High Energy Costs Prompt Farmers to Eye Treated Sewage for Fertilizer

Advocates insist it's safe (and often free), but others worry about health and environmental effects.

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MINERAL, Va.—The impacts of high energy costs and a bad economy are being widely felt—and smelled—around here, as local farmers increasingly look to the creative, but controversial, use of treated human and industrial waste as fertilizer.

From the road, the smell isn't overwhelming, but it's certainly not pleasant, and the only visible signs of something unusual are the orange flags planted around the edge of someone's property.

The flags might easily be overlooked by an outsider, but they provide an alert that's well understood by locals: This field has been fertilized with treated sewage.

The stuff's technical name is "biosolids," and it's been used by golf courses, parks, and even some farms for decades. But partly because of rising energy costs, farmers here and elsewhere in the United States have been more aggressively eyeing the processed waste product as an alternative to pricey fertilizer. Farmers can get it for free in most places, and many are saving hundreds of dollars per acre as a result.

But biosolids remain controversial, which isn't surprising given where they come from. Environmentalists, consumer advocates, and flummoxed neighbors have expressed fear and alarm over what they feel are the excessive health risks of applying biosolids to farmland. Many view it as a dangerous source of toxins and disease-causing bacteria, and in the past year there have been growing calls for the federal government to limit its use or, at the very least, further examine its impact. Countering them are government officials and some academics, who say that there's no real scientific evidence to back up those dire claims.

Clearly the "sewage" component of biosolids is at the root of the controversy. Technically speaking, biosolids aren't the same thing as sewage sludge, which is the solid remnant that gets separated out of wastewater. Rather, they're a highly treated and modified form of sludge—sludge that's been processed to remove the various pathogens, metals, toxins, and other nasty things that get flushed down toilets or pushed out of industrial exhaust pipes.

The sewage, of course, has to go somewhere. Oceans and rivers are off-limits for obvious environmental reasons. Landfills and incinerators are possibilities, but they're costly. So spreading it on land—primarily as fertilizer—has become an attractive option, both for waste water treatment plants and for farmers.

Compared with chemical fertilizers, biosolids still have a much smaller following. In Virginia, which has about 8.5 million total acres of farmland, about 55,000 acres are treated with biosolids. That's a small percentage, but it's significant. Nationally, about 7 million tons of biosolids are produced annually, with more than half of it applied to land.

In western Virginia now, there is a five-year waiting list for farmers wanting to get in on the practice, and the expectation there is that demand could grow. "I think there are a lot more farmers who would like to get it than can get it," says Virginia Biosolids Council chairman Mike McEvoy.

Given the discomforting nature of their contents, biosolids are heavily regulated—a point that is touted by proponents as evidence of their safety. There are federal and state restrictions on what elements they can and cannot contain and when and where they can be applied. To prevent run-off into watersheds, minimum barriers or buffers have to be adopted. States, meanwhile, have inspectors to make sure guidelines are properly followed.

These assurances do little to assuage critics, but they're not the only people who have questions. Even officials who monitor biosolids and support the practice have expressed some doubts. Right now, the most pressing one is: What's in this stuff? The Environmental Protection Agency, over the past few decades, has done ample scientific research to try to answer that question, but "there are those who question whether that research is complete," says Neil Zahradka, head of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's biosolids division.