“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?”
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.