Members of the Board of Supervisors are still looking for options to address complaints about the use of treated sewage sludge to fertilize farmland—particularly on a property in Lucketts.
At a meeting earlier this month, supervisors were unsatisfied with a report about regulations governing the use of biosolids in Virginia, but what limited answers they got told them they have little local oversight. There were no representatives from the responsible authority, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, at the meeting so supervisors asked for another briefing, inviting the state office to attend.
But even with the Department of Environmental Quality attending last Thursday’s board session, county supervisors weren’t satisfied with the answers they got.
The state Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reported on biosolids in 2017, finding the health risk to neighbors is low, but may be higher for people living nearby during the time the fertilizer is being spread. At that time, the commission reported, some airborne particles can be inhaled and present a health risk. However, it found the state’s regulation is “generally effective.”
Neil Zahradka, the manager of the office of land applications programs in the state’s biosolids program, said last year the state got 23 complaints about biosolids across Virginia.
“So, the fact that we got 18 complaints on this site in Lucketts is an anomaly,” Zahradka said. “And when we look at the nature of the activity at that site, it was not different from the nature of the activity across the state. So there’s a unique scenario here.”
Neighbors around that site have complained about respiratory ailments and an “unforgiving” stench.
The county government does not have the legal authority to restrict the use of biosolids—authority reserved for the state. The county’s powers are limited to a local monitoring program to report permit violations and complaints back up to the state. According to state code, the county is notified of applications to spread biosolids, can offer recommendations as those applications are considered, and can be reimbursed for a state-trained local monitoring program. The county is also supposed to be notified 100 days before biosolids are spread, and in limited circumstances it can regulate storage of biosolids.
“The problem that we have in Loudoun is we have a lot of agriculture that’s right up next to pseudo- or semi-residential or residential, so that’s why you’re going to have those kinds of complaints,” said Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin).
But several supervisors said they weren’t getting the answers they need. Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) proposed a study of the costs association with setting up a local monitoring program and a local ordinance on storing biosolids. Supervisors at the meeting unanimously supported that idea.
“When half the complaints in the state come from one site, and they come from people who have been farming the land for years, common sense kicks in,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
This is not the first time Loudouners have grappled with biosolids use; in 2008, people living near Waterford said they had fallen ill because of biosolids spread in their neighborhoods, and called for a ban.
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.