By Sean Tubbs
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Tractor-trailers from Washington’s Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant drove through the Carrsbrook neighborhood of Albemarle County Tuesday on their way to deposit several tons of treated human waste on a farm that borders the South Fork of the Rivanna River.
For hours, crews sprayed the material into the air to cover a large portion of the 88-acre property, which is owned by Jane C. Williamson. Steam rose from the material as it came into contact with the ground and the humid air.
At least one neighbor was angered by the application.
“This is not a 10,000 acre farm in the middle of Kansas,” said Ray Caddell, who lives next to the farm. “This piece of property is in the growth area, on the banks of the South Fork of the Rivanna River, and it’s in a flood plain.”
Caddell said he is not bothered by the smell from the human waste, but is concerned about the potential health effects. The last time the material was spread on the farm was in 2008. Afterwards, he said his wife developed a cough that lingered that entire summer.
“It went away soon after the first hard frost,” Caddell said.
The practice of applying Class B biosolids on farms is regulated by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. ReCyc Systems of Culpeper holds a permit allowing them to apply the material to 6,438 acres in Albemarle County. They are paid by wastewater treatment plants to remove sewage solids while depositing it for free on the lands of willing farmers and property owners.
| Source: Daily Progress/Ross Bradley
One of the witnesses to Tuesday’s application was County Supervisor Rodney Thomas. He said he is a supporter of the practice, but has had concerns about it being applied within the county’s growth area and along the river.
“We all support farming and agriculture, and this is part of it,” Thomas said.
“They are obviously meeting all the criteria that they have to at this point,” he added.
Thomas said his concerns about potential effects on health were allayed when he spoke with an inspector from the DEQ and found out that the material had been treated with lime.
“What lime stabilization does is raise the material’s pH above 7, therefore killing any pathogens,” said Carl Tinder, a farmer who rents the land from Williamson. He will plant No. 2 yellow corn later this year, but added it will not be used directly for human consumption.
Tinder feels confident enough in biosolids to have applied them twice at his own house in Albemarle and plans to do so again next year. He said the practice is well-regulated and pointed out the DEQ only allows the fields to receive biosolids every three years.
“There’s not a study out there that shows a negative health risk associated with the spread of biosolids,” Tinder said.
| Caddell said his only notification was this small green sign placed at the farm's entrance at the end of Dover Road
Nevertheless, Caddell is convinced the source of his family’s illness is the material’s application.
“You cannot draw a straight line between my wife’s six-month cough [and biosolids],” Caddell said. “But it started the day they put it down.”
Authority over biosolids was transferred from the Virginia Department of Health to the DEQ in 2007. Soon after, a panel of experts studied the issue and concluded that the practice was safe according to contemporary science. However, it did sound a cautionary note.
“While the current scientific evidence does not establish a specific chemical or biological agent cause-effect link between citizen health complaints and the land application of biosolids, the Panel does recognize that some individuals residing in close proximity to biosolids land application sites have reported varied adverse health impacts,” reads the report.
Still, two members of the panel issued a dissenting opinion that said the DEQ needed to prove that the use of biosolids was safe and to regulate it even further.
One of those dissenters was Henry Staudinger, an attorney from Shenandoah County. He became involved with the issue in 1995 when he took ill after biosolids were applied next to his home.
“Everybody says that there’s no scientific connection between illnesses and [biosolids] but what they don’t tell you is that they make it impossible to make the scientific connection because they don’t test what’s in it,” Staudinger said.
“They test for fecal coliform, they test for a few heavy metals and they test for nutrients,” Staudinger said. “They don’t test for anything else that’s in there. There could be 65,000 or more different things in there.”
In July 2010 , researchers at the University of Toledo studied the degree to which soybean plants drew in contaminants, like pharmaceuticals, which are found in wastewater and biosolids. The study showed that chemicals did accumulate in plant tissues. However, reviewers of the research said the study had limitations and further research is recommended to fully assess the risks of human exposure.
In January 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency released a study that found there were 145 known pollutants in biosolids, including steroids, hormones and heavy metals. That research is ongoing.
Jane C. Williamson wrote to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday saying she made the decision to allow biosolids on her land after careful consideration.
“Not one other person in my neighborhood of [more than] 150 households has made a similar complaint, even though many of them use our field on a regular basis to walk, jog, fish, pick blackberries, ride bicycles and exercise their dogs, their children and their houseguests,” Williamson wrote in an email obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Responding to concerns about being so close to the river, Williamson said the Rivanna is protected by previous land-management decisions.
“All the waterways that abut this property are buffered by wide strips of land that have either been left wild… or have been planted with 850 hardwood trees,” she added.
The Albemarle supervisors are expected to discuss the matter at their meeting today.