Rural lawmaker tilts at metro areas' sewage sludge
If it's bad for the Chesapeake Bay to spread poultry manure and other feritilizer on farm fields in winter, why is it okay to do the same with sewage sludge?
That's the question being posed by Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader, with a bill he's introduced in Annapolis. His bill, HB24, would require the Maryland Department of Agriculture to limit the application of sewage sludge in winter in the same way the spreading of animal manure is curtailed in cold-weather months.
The bill, which O'Donnell has put in before, has the backing of agricultural interests, who contend it's unfair to make farmers store their animals' manure in winter while allowing sewage sludge to be spread without the same restrictions.
But it's run into the usual buzzsaw of opposition from the county and municipal agencies that operate wastewater treatment plants. They argue that they have no place to store the accumulating sludge during winter, and that building storage faciilities or else putting the stuff in landfills for 3 1/2 months would jack up utility customers' water and sewer bills.
"The opposition seems to be concerned with costs of the landfill alternative, and therefore would rather apply it to potentially frozen ground," O'Donnell wrote in an email. "This is akin to potentially dumping this stuff directly into the bay."
O'Donnell, who represents Calvert and St. Mary's County, is not known as a green legislator. He has just an 18 percent lifetime score (out of 100) with the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, though his votes last year earned him a 38 percent rating.
On this issue, though, he's managed to get at least one environmental group - the Chesapeake Bay Foundation - on his side.
"This practice does not protect water quality," the Annapolis-based group said in its printed testimony submitted during the hearing on O'Donnell's bill earlier this month. While cities, towns and counties might have to invest in building sludge storage facilities, CBF says it's necessary to keep excess nutrients from treated sewage out of ground water, streams and the bay.
There's ample reason to restrict putting animal manure in farm fields in winter. Runoff of fertilizer is a major source of nitrogen and phosphorus fouling the bay. Maryland's poultry industry produces roughly 325,000 tons of "poultry litter" (chicken manure mixed with wood shavings) every year from the 292 million birds it raises, mainly on the Eastern Shore.
The state's wastewater treatment plants, though, produce more than 700,000 tons of sewage sludge annually, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. About 30 percent of the sludge - also rich in nutrients - gets spread on farm fields, with the rest hauled out of state, placed in landfills or other uses.
Under the state's nutrient management regulations, animal manure may not be applied on farm fields from mid-November through February except in certain cases. Different rules apply to sewage sludge, allowing it to be injected into the soil beneath the snow or spread on top of frozen ground under certain circumstances.
The state Department of the Environment does restrict the winter application of what it calls "Class B biosolids," or sewage sludge, according to a bill analysis by the Department of Legislative Services. Sludge spreading is prohibited if the ground is saturated, and if the ground is frozen the sludge is supposed to be injected into the soil. A minimum 400-foot setback is required from any well, stream or other property line.
Synagro, the company that handles much of the sewage sludge generated by the state's wastewater plants, argues that the current limitations are enough to protect water quality, and tightening them would undermine what it says is essentially recycling of organic material.
But state environmental officials acknowledge there is a higher risk that nitrogen and phosphorus will wash off farm fields into nearby streams if manure or sludge are placed on the ground in winter, as there's no crop growing then to soak up the nutrients. MDE says it has been talking with the state Department of Agriculture about amending the sludge regulations to tighten the limits on land application. For that reason, perhaps, MDE takes no position on O'Donnell's bill this year, after opposing it last year.
O'Donnell hasn't won over every environmentalist, though. Michael R. Helfrich, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, says he's all for tightening the rules regarding land application of sewage sludge. He says he's less than impressed with the diligence of the state Department of the Environment in overseeing this and other environmental laws and regulations.
But Helfrich says he trusts the Maryland Department of Agriculture even less. He fears putting responsibility for sewage sludge with the farm agency would invite looser treatment, not stricter, and he wonders if that's O'Donnell's real aim.
"I'm absolutely in favor of further restrictions that are protective of the environment," the riverkeeper said. "Let him do it under MDE."
(Top: Truck from Synagro hauls sewage sludge into field at Susquehanna State Park, 2007 Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor. Above: Del. Anthony J. O'Donnnell, 2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)