Unless you're a farmer or an avid gardener, you probably don't know much about fertilizers. You put some down and your lawn gets greener and your tomatoes bigger.
For people living next door to a farm field, fertilizers have become a worry as some farmers use treated human waste to enrich their soil.
Biosolids are the byproduct of treated sewage sludge. While treated liquids are released into creeks and rivers, something has to be done with the treated solids. Virginia farmers, who use pricey chemical fertilizer, are happy to get it for free. Last year, farms in more than half of Virginia's 133 localities applied biosolids to fertilize crops not consumed by humans such as pine tree farms or animal feed. Most of it comes from municipal sewage treatment plants in D.C. and Maryland.
David Hudnall farms about 3,000 acres in the Northern Neck of Virginia. "I tell you the truth it's got a use. I hate to see it dumped in a landfill," Hudnall says. "Cause it's gonna come back and haunt the future generations."
In 2008, Hudnall received the Clean Water Farm Award for his farming practices in preserving water quality. He's used biosolids on some of his fields and isn't a fan of the process. "It should be pelletized where we can spread it with our own equipment. The equipment they have is dated," Hudnall says. "They have to drive down the field one way and spread coming back and the whole time it's just packing the land up."
For most of us, the idea of spreading human waste for crops is counterintuitive. Of the two types of biosolids, Type A and B, Type B contains traces of pathogens that could cause pink eye, stomach flu and the common cold. So last year, the General Assembly directed it's independent, non-partisan research arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, to look into potential health effects.
Mark Gribbon led the project. "The case is pretty compelling that while there are things in biosolids that are harmful to people, the concentrations are pretty low and in most cases there is little risk that they are going to get to people," Gribbon says.
During application, when biosolids can become airborne, a person down wind, outside, and breathing in the material for several hours could be infected. "It looks like the state is doing an adequate job of regulating it," Gribbon says "but there were some places where it looks like there might be some changes to regulation to better protect public health. There's also some additional work that could be done to really verify that this is a safe practice."
Another concern is excess application of biosolids that can be washed into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Lynton Land is a geochemist who retired to the Northern Neck. He's an avid fisherman who grows
baby oysters to sell to local oyster gardeners. He says cheap fertilizers are killing the bay. "Economics is what drives all this," Land says. "Land application is touted to be cheapest because you're not paying an honest price for it. Pollution costs but nobody's paying for it."
Biosolids are controversial but the fact remains they are strictly regulated, unlike chicken litter that is readily used on farm fields in the Shenandoah Valley and around the Chesapeake Bay. While farmers are often blamed for summer dead zones in the bay, the Environmental Protection Agency has pointed to waterfront homeowners who dump too much fertilizer on their lawns.
David Hudnall says he's used to the accusations. "The only time they're not complaining about a farmer is in a snowstorm. That's when they're not complaining about farmers," Hudnall jokes. "They don't want to see us on a highway. They don't like the dust going across the highway. But they all want to eat good."
The General Assembly must now decide whether to act on the JLARC recommendations. Meanwhile, municipal sewage treatment plants like Washington D.C.'s Blue Plains Plant are upgrading, which will reduce pathogens and Type B biosolids.