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State has most control of biosolids

Q: I read that a Richmond company plans to ship biosolids from Washington, D.C., and dump them in Cumberland County. What precisely are biosolids and what are the potential risks to our health?

Nutri-Blend Inc. could soon apply biosolids across several parcels of property in Cumberland County.

The Richmond-based firm has applied for the modification of its existing Virginia Pollution Abatement (VPA) permit through the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to add a total of 3,947.85 acres. The DEQ supervises the permitting process of biosolids.

Biosolids — the solid, semisolid or liquid materials removed from municipal sewage and treated to be suitable for recycling as fertilizer — has been applied on thousands of acres of farms and open land across Virginia for many years.

According to DEQ, as fertilizer, biosolids are used to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth.

“The use of biosolids is subject to the Virginia DEQ regulatory requirements that exist to help keep rivers, lakes, streams, bays and groundwater clean; protect plants; and prevent the transmission of diseases,” officials said on the agency’s website.

According to DEQ, biosolids are most often applied to hay, pasture, forests and crops grown for grain such as corn and wheat.

“In order to prevent bacterial contamination of food crops, like vegetables, there are restrictions on when these types of crops can be grown in a field that has received biosolids. In addition, livestock is not allowed to graze pastures where biosolids have been applied for at least 30 days,” officials said on the website.

“Since Virginia’s standards are more strict, they supercede the federal standards,” said Mary Powell, Nutri-Blend’s operations manager. She said the firm contracts with wastewater treatment plants in Farmville, Richmond, Henrico, Washington, D.C., Maryland and Chatham.

“Most of what we handle is in Virginia,” she said of collecting the product for biosolids.

Nutri-Blend, she said, like other companies that apply biosolids, is required to have nutrient management plans on any farm where biosolids are spread, for which the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation is responsible.

According to Cumberland County Administrator and Attorney Vivian Seay Giles, localities do not have control over biosolid application, but do have the ability to provide input during DEQ’s permitting process.

“They can hire a local monitor who can go out to the sites,” Powell said of county control. “That’s sort of up to the localities on a case-by-case basis. Some do. Some are comfortable with the regulatory oversight since the DEQ is broken down into areas, there are different people from different DEQ offices that are assigned to specific areas.”

According to DEQ, between 2008-2013, an average of 220,000 dry tons of biosolids were applied annually to approximately 65,000 acres of permitted land application sites in Virginia. “There are 7.89 million acres of cropland, pastureland and woodland on Virginia farms, and biosolids (were) used on less than 1 percent of this area. In comparison, commercial fertilizer was used on more than 1.9 million acres and animal manure on more than 363,000 acres.”

According to the Bioscience Resource Project, an organization that conducts scientific research and analysis, the risk assessment of biosolids is “complex” because it “contains highly varied amounts of organic chemicals, toxic metals, chemical irritants and pathogens.”

“Furthermore, the effects of their interactions, long-term buildup in soils, leaching into waterways and uptake into crops and the food system have not been well-studied,” researchers write. “Thus, little is known about the long-term human health and ecological consequences of sludge application. There is, however, clear scientific documentation of the sometimes deadly direct human health consequences of land application.”

DEQ asserts that with environmental regulations designed to reduce concerns about the effects many activities may have on people’s health and the environment, “the current biosolids rules address the potential concerns of impacts on surface water and groundwater, harmful effects on plants and transmission of disease.”

Localities are empowered by state law with “the ability to employ an individual that monitors the use of biosolids to ensure state and federal requirements are met, just like a Virginia DEQ biosolids specialist.”