Alabama neighbors demand tougher rules on dumping sludge on land

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WIAT) — Neighbors in northern and central Alabama traveled to Montgomery Thursday to ask state leaders for tougher rules to govern the spraying of sludge on state land.

The controversial practice involves applying biosolids, often sourced from waste processors who offer them to farmers as a cheap alternative to fertilizer. Sludge can come from sewage treatment plants.

A public hearing was held Thursday morning at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management as the agency considers rule changes.

A dozen residents and environmental activists made the trip to share their concerns with other citizens invited to submit comments online.

“Chicken sludge, sewage sludge and other wastes that are applied under these regulations to our farmland contain a cocktail of chemicals that we believe and science shows are harmful to the human health and the environment,” said Jack West, director of policy and advocacy at the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

The Alabama Rivers Alliance and Black Warrior Riverkeeper both had representatives who spoke out against sludge spraying.

Other responders lived near dumps and complained of unexplained health issues. Fears about the impact on soil, water, crops and wildlife were shared by many people who approached ADEM.

“In 2019, they spread sludge north and south of our house. Sure, the smell was bad, but what about our drinking water? asked Julie Lay, who lives in Marshall County.

Concerned about chemicals such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), West urged ADEM leaders to adopt rules to screen and test biosolids for high levels of PFAS, noting that other states had prohibits or restricts the use of certain sludges.

“PFAS, or forever the chemicals, which don’t break down in nature, don’t break down in the human body, concentrate in these waste sludges and sewage sludge and chicken sludge,” said said West.

ADEM adopted rules for biosolids in 2020. The agency said biosolids previously fell under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Since the rules were adopted, there have been reports of land application of biosolids.

“It looks like we have more farmers looking to take advantage of this, probably due to higher fertilizer prices and things like that,” said Stephen Cobb, head of ADEM’s lands division.

Since the rules were adopted in 2020, Cobb said the agency continues to learn more about the types of material coming in, where it’s being applied and what’s getting the most complaints.

“We will continue to assess the things that were raised today and the things that we discover as we move forward with the rules, but we are certainly looking at a gradual increase in the strictness of the coverage of these rules” , Cobb said.

Cobb said ADEM is aware that PFAS levels are a concern nationwide. The agency is working with the EPA for guidance.

“We all gain experience by learning with this. We are working with the EPA and collectively all of the states, to get better information on appropriate levels, restrictions in place, there are currently no regulations at the federal level, so we are working with the EPA as those regulations need to be identified on a national basis,” Cobb said.

According to Cobb, beneficial uses of the biosolid material, which may have nutritional value, can reduce the amount of byproduct that will go to landfills.

“Disposal in the landfill creates problems in the landfill itself, so try to balance those things, what’s the best use of the material, what’s the best way to deal with the materials and we keep learning, we keep grow,” Cobb said.

Neighbors often complained about the smell of the sludge spray. While some farmers accept the product for the land, it can create a stench for surrounding landowners.

“We can’t regulate good neighborhood practices, but communication between the user and neighbors is key,” Cobb said.

Cobb said ADEM does not regulate odors, but the department tries to ensure odors are kept to a minimum with best management practices.

Waste companies received violations for the practice and at Thursday’s hearing, neighbors asked ADEM to toughen enforcement.

“We need a real ceasefire, real administrative penalties, for the industry to understand that you can’t just ship it to Alabama, maybe get a notice of violation, maybe get a cease and desist, but keep doing it and just pay the penalty and it’s cheaper to do business that way than to dispose of it properly in their state,” West said.

In the proposed new guidelines, ADEM has created new standards and procedures for operating criteria for food processing residues and food processing residue treatment ponds.

Lay was happy to hear about the proposed requirements for poultry sewage sludge, but still doesn’t believe waste handlers should apply the material near farmland.

“They should find good ways to manage their own waste and be held accountable for it instead of spreading it on farmland,” Lay said.

West and Lay thought some of the proposed new restrictions were a step in the right direction, but hope ADEM will consider comments and concerns expressed on Thursday.

According to Cobb, ADEM will consider the feedback and comments submitted before making a recommendation on possible rule changes to the environmental commission. He estimated that the process could take 1 to 3 months.


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