and the farmers. The generators are responsible for the condition
of the material to be land-applied. There is a complex process guided
by detailed state and federal regulations that require permitting, site
evaluation, sample analysis, preparation of sites such as marking off
buffers, working with the local governments, getting agreement from owners,
and finally doing the application.
The material is applied by manure spreader
for crops; for hay or no-till or pastures it is spread on top of the soil.
The applicator then follows up with reports to the Health Department.
Responsibility for complying with the regulations exists with the applicators.
There is currently three times as much land permitted than is actually
being used for application. In response to a commission member asking
if the contractors’ biggest concern is 130 different regulations or living
with regulations on a statewide basis, he said regulations must be at
the state level in order to have consistency. The industry representative
then asked why local control is needed to protect the environment from
biosolids when local control has not been needed to control the application
of other elements such as pesticides. He said there are no other environmental
programs, such as air pollution or pesticides, where the state allows
the localities to decide what the local requirements will be. State code
expressly prohibits localities from regulating pesticides, which are more
dangerous than biosolids.
A commission member suggested that areas
near subdivisions zoned A1 should not have biosolids applied on them.
The industry representative responded that "if biosolids are not safe,
then we should not use them, period." He said that the burden of proof
should be on the people who say biosolids are not safe, and they should
present their case to the VDH to have biosolids banned. Or, he said, they
should prepare a request for rulemaking and seek to change the regulations.
The local governments have zoning authority and contractors are more than
willing to work on addressing these conflicts with zoning. Biosolids contractors
oppose giving the localities the authority to make their own biosolids
ordinances and ask that regulations be kept at the state level like all
other environmental programs.
Sludge Nutrient Management Plan
The Soil and Water Conservation Division
director from DCR spoke on nutrient pollution and management as they relate
to land application of biosolids. He explained that nitrogen and phosphorus
fertilize algae growth, reducing water clarity and endangering fish habitat.
Ground water and surface water present additional nitrate concerns. The
goal is to use nutrients to the maximum extent possible, while also protecting
the ground water. This concept applies to chemical fertilizer, manure
and biosolids. DCR has trained and certified more than 350 nutrient management
consultants, one-third of whom are government employees.
The director explained the importance of
restricting fall and winter applications of biosolids. He said these times
are particularly prone to runoff and leaching of nutrients from biosolids
and recommended requiring nutrient management plans (NMPs), currently
required in about 20 percent of all sites, for all application sites.
In contrast, he said that enforceable NMPs are required for manure applications
on all confined animal farms that must have waste permits (1,300 permits
in Virginia). In response to a question from the commission, the director
said that the land application buffers DCR requires are for water quality
and that they work toward consistency with VDH regulations (50 feet for
surface waters). Site specific conditions might cause alterations to this
standard, and he added that nutrient management plans do not impact buffer
Representatives of the Northumberland Association
For Progressive Stewardship (NAPS) Sewage Sludge Study Group expressed
a variety of health and safety concerns, and said the Northumberland County
Board of Supervisors, using federal and state standards as minimum guidelines,
should maintain tight controls over the land application of biosolids.
Three other NAPS representatives testified:
- A physician expressed concern over substances
that may be present in biosolids but are not monitored, such as antibiotics,
hormones and antineoplastics. By remaining in biosolids, these chemicals
can be subject to plant and animal uptake and thereby enter the food
- A geologist and professor at the University
of Texas said that, because the Chesapeake Bay is impaired for both
nitrogen and phosphorous, it is critical that nutrient management plans
for both nitrogen and phosphorous be mandated.
- The founder of the SAIF Water Committee
presented the group’s concerns over the danger to shallow wells from
the current 100-foot buffer zone for biosolids. The buffer zone is applied
without regard to the type of well or the state of its construction.
The chairman of the Biosolids Study Group
expressed serious concerns over the odors and health risks posed by land
application of biosolids.
Two professors from Virginia colleges briefed
the commission on their latest studies involving biosolids. Dr. Robert
Hale, from the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine
Science, reported his findings and concerns.
Due to the presence of a variety of chemicals
found in high levels in sludge, Dr. Hale expressed his concern with the
accepted status quo of the land application of sewage sludge. EPA last
reported on sewage sludge in 1993, using data collected from 1989. He
believes the EPA standards and risk assessment are flawed and need to
be updated with current information and researched further. However, even
if more research is conducted, "everything literally in the kitchen sink
ends up in biosolids," and the danger many of these chemicals may pose
to people, fish, or other animals is unknown. Dr. Hale informed the commission
that the National Academy of Sciences was reviewing EPA’s sewage sludge
standards and would be issuing a final report in the beginning of July.
In response to Dr. Hale’s comments, Dr.
Gregory Evanylo from Virginia Tech said that he believes that Class B
sewage sludge is reasonably safe when properly treated and applied according
to regulations. He added that no activity is 100 percent safe. He raised
many questions, such as:
- If contaminants are present in sewage
sludge, are they necessarily present at dangerous levels?
- Are they not found elsewhere in the
- Are they also found in "clean" water
discharged from wastewater treatment plants?
- Can they be transported up the food
Dr. Evanylo said that if there are dangerous
levels of compounds present in biosolids, they should be stopped at the
source, not at the end of the process.
In response to a question regarding the
levels of contaminants found in sludge, and whether the issue of biosolids
has improved over the years, Dr. Hale said that it is important to know
all the chemicals found in the sludge and how they interact before making
an assessment as to whether the dosage of one known contaminant poses
an acceptable risk. Dr. Hale said that the EPA has reported that heavy
metal concentrations have decreased in biosolids, but he has found that
the levels of other chemicals are increasing.
Chairman Bolling announced the appointment
of a biosolids subcommittee that will meet over the summer to develop
a recommendation for the full commission in September. A public hearing
will then be held in October.
The Hon. William T. Bolling
For information, contact:
Jeffrey S. Gore
Division of Legislative Services
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