Faced with limited power to address the concerns around treated sewage fertilizer on Loudoun farmland, the Board of Supervisors’ finance committee has recommended the creation of a special team to make sure Loudouners know when that fertilizer is going to be used next door, and to make sure the state considers the special circumstances of each property when considering permits.
Twice this year, supervisors took briefings from local and state officials on the use of treated sewage fertilizer, or biosolids, on farmland, which is regulated by the state Department of Environmental Quality. They found that the government’s authority is limited to a local monitoring program to report permit violations and complaints back up to the state, and in limited circumstances the county can regulate storage of biosolids.
After biosolids were spread on a farm in Lucketts, the debate over the sewage fertilizer was renewed in Loudoun. It 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.
At a Board of Supervisors meeting in October, Neil Zahradka, the manager of the office of land applications programs in the state’s biosolids program, said the number of complaints around that Lucketts farm is unusual. Last year, he said, the state got 23 total complaints about biosolids across Virginia.
“So, the fact that we got 18 complaints on this site in Lucketts is an anomaly,” Zahradka said at the time.
County staff members looked into launching a state-reimbursed local monitoring program, but found that without the authority to enact restrictions tighter than the state, the program was unlikely to give Loudouners any additional protection. Instead, they recommended a technical team to notify neighbors when the state receives an application to spread biosolids, and to make sure the state considers the special conditions of the site when it deliberates that application.
Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said that team is “a much better approach.”
“It’s proactive, it’s getting out in front of the permits, it’s notifying the neighbors that these permits are coming and they can weigh in up front,” Buona said. “And today we’re reactive. We’re reactive when someone comes in and says, ‘I have flow coming in from the farm next door to me.’”
Farmers are usually required to apply to the state to spread biosolids. According to state code, the county is notified of applications to spread biosolids and can offer recommendations as those applications are considered. The county is also supposed to be notified 100 days before biosolids are spread.
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.”
According to the DEQ, in Virginia biosolids 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.