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Residents wary of farm ‘sludge’

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / September 2, 2012
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The use of treated sewage sludge to fertilize farmlands has some West Bridgewater residents concerned over odors and potential harm to their health and water quality.

They are also concerned that no local authority is keeping track of where and how farmers are using the material.

After receiving a call of concern, local Conservation Agent John DeLano began looking into the use of Type 1 biosolids, a nutrient-rich sludge that state environmental officials have deemed safe for farmers to use to improve their soil.

“Right now, we’re trying to answer residential concerns and see where we go with this,” DeLano said after a meeting he organized for farmers, neighbors, and officials last week. “There could be a minimum amount of oversight, like having the farmers tell us where they are putting the stuff, rather than having to watch where they’re putting it.”

DeLano said it would also be important to know the farmers are following “best practices.”

The sludge is produced by Earth Source, a waste-water treatment plant located on the Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park property. The facility takes in waste from residential septic haulers and kitchen-trap grease from restaurants, then pasteurizes and de-waters it, mixing in lime to produce Type 1 biosolids.

The plant gives the biosolids to farmers free of charge, since the product would otherwise have to be landfilled.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection regulates the production of Type 1 biosolids under “beneficial use permits” issued by the agency. The permit requires monthly testing of the biosolids by an independent laboratory to make sure the material is free of bacteria and within maximum limits for heavy metals.

At last week’s meeting, Earth Source president Robert Kelly assured residents that the biosolids from his plant are free of pathogens and contain only traces of metals. He said that in 6½ years of monthly testing, the biosolids have never exceeded the allowable limits.

DeLano and residents are primarily concerned over how farmers are using the Type 1 biosolids, since neither state nor local officials regulate it beyond the treatment plant.

West Bridgewater farmer Clint Howard, who takes large loads of Type 1 biosolids from Earth Source for use on his farm and others in the area, told DeLano at the meeting that UMass Extension, an agricultural service, tests soil samples for farmers to determine what is lacking. Farmers apply the Type 1 biosolids based on the test results, Howard said.

But that’s been causing problems for Jane Metcalf, an organic farmer and West Bridgewater Agricultural Commission member who lives next to Howard’s farm. At the meeting, Metcalf said the application of the biosolids causes her asthma to flare, as dust particles travel through the air. She said the product runs onto her land and into the nearby Town River when it rains.

“This is not the same as cow manure,” Metcalf said. “You can smell the chemicals in it. It’s important to have farming, but it’s also important to monitor it. I’d love to see the sludge stop being used completely, and I think it should at least require a permit from the town.”

The subject of biosolids arose in West Bridgewater three years ago when farmers started treating their fields with it and the Board of Health received complaints over odor. Health Agent Robert Casper said the material “has a unique chemical odor when the wind is right.”

“The farmer had been stockpiling the material,” Casper said. “Now it’s tilled in right when he dumps it or the next day.”

Local health officials have had infrequent dealings with biosolids, but recently asked Howard to provide them with information on how many tractor-trailer loads he hauls from Earth Source. “We just recently started getting that,” Casper said.

Casper doesn’t foresee the Board of Health banning, or even regulating, the use of biosolids. “I think it if is controlled, it should be the Agricultural Commission that handles it, since there are farmers on the commission,” he said.

Agricultural Commission member Beth Smith attended DeLano’s meeting and said afterward that her panel discussed the use of the biosolids recently. “The Agricultural Commission is horrified the town can’t control it,” Smith said. “And I personally think the sludge should not be used at all.”

Resident Peter Moroni is in favor of some local oversight. “This has an odor. It gets into people’s houses,” he said, following last week’s meeting. “We hear it can be beneficial to soil, but what if it’s running off or in the air? What if it’s not where it’s supposed to be?”

DEP spokesman Edmund Coletta said he doesn’t know of any towns with local regulations for the application of Type 1 biosolids. He added his agency has received very few queries or complaints from communities over its use.

“It’s not something that usually raises a ruckus,” Coletta said. “This is something that has been treated and is approved for use.”

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.

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