A Baltimore-based company wants to spread waste called industrial sludge on more than 16,000 acres of farm fields in seven Virginia counties, including Hanover and Goochland, but opponents have raised such a stink that Virginia officials are taking extra time to consider the issue.
The company, Synagro Technologies, is seeking a state permit to spread the sludge, which is treated to reduce pollutants but still can contain heavy metals and germs. Critics say it can pose a threat to people, streams and wells.
“This activity will drive neighbors from their homes for the smell, gasses and windblown contamination,” said Thomas C. Rubino of King and Queen County in an email to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said people and waters would be protected by state regulations that require, among other things, that the sludge be spread at least 100 feet from property lines and wells and 200 feet from houses.
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The sludge can contain heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead, which are linked to health problems including cancer, brain damage and nervous system disorders. But state rules limit the levels of metals in the sludge.
“Our position has been and continues to be that as long as it is done in accordance with the regulations, there shouldn’t be any health or environmental concerns,” Hayden said.
The sludge is “similar to commercial fertilizers,” he added.
The dispute resembles a long-running conflict over the spreading of treated sewage sludge, or biosolids, the earthy product of the processing of human waste.
But that’s a bigger, better-known program. Companies including Synagro have been spreading industrial sludge in Virginia for decades with little public outcry, state officials say. So why the opposition now?
“All I can say is, maybe people didn’t know,” said Tyla Matteson, a Chesterfield County resident who has helped lead the opposition.
Opponents have put up a Citizens Against Sludge page on Facebook.
Also, the DEQ has received letters from the boards of supervisors in Goochland, King and Queen and King William counties opposing the Synagro proposal.
Oversight of the spreading of sludge — from industries as well as from sewage-treatment plants — moved from the state’s health department to the DEQ in 2008. Under the DEQ, officials say, there is generally more public notice of sludge issues and more opportunities for the public to comment, and that could have contributed to the current uproar.
Industrial sludge is sometimes put in lined landfills. That’s the option the sludge opponents favor. Under the land-spreading method, the company that produces the sludge pays a hauler like Synagro to take it away. The hauler provides it free to farmers. Synagro declined to discuss its financial arrangements.
Hayden said the state keeps no figures on the amount of industrial sludge spread in Virginia each year. “I guess it’s not a big enough program to have its own separate database right now.”
The State Water Control Board was expected to rule on the Synagro proposal June 26. But there was such an outcry — about 100 responses, the large majority anti-sludge — that the issue was pushed back to give the DEQ staff more time to review the comments. The board could take up the issue Sept. 29.
The sludge would come from three industrial operations: the Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in western Hanover County just north of the Henrico County line, the RockTenn Co. paper mill at West Point and the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Isle of Wight County.
Industrial sludge is what’s left over from some industries’ waste after the material has been treated through a process that includes the use of bacteria to break down pollutants. Depending on its source, the sludge can look like dark soil, plastic wood or watery mud.
Greg Evanylo, a Virginia Tech waste-management expert, said putting industrial sludge on farmland is a time-proven way to recycle waste and improve soil.
“In my opinion, there are no health and no environmental consequences as long as you don’t take the stuff and throw it directly into a river,” Evanylo said.
As for the heavy metals in the sludge, Evanylo said, “My guess is they are going to be less than the amount in the soil” naturally. “If they are worried about the heavy metals in these products, then they totally don’t understand the science.”
However, Evanylo added, the sludge “could be odorous.”
Rob Hale, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science environmental chemist, said one problem is that state-required tests don’t reveal the entire contents of the sludge. “We don’t even know what’s in there.”
Also, Hale said it’s unclear if metals and other pollutants would react synergistically to cause a bigger problem than the chemicals acting individually. “People tend to look at it one material at a time.”
It would be safer, Hale said, to put the sludge in modern, lined landfills.
Lorrie Loder, Synagro’s senior director of technical services, described the spreading of sludge as part of the “circle of life.”
“These products help build soil quality and close the nutrient loop on farmland. … Plants take nutrients from soil, humans obtain nutrients from the plants, and then we return nutrients to soil.”
Matteson, the sludge opponent, said Synagro has a poor track record when it comes to obeying environmental rules. She cited, for example, Synagro’s agreeing in 2012 to a $65,000 civil charge to settle alleged state violations involving treated sewage sludge.
The allegations in Goochland, Essex and Fauquier counties included incidents of sludge-tainted water running into streams from sludge-storage areas.
The agreement with the state allowed Synagro to satisfy $48,750 of the penalty by conducting a study to help farmers reduce pollution.
Asked about the case, Loder said by email it “was mutually resolved with DEQ and was not due to incorrect application (of the waste), but with storage and inclement weather impacts.”
She added, “Synagro takes regulatory compliance and the health and safety of the communities we operate in as its highest priority.”
Synagro Technologies operates in 34 states. Synagro Central, a subsidiary, is the applicant for the permit at issue.
The sludge would go on 16,174 acres in the seven counties, but farms would not get the waste every year. The permit would last 10 years.
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