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State environmental officials answer questions on sludge for Caroline

Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 10:49 pm

State environmental quality officials answered questions Feb. 25 from residents concerned about the proposed increase of treated municipal waste on farmland in Caroline County.

Steve McMahon, technical services manager for Synagro, said the company has been land-applying biosolids in Caroline for at least 10 years.

“We spread the biosolids as a fertilizer in accordance with nutrient management plans. Basically, the nutrient management plan requires that you analyze the biosolids for its nutrient content and you develop a plan and an application rate based on appropriate crop needs,” McMahon explained in an interview.

“It provides nutrients for crops, whether it be corn, soybeans, tall grass hay, fescues. All of these crops have specific application rates, which are also designed to protect the environment,” he added.

Robin Burke said she is worried that Synagro’s proposal to spread municipal-derived biosolids waste on farmland near her Woodford home could eventually harm her well water.

Representatives of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) conducted the informational meeting on Feb. 25 at the Bowling Green Town Hall. They answered questions from individual landowners and shared information on biosolids and the permitting process.

For farmers, an application of biosolids provides a free organic fertilizer for their farmland. It’s a practice that dates back to the ancient Romans, who gathered sewage from cesspools and distributed it onto fields.

Snyagro has requested a change to its permit to spread the treated sewage byproduct, also known as sludge, on an additional eight sites, including farms, in Caroline County, for a total of 3,831 acres, according to DEQ.

Two sites are along Stonewall Jackson Road in Woodford, and others are in Sparta and Ladysmith, Burke said.

If biosolids or municipal sludge is spread on the cornfield beside Burke’s property, “there will be a terrible stench,” she said. Her 14-year-old adopted son has Asperger syndrome, and he has a “high sensitivity” to strong orders, she noted. The smell can last from two weeks to two months, depending on whether rain falls on the sludge.

Her well is 300 feet deep and “run-off is a question” that concerns her. Biosolids could have over 100,000 pathogens, she said, based on her research. After all, municipal wastewater has whatever residents, companies and even hospitals pour down the sink, floor drains and commodes, she said.

Burke is concerned that over a decade, hazardous chemicals in the municipal sludge could “build up and cause issues” with her well water, she said.

Founded in 1986, Synagro has offices around the country, including Maryland. It provides “a system of solutions for civic and commercial organizations that manages byproducts to create new, environmentally compelling options,” says the company’s website at

McMahon said regulations require Synagro to stay away from environmentally sensitive areas, such as waterways and wetlands. The application of biosolids must not come within 100 feet of a drinking water well, for example.

“There are a lot of extra protection measures with the application, more so than you would get with any other fertilizer, whether it be manures or commercial fertilizers,” he said.

Regarding potential odors, McMahon said, “The treatment methods utilized by municipalities at the plant is the key to correcting odors. One of the new requirements in the new regulations is there has to be a mutual agreement and a plan provided by the generators (the municipalities) for an odor management plan.”

If there’s an increase in odor for any reason, he said, then the municipalities will be informed.

“They’re very interested to find out if there are problems, what can they do to improve their product, because they realize this is a recycling option for them that is beneficial to them, to the land, and for the taxpayer,” McMahon said.

He mentioned that only a few options exist for disposal of biosolids: incineration, landfills, or recycling.

“I’ve been in this business since 1990, and I believe in it. I think it’s good recycling. I consider myself an environmentalist, and I’ve seen the benefits to it,” McMahon said. “It’s a good resource of fertilizer to help them keep their farms viable, while at the same time solving a problem municipalities have in dealing with these products.”

Burke noted that the large grocery chain, Wholesale Foods, won’t allow the use of biosolids among the farmers who supply it with vegetables.

“Whole Foods is following ConAgra, Del Monte, Heinz and Kraft, among other brands, in distancing itself from biosolids,” reports

“Whole Foods recently responded to consumer pressure to reject produce grown using biosolids,” the website reported.

“Some 1,000 contaminants have been identified in sewage sludge, a short list of which includes lead, mercury and dozens of other metals, flame retardants, steroids, organochlorine pesticides, plasticizers, hormones and antibiotics,” according to, which sells natural and organic products for lawns and gardens.

Edward Stuart, water compliance manager for DEQ, explained the permit process.

The Feb. 25 meeting was for residents to ask questions. The formal public comment period will open once the DEQ staff has drafted a permit. If at least 25 individual comments are received, the permit will go to public hearing, which would be administered by one of the governor-appointed members of the State Water Control Board. Then the permit would go to the SWCB for approval.

“The State Water Control Board would comment on whether or not they think the permit is protective enough based on the regulations,” Stuart said. “We’re not going to put forth a permit that is not based on the regulations.”

The purpose of public comment is to ensure that DEQ has all the necessary information to draft an effective permit.

All adjacent landowners were notified of the permit application. “As an adjacent landowner, we’re looking for information from you,” Stuart said.

If a landowner installed a new well in their property, “we want to know about it.”

Stuart explained, “That may increase the buffer off of your property, so we are looking for site-specific information that’s accurate so that we can make the permit as protective of your rights as possible.”

A permit’s lifespan is 10 years, and throughout that time the language is automatically updated to adhere to the most current regulations.

New regulations went into effect Sept. 1, 2013.

“The permit is always as protective as the regulations,” Stuart said.