What’s All the Fuss?

By now biosolids should have come of age as a well-accepted recycled product, yet public suspicion still exists. Here’s a perspective on the issue from the Northwest US.
What’s All the Fuss?
Maile Lono-Batura

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Biosolids have been put to beneficial use for decades, in fact for centuries. Across North America, excellent recycling programs have thrived for 20, 30, 40 years and more.

High-quality products fertilize farms and forests; help lawns, gardens and landscapes thrive; and restore lands laid bare by mining. Yet still, on almost a weekly basis, in some state or province, a controversy erupts over biosolids.

The best publicized example is the decision earlier this year by natural foods retailer Whole Foods to refuse to sell produce grown in soil fertilized with biosolids. On top of that, we often see news reports of this or that rural township or county being petitioned to ban or severely restrict land application of biosolids.

To put it mildly, the science behind these initiatives is highly suspect. Yet people are concerned, and their concerns must be taken seriously and addressed sensitively. Maile Lono-Batura, executive director of the Northwest Biosolids Management Association, has seen these issues often and up close. She talked about the state of public acceptance of biosolids, and other topics, in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What do you observe, regionally and nationally, about the state of public understanding of biosolids and beneficial use?

Lono-Batura: It largely depends on how people are first exposed to the subject. If they have never heard of it and their very first exposure is something they see in the media, there are different directions they can go in assimilating that.

Today, with the ability to write blogs and create communities online, we find people banding together who are either for or against something. So we have groups across the country who try to distribute and spin information about biosolids. It’s an easy subject to misconstrue and to find a following within Internet pockets across the U.S. and in Canada. I have file folders on different controversies that have happened over the years, local and national.

TPO: Given that beneficial use programs are widespread, why do you suppose that the concept isn’t more widely accepted?

Lono-Batura: It depends on the community people are in, what they have heard about it and, most important, who they have heard it from. If they hear it from a friend who uses it in a garden and really believes in how it works, that’s different from if they hear about it through a Google Alert or from a public meeting. It’s very much a function of the messenger and the format of the message.

TPO: In the past, certain opponents of biosolids have gained national attention. Sources at Cornell University come to mind. Do you still see such sources having influence?

Lono-Batura: Murray McBride and Ellen Harrison were the movers and shakers at Cornell. They did a paper called “The Case for Caution,” and more recently a second rendition of it. The flip side of all this controversy, and the research reports battling over who’s right and who’s wrong, is that it keeps us on our toes. We do need to pay attention to how we use biosolids. We need to use it right, and use it respectfully. A reason associations like ours have lasted is that we truly believe we need to be good neighbors. When you see bad apples, you have to say, “Hey, please be a better environmental steward. Observe how other people are doing this so that we can have good relationships with our communities.”

TPO: In this day and age, when best practices are well known and widespread, do you still see agencies handling biosolids in less than ideal ways?

Lono-Batura: Ideally, everyone wants to do it the right way. But if there are budget pressures, maybe an agency goes with the lowest-bid contractor, who might not operate as responsibly as the one who costs more. You also can have pressures from upper management and what they believe is right. In the end, the takeaway is that we all need to do a good job and make sure we provide good examples of how to use this product responsibly.

TPO: Does it seem to you as if the closer people actually get to the product, the more accepting they become?

Lono-Batura: Yes. You’d think it would be the opposite for some people, but it’s not. When they see the product, it looks like soil. It doesn’t look the way the blogs picture it. They see that it’s a product. It does work, and it’s safe. For example, people go to TAGRO [in Tacoma, Wash.]. They see the headquarters offices, the production facility, and a garden lush with flowers, fruits and vegetables. The proof is right there that it does work.

TPO: Where people are concerned about biosolids, what is it fundamentally that they don’t understand?

Lono-Batura: A few things play into it, and one of them, even though many people deny it, is the ‘ick factor.’ Biosolids came from humans, and it’s strange to some people that we would even consider using it. Manure from a grass-fed animal, they have no problem with that. In addition, with more advanced research capabilities, we’re detecting substances in biosolids at lower concentrations, and we’re seeing things we hadn’t seen before. And so people think, ‘What is this doing here and how long is it going to last in the environment? Is it safe?’ A large reason our organization was created is to collaborate on research to help answer those questions. In reality, many of these are compounds where the highest exposure people will get is from direct contact — like through brushing your teeth or taking a pill.

TPO: From the point of view of a clean-water agency or an operator, how can your association help them?

Lono-Batura: Our membership base is clean-water agencies, along with subscriber companies who provide services to that group. Since our origin in 1987, part of our charter has been to fulfill needs for biosolids managers. This region needed a network to disseminate best practices and help guide regulations. In Washington, our organization played a major role in creating a unified biosolids rule for the state, in place of a patchwork quilt of county regulations.

Another big part of our mission is to answer questions that people have, and that we have. We pool our research funds. Every year nearly half our budget goes to research at local universities. We ask: What do we want to know? What’s most important? What are our priorities?

TPO: What are your association’s research priorities now?

Lono-Batura: They change from year to year. Since the early 1990s, we have worked with the University of Washington, Washington State University and Oregon State University. At present we’re also working with the University of Arizona. Members have the ability to direct funds toward a specific project if it can’t be funded within the general research budget.

One area we’ve looked at in the past year is carbon accounting and how biosolids contribute to carbon sequestration in the soil. We’re also looking at compound breakdown. People want to know what’s happening to the compounds that enter wastewater. Some of them go right to the biosolids; others are more of a concern for the effluent side. So we look at the fate of contaminants in biosolids and how that may affect application rates.

There’s also research on using biosolids in urban areas, such as in stormwater bioretention systems. The University of Arizona has done extensive research on bioaerosols, because that was a big concern. Some groups opposed to biosolids said people were getting sick from aerosols from application sites nearby.

TPO: What would you say to those who claim biosolids have not been studied adequately?

Lono-Batura: The development of the federal 503 biosolids regulation took an extensive amount of work. It was a rigorous risk assessment that serves as the foundation on which other research is built. It gives biosolids a strong position and a clear sense of direction. In our area, Washington State University has studied tall fescue crops over a 20-year period, looking at growth, harvest and at what’s happening in the soil. So while it’s often alleged that there haven’t been any long-term studies, actually there have been.

TPO: How does your association help members on the communications front, when they do run into biosolids controversies?

Lono-Batura: We put out information that is easily digestible for the public. Like our one-page fact sheets that tell in very plain language what biosolids in forestry is about, and what biosolids in agriculture is about. We make these fact sheets available to our members or anyone interested in learning more about biosolids.

In addition, under our university research agreements, our researchers are available to go to members’ facilities and end-use sites and help them troubleshoot their operations. That has become an essential part of what we do. We also have an extensive research library. Every month our University of Washington researcher distills down all the recent articles, whether favorable or unfavorable to biosolids, and gives a summary so that members have a pulse on what is happening. The summary is available online, and our members have access to the full articles. More than 2,600 sources are currently listed there. Other regional biosolids associations have contributed to this library, so their members can have access, as well.

TPO: Briefly, how would you characterize the state of biosolids in your region?

Lono-Batura: We have a great beneficial use rate in the Northwest — 88 percent. And we have a lot of fantastic long-term programs, from agriculture, to renewable fuel crops, to mine reclamation. There’s all this groundbreaking research and a network that is really strong. On the other hand, there continue to be challenges, especially in the form of proposed bans. We’ve seen that in California and Virginia, and they’re coming to this neck of the woods, as well. It serves to bring our network closer together to work more strategically on how to make sure beneficial reuse can continue.

We’ve formed a group called the Association of Biosolids & Byproducts Associations (ABBA), and we meet quarterly to talk about what’s going on in each of our regions. It’s a great way to gauge what’s happening. Why are people upset about this program? Why is some other program working well? And how do we duplicate that in our neck of the woods?

TPO: How would you assess the impact of the decision by health food retailer Whole Foods not to buy produce grown with biosolids as fertilizer?

Lono-Batura: The ABBA group has reached out to them saying we understand their decision, based on their business interests, but that we would like them to learn a little more about biosolids. They don’t have to sell produce that comes from those farms, but just give us a chance to show what we really do and that it’s not what their sources are telling them.


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