Farm Neighbors Renew Objections to Use of Biosolid Fertilizer

“We’re here to talk about our favorite subject: poop,” Chuck Boyd told the Loudoun County supervisors during their  Oct. 2.

Answering frustration about treated sewage sludge being used to fertilize farmland, supervisors asked for a briefing on the use of treated sludge on a few sites in Loudoun. But they did not get many answers; Loudoun County Health Department Director Dr. David Goodfriend repeatedly referred them to the state Department of Environmental Quality, which was not represented at the meeting.

In fact, he said, Loudoun County has little authority to regulate or prevent biosolids being used within its borders. In Virginia, localities only have authority specifically granted them by the state, and regulating biosolids is a role mostly reserved for the Department of Environmental Quality.

Goodfriend’s role at the local health department, he said, is limited but important in regulating biosolids. He can investigate complaints, which in the case of biosolids are referred to the Department of Environmental Quality. And in some cases, if a neighbor’s doctor establishes a medical need for a larger-than-normal setback from their property, the local health department collects documentation from that doctor and refers it to state regulators.

The county can also hire a local monitor who reports violations to the state.

But for Loudouners living next door to fields fertilized this way, it’s not enough.

Mike and Lisa Deeben said after a neighbor put down tons of biosolids on his fields, everybody in their neighborhood was housebound with respiratory ailments for weeks—not to mention the smell.

“When they’re spreading this stuff over a period of three to five days, we’re unable to be outside for any length of time,” Lisa Deeben said. “The stench is unforgiving.”

And Boyd said the state isn’t holding up its responsibilities.

“Every time we come up with a complaint, they look the other way and say I don’t see anything, I don’t smell anything,” Boyd said. “How can you not?”

Chuck Boyd displays a jar of treated sewage sludge fertilizer to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 2. He said he collected the sample about 25 feet from his property.
[Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]
The Deebens live near Blue Mount Nursery owner and farmer Frank Maruca, who uses biosolids on his property. And Maruca said biosolids are, in fact, better for the environment than commercial fertilizers. Other fertilizers contain phosphates—a substance environmental regulators are working to keep out of runoff into waterways. That can lead to algal blooms and choke off other aquatic life.

“We’re permitted on these farms all over the state to put phosphates on it when we buy it, because we’re farm use,” Maruca said. “What we put down has no phosphates in it, and that’s why the government is behind it.”

He said although biosolids don’t harm anything, they do have a smell.

“I live right in the middle of it, so I’m not doing anything any different to my neighbors,” Maruca said. “I stay 400 feet away from their property, and I’m supposed to stay 100 feet away,” the state-mandated setback for spreading biosolids.

“You want farms, or you want houses?” Maruca said. “Ask your readers that. This farm is zoned for over 40 homes to build them tomorrow, but we don’t want to. And other farms are the same way. So drive us out, have more houses.”

The debate over biosolids has come up before. In 2008, people living near Waterford said they had fallen ill because of biosolids spread in their neighborhoods, and called for a ban.

Farmers usually have to obtain permits to use biosolids on their land. Before that permit is granted, the Department of Environmental Quality evaluates water supplies, soil characteristics, slopes, vegetation, and crop needs on the site and the distance to streams, lakes, rivers and groundwater.

According to the DEQ, in Virginia they are most often used to fertilize hay, pasture, forests, and grain crops. They are restricted in vegetable crops to prevent food contamination, and livestock are not allowed to graze pastures fertilized with biosolids until at least 30 days after the application. Biosolids are tested for levels of some pathogens and hazardous substances before they can be used. The state reported in 2015 that biosolids had been used on about 65,000 acres in Virginia, less than 1 percent of Virginia’s farmland.

Biosolids are also generally cheaper that commercial fertilizer. Both Loudoun Water and the Town of Leesburg sell biosolids created by treating sewage sludge. Leesburg markets its byproduct directly as Tuscarora Landscaper’s Choice.

“If I lived where these folks are living, I think I’d probably be amongst the speakers,” said Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run). “It’s shocking to me, it’s just shocking to me that this is permitted behavior.”

Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said he wouldn’t want to live next to it either. He also said he had consulted with the Loudoun County Farm Bureau to find its position.

In 2016, the Virginia Farm Bureau wrote that “the land application of biosolids has been an accepted agricultural practice in Virginia for decades,” and has called on the state to maintain oversight over the practice, rather than handing control to localities.

County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said she would bring the item back to a future meeting of the Board of Supervisors, and asked representatives of the state Department of Environmental Quality to  attend.


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5 thoughts on “Farm Neighbors Renew Objections to Use of Biosolid Fertilizer

  • 2018-10-05 at 4:53 pm

    Regardless of whether one is pro or con on the use of biosolids, to say “they have no phosphorus” in them is not at all true. Manure from people, just like manure from animals contains all three of the “major” plant nutrients, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium or Potash. A ballpark estimate from Michigan State Extension puts its nutrient value at similar to a 4-3-.5 (N-P-K) fertilizer. So in short hand, for every 100 pounds of biosolids you put down it contains 4 pounds of Nitrogen, 3 pounds of phosphorous, and a half pound of potassium.
    By means of comparison, cow manure is around a half pound of nitrogen, a fifth of a pound of phosphorous, and half a pound of potassium per 100 pounds of manure. If it didn’t have these nutrients, it wouldn’t have any value as a fertilizer for agricultural production beyond just the organic matter contained in the feces.
    So while biosolids can be a good source of nutrients, to say they are somehow “eco-friendly” because they don’t contain phosphorous ignores the actual reason why they are useful as fertilizer.

  • 2018-10-05 at 8:55 pm

    Let’s get a couple things straight. Setbacks are predetermined by guidelines. The increased setbacks can be extended by DEQ. Mr. Maruca has nothing to do with establishing setbacks of adjacent neighbors.

    The new houses vs farmland threat is old and quite frankly nonsensical. The grass/weeds were growing well before the application of biosolids. In addition, Mr. Maruca tried to sell one of the properties in question and failed to do so. Let’s see what happens when any future, potential buyers find out the land has been “sludged.”

    Even if I were to consider Mr. Maruca a farmer, it is possible to be a successful farmer and a responsible neighbor. Forcing neighbors to retreat to other areas or to be imprisoned in their homes for up to four weeks is unconscionable.

    I fully understand that the industry and some government agencies do their best to mislead the public about the supposed safety. One only has to look at reality to see the damage done by biosolids. Numerous examples exist.

    • 2018-10-09 at 2:37 pm

      October 9, 2018–Synagro, the company responsible for spreading this sludge, has once again, in violation of regulations, left sludge on the roads.

  • 2018-10-05 at 11:18 pm

    OMG! I find it extremely amusing that the neighbors in the “rural west” are complaining about a farm in their neighborhood. There seems to be this inaccurate picture of a farm being a place of red barns, smells of fresh bread wafting in the air, and pastoral views of yellow flowers growing wild with a few spotted cows munching peacefully in the fields. The truth is that farms generally are muddy (especially with the rains that we’ve recently had), smelly (if there are animals), dusty (in the summer). and those yellow flowers–not great forage for the cows. And, saddest of all is that the “protector of western Loudoun”, Supervisor Buffington, seems oblivious to what it takes to run a real farm.

    This scenario fits well with the other dichotomy that exists among the residents of western Loudoun. They brag about the amount of money that ag business generates and then complain about the traffic that it produces. Take wineries, for example. One of their main revenue streams is to have regular events on the property. But, the neighbors then complain about the noise, traffic, parking on the road, etc. I don’t want to paint everyone in the west with one brush, but I believe that most of them (who don’t own farms or vineyards) only want a pretty picture. They want a beautiful view shed without understanding that a farm is a manufacturing center for meat, vegetables, or beverages, or shrubbery, and all of these things require fertilizer and farm machinery. Most of all, however, they require customers who need to travel the roads to get to the produce, the sale of which pays the farmer to be there in the first place.

    As Mr. Maruca said, “Do you want farms, or do you want houses?” If the complainers want farms, they are going to have to learn to live with a few smelly days so the farmer can grow the best product he can by using environmentally sound methods of modern agriculture.

    • 2018-10-09 at 2:45 pm

      I find it funny that people try to turn this into a farmers vs. the rest of the world argument. Spreading toxic sludge so people cannot go outside for a month or have to leave the area altogether is absolutely unconscionable.

      You can be a good neighbor and farmer. The sludge, with known carcinogens, is considered a pollutant by federal agencies and Virginia. You ever wonder why it is given away free?

      Do some research instead of believing the lies of the sewage sludge industry.

      Mr. Maruca could not sell the property although he tried for a long time. I hardly think anyone will want the tainted land now.

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