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 neighboring counties.

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 wastewater treatment.

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 requirements.

Citizen Groups

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 chain.
  • 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.

Expert Panel

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 environment?
  • Are they also found in "clean" water discharged from wastewater treatment plants?
  • Can they be transported up the food chain?

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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