Complaints flow in on human fertilizer
By Nancy Glasscock
MOULTON — Lawrence County residents are tired of smelling the treated human fecal matter that is being used as fertilizer at local farms, County Commissioner Alma Whitlow said.
Though treated human waste is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, common concerns with using the substance as fertilizer include the possible presence of prescription drug residue and more than 60,000 toxic substances.
Whitlow said she has heard complaints from different areas of Lawrence County about an unpleasant odor coming from fields that have been fertilized with the substance, also known as biosolids or sewage sludge.
“The biggest one is near a church,” she said. “They say it’s terrible when they go to church.”
Whitlow said she’s gathering information from the state Agriculture Department, the Health Department and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to determine if biosolids pose a health risk.
Human waste used as fertilizer caused a stir in Limestone County last month. The County Commission there voted to seek an injunction to stop the use of biosolids until health risks could be determined.
Whitlow said Houston-based Synagro Technologies Inc. transports the substance from Decatur’s waste treatment plant to Lawrence County. Synagro has been supplying area farmers with biosolids produced by municipal waste-water plants free.
In Limestone County, the biosolids were from New York.
The EPA approved the use of biosolids in 2004, proposing to change what was then called sewage sludge into compost.
However, a statement released in October by state Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks said EPA approval and monitoring of the process Synagro uses doesn’t make it OK.
“Although this project was approved by the EPA, obviously some mistakes have been made,” Sparks said in October. “I feel that we have to either clean up the process or stop the process altogether.”
Sparks said this week his staff is continuing to create stricter guidelines that will include odor management for biosolids.
“What we tried to do is sit down and make some stronger guidelines than what the EPA has offered,” he said.
Sparks said he has tried to be a peacemaker between proponents of biosolids used as fertilizer and those who think the substance may cause health problems.
“We’ve got to try to be better neighbors and try to figure out how to make this thing work,” he said.
Hillsboro resident Regina Bolden said she’s afraid spreading treated human waste on corn and cotton fields creates a health risk for her family. She said she first noticed trucks spreading the substance several weeks ago in fields near her home off Lawrence County 400.
“It still smells today,” she said. “Every day it smells, when we open the garage, when we go in the house. I don’t know if it’s hazardous to our health.”
Franklin County Extension Coordinator Tim Reed said biosolids are safe, and are “strongly promoted” by EPA.
“Biosolids are applied under strict guidelines by the EPA,” he said. “They use (a global positioning system) on every field, locate all the wells, ditches, ponds, and flag off appropriate distances away from water.”
Treated human waste is being used as fertilizer in several counties across Alabama because of the rising cost of other fertilizers, and because of its high percentage of lime not found in most animal manure, Reed said.
“The lime has become so expensive to put out,” he said. “Fertilizer has doubled in price, and farmers are having trouble affording the amount of fertilizer they need to put out.”
Biosolids are also high in nitrogen, which costs 50 cents a pound, Reed said. Fescue pastures require about 120 pounds of nitrogen an acre a year. Bermuda pastures need about 50 pounds an acre in the spring and each time the pastures are cut for hay.
Off-road diesel and seed prices are also rising, leaving farmers with more expenses, Reed said.
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