Luther—It’s got to go somewhere, but human sewage sludge, called biosoids, will not be allowed on fields within the town limits of Luther. The Luther Town Board of Trustees voted to approve a new ordinance to ban the use of the controversial, and fragrant, free field fertilizer at its June 9, 2020, meeting.
What is it? Maybe you have smelled it. In this instance, it’s human feces and other recycled waste generated by homes, businesses and hospitals in Oklahoma City, reduced into effluent that is allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality to be spread on fields in eastern Oklahoma County and into Lincoln County.
The practice is defended by local farmers for a whole list of reasons. The top reason is it saves farmers thousands of dollars in chemical fertilizer. Other benefits according to Synagro Technologies, Inc., a company that sent a representative from California to the Luther meeting, includes increased crop yields, decreased soil, wind and water erosion and runoff, encourages vigorous root growth and reduces need for chemical fertilizers.
Or to put it another way, the fertilizer helps choke out weeds and gets more hay to feed the cows that feed the humans, “one year of weeds equals seven years of seeds,” farmers say.
The proposed ban last appeared on the agenda in March. At that meeting, Saundra Traywick, farmer at Dulce de Donke donkey dairy, south of town limits, gave a spirited presentation against using “humanure” claiming it is detrimental both to the environment and to human health.
“OKC has been sending this out to save millions of dollars instead of properly disposing of their poop because they think we are idiots and will continue to allow them to. I’m suggesting you put a ban on this and then a heavy heavy heavy fine. If sludge companies violate it, you pay for your new park, or they go to jail,” said Traywick in March.”This is not safe. This is extremely dangerous. We are polluting our water and we are polluting our ground.”
Also at that March meeting was local farmer Matt McCray, who said he would not use the biosolids on or near his fields around town simply because of the smell, but he is confident in its regulation and use.
“She has her right for all of her beliefs and she’s done a lot of studying. She is not just up there babbling, so I respect what she’s doing. I’m just saying, all of the sludge is run through the digesters, sifted and cleaned,” he said.
The biosolid fertilizer can not be used on vegetable fields, animals cannot graze on it for a time, and humans are not supposed to be on the fields for a time after it is applied.
Back in March, McCray encouraged the board to invite representatives of the companies to a meeting before deciding. Luther Board of Trustee members noted the issue is complicated with an abundance of information to wade through on the issue.
Because of the coronavirus upheaval and scheduling, the proposed measure got bumped to the June meeting (see wording of the ordinance below). Representatives from Synagro Technologies, Inc., which calls itself the preeminent provider of biosolids and residuals solutions services in North America, and representatives from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality gave presentations.
Layne Baroldi, Synagro vice president – legislative and regulatory affairs, had a five minute presentation. “In California, can’t cough without getting cited. In California, they had an environmental impact study … saying putting it on the ground was best practice.”
Myles Mungle, PE, from OK DEQ also addressed the board. “We go way above what EPA requires us to do since we are an agriculture state. That material is sought after. It’s well-documented to be suitable on farm land.” He said the waste is tested for pathogens and metals whether it is spread on fields or buried in a landfill.
What about the flood plain?
The discussion seemed to turn when the issue of putting biosolids in flood-prone areas was brought up. Troy Evans, Lincoln County Commissioner, said he has personally observed it being spread in known flood plains in the Wellston area.
When Synagro’s local biosludge administrator James Garrison was asked about biosludge spread on flood plains, he said there was no specified prohibition but he cross references data from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and checks rainfall amounts and weather patterns before okaying a sludge spread in a flood plain.
That comment drew a reaction from Kim Bourns who is the Town Clerk and is also the Town of Luther’s Flood Plain Administrator. “You can’t put it in a flood plain.”
Mayor Jenni White commented during the meeting, “The East Coat and West Coast are different than Middle America. Nevertheless, how do you deal with EPA that says they cant determine what is in biosolids, and I read it that they are “throwing up their hands,” saying you states deal with it because there’s so much. How do you reconcile that?”
Munger said that personal responsibility for what we put down the drain beyond “poop, pea and paper” is part of the solution. He said “source control” is the only way to mitigate because the regulatory process is very slow but things in the world move very fast with increasing numbers of contaminates going into wastewater, including pharmaceuticals which are not regulated as part of the management of biosludge.
Before the discussion ended, activist Paula Yockel spoke from the back of the room. She said people at the plant and DEQ are good people trying to do their jobs, but believes the federal 503 sludge rule is the problem, saying “our farmers are getting screwed….organic is a funny word, gasoline is organic but do you want your cows eating it? The federal sludge rule does not protect farmers or cattle, and it sure as hell doesn’t protect the downwind neighbor.” (EDITED. This quote is edited to more accurately reflect Yockel’s comments at the meeting. drs 6/11).
When it came time for the vote, Trustees White, Jeff Schwarzmeier and Terry Arps voted for the ban. Trustee Brian Hall was absent. Commenting about her vote against the ban, Trustee Trandy Langston said, “I, in no way, am against constituents voicing their concerns, opinions, or the right for their voices to be heard. In fact, we welcome this. This was an issue where we have heard from both sides and they did great presenting their cases. However, at this time, I do not feel that I can make a decision to take away one’s property rights.”
After the meeting White said that the whole complicated issue could be solved with some focused attention at the national level.
“Honestly, I think the EPA is by far the most at fault here. The easiest, best way to get rid of biosludge is incineration, but because of politics and the EPA’s need to incessantly regulate so many things related to farming – also for political reasons – they would rather allow biosludge contaminants to seep into drinking water than relax and/or modify their clean air standards to the point that some carbon can be acceptable. That would more than likely nullify all concerns with residual pharmaceuticals and harmful bacteria in biosludge – scrubbers could catch heavy metals and remove those. You then have to remediate and dispose of the heavy metals, but that is a very small percentage of the original solid waste in the first place.”
Traywick who founded a Facebook Page called Oklahomans Against Humanure Biosludge called the vote a victory even though it doesn’t affect her farm, outside of town plans. She plans to hit the next town and the counties to seek similar bans. “This is too big of a health issue for our children to not fight it!”
McCray observed Tuesday night’s discussion from the back of the crowded, but socially distant, meeting room. As for fertilizing those fields, he said another option is chicken manure.
That stinks too.Ord-2020-04-Biosolids-Prohibited