Alabama neighbors ask for stricter rules over sludge dumping on land

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WIAT) — Neighbors from north and central Alabama traveled to Montgomery Thursday to ask state leaders for stronger rules to govern sludge spraying across land in the state.

The controversial practice involves applying biosolids, often from waste companies who offer it to farmers as a cheap alternative to fertilizer. The sludge can come from wastewater treatment facilities.

A public hearing was held Thursday morning at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management as the agency considers rule changes.

About a dozen residents and environmental advocates made the trip to share concerns with other citizens invited to submit comments online.

“Chicken sludge, sewage sludge, other waste products that are being applied under these regulations to our farmland contain a cocktail of chemicals that we believe and science shows are harmful to human health and the environment,” said Jack West, Policy and Advocacy Director with the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

The Alabama Rivers Alliance and Black Warrior Riverkeeper both had representatives speak out against the sludge spraying.

Other speakers lived near dump sites and complained of unexplained health issues. Fears over the impact to soil, water, crops, and wildlife were shared by many who addressed ADEM.

“In 2019, they spread sludge to the north and south of our home. Of course, the odor was bad, but what about our drinking water?” asked Julie Lay, who lives in Marshall County.

With concern over chemicals like per-and poly fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), West urged ADEM leaders to adopt rules to screen and test biosolids for high levels of PFAS, noting other states had banned or restricted the use of certain sludge material.

“PFAS, or forever chemicals, that don’t break down in nature, don’t break down in the human body get concentrated in these waste sludge materials and sewage sludge and chicken sludge,” said West.

ADEM adopted rules for biosolids in 2020. The agency said biosolids previously fell under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Since the rules were adopted, there have been reports of biosolid application to land.

“It does seem we have more farmers that are looking to take advantage of it, probably due to rising fertilizer prices and things like that,” said Stephen Cobb, Chief of ADEM’s Land Division.

Since adopting rules in 2020, Cobb said the agency continues to learn more about the types of material coming in, where it is being applied, and what gets the most complaints.

“We will continue to evaluate things that were raised today and things that we discover as we move forward with the rules, but certainly we are looking at a stepped increase in the stringency of the coverage of these rules,” said Cobb.

Cobb said ADEM is aware that PFAS levels are an item of concern across the country. The agency is working with the EPA for guidance.

“We are all gaining experience in learning with that. We’re working with EPA and collectively all the states, to get better information on what levels are appropriate, what restrictions are there, there are currently no regulations federally, so we are working with EPA because those regulations need to be identified on a national basis,” said Cobb.

Beneficial uses for the biosolid material, which can have nutrient value Cobb said, can decrease the amount of the byproduct that will go to landfills.

“Disposing in the landfill creates problems in the landfill itself also so trying to balance those things, what is the best use of the material, what is the best way to deal with materials and we are continuing to learn, we are continuing to grow,” said Cobb.

Neighbors have often complained about the odor from the sludge spraying. While some farmers accept the product for land, it can create a stench for surrounding property owners.

“We can’t regulate good neighbor practices but communication between the user and the neighbors is essential,” said Cobb.

Cobb said ADEM does not regulate odor, but the department tries to ensure smells are kept to a minimum with best management practices.

Waste companies have received violations for the practice and during Thursday’s hearing, neighbors asked ADEM to get tougher on enforcement.

“We need real cease and desists, real administrative penalties, so that industry understands you can’t just ship it to Alabama, maybe get a notice of violation, maybe get one cease and desist, but keep doing it and just pay the penalty and it is cheaper to do business that way than to dispose of it properly in their state,” said West.

In the newly proposed guidelines, ADEM created new standards and procedures for the operating criteria for food processing residuals and food processing residual treatment impoundments.

Lay was glad to hear about the proposed requirements for poultry wastewater sludge but still does not believe waste companies should apply the material near farmland.

“They should come up with good ways to handle their own waste and be held accountable for that instead of spreading it on farmland,” said Lay.

West and Lay believed some of the newly proposed restrictions were a step in the right direction but hope ADEM will consider the comments and concerns voiced Thursday.

According to Cobb, ADEM will review feedback and submitted comments before making a recommendation on possible rule changes to the environmental commission. He estimated the process could take 1 to 3 months.

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