Lower Mount Bethel Township farms to use treated sewage waste as fertilizer despite concerns

Lower Mount Bethel Township farms to use treated sewage waste as fertilizer despite concerns

Source: http://www.lehighvalleylive.com, January 9, 2012
By: Andrew George

While Lower Mount Bethel Township supervisors aren’t necessarily pleased about sludge coming to township farms, there’s really not a lot they can do about it.

Several township farmers approached the Lower Mount Bethel Township Board of Supervisors last week to inform members of their plans to begin using sludge, also known as biosolids, as fertilizer on their farms.

Sludge is a treated byproduct of sewage and human waste broken down into small pellets that are distributed to farmers for use as fertilizer.

Several township supervisors are worried about the lasting effects that sludge might have on their community.

Supervisor Howard Klein, who also farms land in the township, is worried that if sludge fertilizer is introduced to the area’s soil, contamination may follow. He notes that if sewage waste cannot be dumped into the oceans, it shouldn’t be allowed on farmland.

“If it is illegal to dump sewage, solid waste and now biosolids in the ocean, where it has created large dead zones, why would I ever put it on our soil?” Klein said. Soil is “a natural resource, part of our food chain. It makes no sense to me.”

Klein added that the landscape of the township would be forever changed if biosolids made their way onto its farms.

“Beautiful Lower Mount Bethel Township will become a chemical landfill, full of pathogens, hospital waste and terrible odors,” Klein said. “It stinks.”

For most farmers, sludge is a cheaper alternative to traditional fertilizers. Synagro, the largest wastewater treatment corporation in the country, plans on supplying township farmers with sludge for free.

The use of sludge fertilizer is approved and monitored by environmental agencies across the country, including the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Departments of Environmental Protection.

Colleen Connolly, a Pennsylvania DEP spokeswoman, said the use of biosolids is acceptable and safe, and she had not heard of any complaints from farmers in northeastern Pennsylvania who have been using it as fertilizer.

Connolly said the use of sludge on Pennsylvania farms dates to the 1970s, and while the the DEP approves and regulates its use, the department doesn’t push the fertilizer on anyone.

“That’s left up to the farmer,” Connolly said.

Before a farmer can use the product, Connolly said, he or she must obtain a permit for land use from the DEP. Then a monitoring schedule for the property is set up so that an official from the department can perform regular inspections.

Critics of sludge argue it carries a foul odor, contains harmful elements and can negatively affect an area’s property value and quality of life.

Darree Sicher, founder of the Kutztown-based United Sludge-Free Alliance, said that one of the most overlooked threats of using sludge as fertilizer is that human waste, including human feces, comes into contact with fruits and vegetables that are sold for human consumption.

“Introducing waste to our food and water source is one of the most harmful things we can do to our future,” Sicher said.

Sicher also criticized the practice as being a misleading way for larger surrounding and out-of-state municipalities such as New York City to get rid of their waste in a cost-effective way by sending it to Synagro to distribute as fertilizer to Pennsylvania farmers.

“Why should Pennsylvania’s new state motto be, ‘Come take a dump in Pennsylvania’?” Sicher asked.

Another negative aspect of allowing sludge fertilizer in a community is its effect on land value, Sicher said.

The use of sludge on personal or neighboring property is something that must be disclosed by Pennsylvania homeowners when selling their property, Sicher said.

Lower Mount Bethel Supervisor Kathy Davis said that while she isn’t necessarily for or against bringing in the fertilizing source to the township, she wants to make sure the final decision benefits the majority of residents.

“I just want to do my research,” Davis said. “I don’t want to base my judgment on what I’ve seen in other places. … We have a very intelligent board, (and) we will do what’s right for the community.”
Davis said she doesn’t want to thwart farmers’ efforts to begin using sludge, she just wants to make sure they are fully aware of what they’re doing prior to using it.

“I have the utmost respect for our farmers, and I really want them to be educated on this before they start doing this,” Davis said.
A major concern of the supervisors was the type of sludge that would be used by the township’s farmers.

Sludge fertilizer is classified as either Class A or Class B. Class A has been completely treated and tested for detectable levels of heavy metals and other pathogens while the latter may still contain some traces of pathogens.

While the supervisors worry about Class B sludge making its way onto township farms, township farmland owner and former Northampton County Councilman Ron Angle said the farmers will only be using Class A fertilizer.

“Class A and only Class A,” Angle said.

Angle is a supporter of bringing sludge fertilizer to the community’s farms because of its cost-effectiveness and he said the township should support the farmers’ wishes.

“Lower Mount Bethel Township has taken a position that it’s a farming community,” Angle said. “As part of that commitment, you have to make a commitment to the farmer.”
Township farmers Pete Kiefer and George Ott have also expressed their interest in using biosolids on their farms.

Supervisors, despite their concerns, might not be able to restrict the use of sludge fertilizer without opposition from the state.

In a WFMZ report on Dec. 27, residents of Lynn Township in Lehigh County were accusing a neighboring farm, which uses sludge fertilizer, of contaminating the water supply after traces of E. coli were found in the area’s wells.

While the township listened to its residents’ concerns in a meeting later that week, Lynn Township Manager Kevin Deppe said there was little that could be done because DEP regulations would override any municipal ordinance made against the usage of biosolids.

“The township really has no jurisdiction,” Deppe said. “If the township chooses to enact ordinances to restrict or lessen restrictions, DEP will see them in court.”

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