Talkin’ Biosolids

Public outcry – however unjustified – can set your biosolids program back. Here are some practical tips for communicating effectively with your public.

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Clean-water operators don’t hesitate to fix a malfunctioning bar screen or repair a clarifier pump. But ask them to talk to a news reporter or the public about biosolids and you’re likely to get stiff resistance.

To operators, talking to the media is about as much fun as getting a wisdom tooth pulled. It’s even harder when the subject is biosolids. Why? Because many operators are hazy about how biosolids work and what happens after the biosolids contractor’s truck rolls out the gate.

“Operators know what happens to the solids inside their plants but not what happens after we take them out the gate,” says Mike Scharp, vice president of Parker Ag Services, a biosolids contractor in Limon, Colo.

Bob Brobst, U.S. EPA Region 8 biosolids regulator, agrees. He says a contributing factor is that fewer operators today have agricultural backgrounds: “They don’t understand and can’t explain how biosolids improve the soil,” as compared to operators in years past.

In addition, a 10-year-old biosolids public acceptance survey that Scharp co-authored showed most utilities don’t put much effort into biosolids communication unless a project is in trouble.

Fortunately, help for operators is available.

Looking sharp

Often, the best communication is nonverbal. “People believe what they can see,” says Brobst.

It’s important for biosolids operators, such as truck drivers, to look clean and neat, to appear as though they have nothing to hide, to be ready to talk to people, and to avoid smoking, chewing tobacco and eating around biosolids.

These commonsense recommendations come from Guidance for Controlling Potential Risks to Workers Exposed to Class B Biosolids, a document developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Brobst observes, “Although basic cleanliness and health precautions seem obvious, how people like drivers behave guides how biosolids are perceived by observers who don’t want to take the time to read the science.

“People — especially reporters — don’t understand the science. They don’t have the background or time to learn. So we have to communicate in ways they can understand.”

Words still matter

What you say is important, too. In the view of Scharp, who has 30 years’ experience in the biosolids field, “KISS [Keep It Simple, Stupid] is best. We all want to explain the science, but most people aren’t really interested. Just answer their questions quickly and simply.”

For help with what to say about biosolids, a great resource is Biosolids Communication: A Media Guide, published by the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies. This free, downloadable booklet contains short, simple answers and solid guidance for talking with regular people and members of the media.

“We rolled it out at a biosolids workshop in April 2013,” says Mark Jockers, government and public affairs manager with Clean Water Services and a co-author. “About 150 people showed up. The norm is about 75. It was the biosolids managers who came forward and said, ‘We need this.’” The guide contains both strategic and tactical advice.

Help in the field

It also helps to provide truck drivers and field operators with printed materials that help bridge communication gaps — especially when there may be a language barrier. Brobst cites a case in which a biosolids truck in Colorado got into an accident. The driver didn’t speak English, and things got tense as he tried to explain to a police officer what he was hauling and how it should be handled. “A document similar to a material safety and data sheet [MSDS] in English and Spanish could have reduced the drama,” Brobst observes.

The Orange County Sanitation District near Los Angeles developed such a document, a spill plan, and other critical materials as part of its biosolids contractor requirements. The documents, available for free download, are designed to be carried in the truck and given to police, health officials or curious citizens. They help calm down people who don’t understand biosolids.

Another good item to have on hand is a “biosolids primer” — a brochure or booklet with answers to frequently asked questions. State operator groups or Water Environment Federation Member Associations can develop these. The Rocky Mountain WEA has produced such a booklet.

It should be written in plain English and can be reviewed and endorsed by the land grant university or state regulatory agency. It can show citizens that biosolids are not some exotic waste being hauled under the cover of darkness. Contact information for professors and the state biosolids regulator can make the material more credible. Also include the National Biosolids Partnership website at

It’s also important to inform gatekeepers — people who are key links in communicating about an issue, such as county commissioners and public health officials. These officials may not be in the permitting chain, but they can either shut your project down or help you significantly in response to a public outcry.

“Of course, it’s best if you can keep all gatekeepers informed, but that’s hard to figure out,” says Scharp. “A weekly or monthly email to local and state officials about your project is not a bad idea, so that at least you can say they were informed.”

Being prepared

Three keys to keeping a biosolids program running smoothly are regulatory compliance, preparation and communication. Preparation includes media training. Several key employees at any utility should be media-trained before you get a call from the press. It’s almost certain that if only one person is trained, he or she will be on vacation or out sick the day you get the call.

One final thing that’s almost a sure bet: A reporter sent to do a biosolids story will know nothing about the subject. Never mind that it’s 21 years since the 503 regulations took effect. Reporters don’t know what you do or how you do it, and they’re drawn to the “yuck factor” like bees to honey. You start with two strikes if you don’t know this and prepare for it.

From where reporters stand, that sewage stuff someone complained about is the main point of interest. They’ll be curious. They’ll want to see it and talk about it. They’ll want their photographer to get pictures of it. That means you have to be ready.

So prepare. Study the Oregon media guide. Practice doing an interview. Treat your encounter with the media as an opportunity. Communicate. If you’re prepared, you can help them understand the product and how you recycle it. Explain it to them. But remember: It’s their audience you’re talking to, not them. So keep it simple.

About the author

Steve Frank is retired as public information officer for the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District in Denver, Colo. He now owns SDF Communications in Arvada and is a communications consultant for water and wastewater utilities. He can be reached at or 303/957-7459. 


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