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Virginia Is Creating New Guidelines For Use Of Sewage As Fertilizer

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The use of biosolids in Virginia farms has some residents worried.
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The use of biosolids in Virginia farms has some residents worried.

Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality is working on new guidelines for how biosolids can be used. In the meantime, some farm neighbors are uneasy.

Carrsbrook is a leafy neighborhood in Charlottesville. Homes here, built in the '60s and '70s, routinely sell for more than $350,000. It's a short drive to the airport and the shopping mall, but every so often a truck will come through, pulling some kind of farming equipment.

That's because Carrsbrook is adjacent to 88 acres of agricultural land. From his backyard, Ray Caddell has a clear view of the property. It's in a flood plain where nothing can be built, so the owners lease it to a farmer and take an agricultural tax credit, which was fine with Cadell until three years ago, when he saw a sign announcing biosolids would be applied. It was not a term he knew.

"Turns out it's just a polite word for sewage sludge," he says.

Caddell didn't think it was right to be bringing human waste from a treatment plant in Washington, D.C., into a residential area.

"Night after night after night and all weekend long, there are hundreds and hundreds of children playing soccer right there [at the Soccer Organization of Charlottesville-Albemarle]," he says.

The first time biosolids were applied, Caddell's daughter started having more frequent asthma attacks, and his wife developed a cough that lasted months. Doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong, and Caddell wondered if dangerous components of biosolids might get into drinking water or the corn grown in that field. By law, the farmer had to mix biosolids into the ground within 48 hours, so the smell wasn't a big problem, but other rules gave him pause. If it's so safe, he wondered, why can't cattle graze on a piece of treated land for a month? Why can't farmers plant root vegetables in treated fields for three years, and why is this whole business regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?

"EPA Part 503 regulations were among the most stringent regulations that EPA had on the books," says Greg Evanylo, a professor of environmental sciences at Virginia Tech.

Evanylo has been studying biosolids since 1975, and so have many other scientists concerned about safety.

"Fourteen different pathways were assessed to animals, to water sources, to human beings, to plants, for the movement of over 350 of the most common substances that might appear in biosolids," he says.

Where the EPA saw any real risks, it drafted regulations to reduce them. Biosolids may also contain heavy metals, like mercury, copper or lead, industrial wastes, pharmaceuticals and hormones excreted by humans. Research suggests levels are very low, and in some cases less prevalent than in our homes.

"These kinds of materials are found in toothpastes, in our shampoos, in our carpets, as flame retardants in computers and curtains, and so what gets placed onto soil seems to be relatively harmless," Evanylo says.

Still, the state is formulating new rules for the application of biosolids. Albemarle County Board President Ann Mallek, herself a farmer, says it's about time.

"The state does not require, in my mind, sufficient testing to really identify what is in there and the amounts that are in there. And I've known too many times over the last 62 years when the government has said, 'Oh this is fine,' and then 10 years later, it's not fine at all," she says.

While the experts debate the relative safety of fertilizing with biosolids, there is widespread agreement that scientists must keep an eye on possible harmful effects, and government must keep an eye on the science.

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