Creating the Dairy Farm/Biosolids Relationship

Essex Junction’s wastewater plant team and a local farmer combine resources to enhance soil and crops while protecting the waters of Lake Champlain.
Creating the Dairy Farm/Biosolids Relationship
James Jutras, Essex Junction Wastewater Water Resource Recovery Facility water quality superintendent.

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When James Jutras gets together with dairy farmer Lorenzo Whitcomb, it’s a lot like a team meeting. The two have worked closely for much of the past two decades.

Whitcomb uses biosolids from the Essex Junction (Vermont) Water Resource Recovery Facility to help fertilize the corn he grows on his family’s farm to help feed nearly 300 dairy cows. Jutras is water quality superintendent for Essex Junction.

It’s definitely a win-win relationship. Whitcomb receives a high-quality soil amendment that helps him boost yields and sustain the soil’s organic matter content. Essex Junction benefits by having a single customer, almost next door. On top of that, good application practices limit runoff from the Whitcomb land, helping protect Lake Champlain from nutrient pollution.

True believer

Whitcomb’s belief in the value of biosolids helped him overcome a controversy that for a time halted application on his land. After he had used biosolids for several years, media reports that Whitcomb describes as inaccurate tainted public perceptions about the practice. That made it difficult for farmers to continue using biosolids to supplement commercial fertilizers.

Still, Whitcomb never lost interest in biosolids. “Six or seven years ago I came to the realization that the biosolids were going up to Quebec, where they were making good use of them,” he says. That’s when he talked to Jutras about restarting application.

In resuming their relationship, the two have come up with a mutually beneficial arrangement. For Jutras, the Whitcomb farm is a blessing as it dramatically reduces the cost of transporting biosolids. “He’s just a 1/2 mile down the road,” Jutras says.

For Whitcomb, Essex Junction is a partner, providing the biosolids on a schedule that fits his needs and limitations. There are two key times to apply biosolids to the 200 acres permitted for that purpose: in spring after the ground thaws and the runoff from snowmelt is done, and in autumn after the corn harvest but before the ground freezes.

Because Essex Junction has storage tanks with 2 million gallons of capacity, Jutras can hold the liquid biosolids until Whitcomb is prepared for application. The tanks are uncovered concrete structures on the wastewater treatment plant site.

Protecting the lake

The storage of the biosolids as liquid is another example of the two operations working together. When Whitcomb resumed applying biosolids, he sought the best way to keep excess nutrients from running off his land and down the Winooski River to Lake Champlain. Whitcomb, who operates the last active farm in Essex Junction, invested in a 9,600-gallon manure injector (Jamesway) that injects biosolids (as well as liquid manure from his dairy herd) into the ground.

Besides the environmental advantages of the injector, Whitcomb had to consider the bottom line for the family farm, which also involves his brother. The injector actually makes more effective use of the nutrients in the biosolids and manure, reducing the amount of commercial fertilizer the operation needs and helping justify the machine’s cost.

Whitcomb’s decision to inject the material himself benefits the village because, as Jutras points out, village employees and equipment “don’t have to do the land application. He’s actually serving as a subcontractor.”

The treatment plant staff delivers 650,000 to 700,000 gallons of biosolids to Whitcomb’s farm twice a year. “Operationally, that’s been a significant portion of what we produce,” Jutras says. The village in 2012 completed a $15 million rehabilitation of the plant, and operators don’t have enough runtime with the new facility to determine biosolids production accurately.

Plant facelift

The rehabilitation — the first major construction project since the plant was commissioned in 1986 — included upgrades to the primary and secondary clarifiers and aeration tanks, new tertiary filters (Aqua-Aerobic Systems), an Alfa Laval G2 centrifuge for biosolids dewatering, new chemical feed pumps, refurbishment of the two existing Infilco Degremont anaerobic digesters (SUEZ), and a new grit collector system.

The project also included the addition of a second combined heat and power system (2G Energy Inc.) that burns biogas to heat the di-gesters and generates electricity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. After resolution of a few technical issues at startup, the facility is now ready to get “maximum energy return from the digestion process,” Jutras says.

Modernization of the plant’s control systems helps the operators track performance and identify issues sooner. “One thing that has been real helpful is that the SCADA analytical processes are much more thorough and they provide more consistent data,” Jutras says. “If something pops up we can immediately evaluate the problem.”

Although the Whitcomb farm receives biosolids as liquid, the plant upgrade included the Alfa Laval centrifuge because the village has to be prepared to send its biosolids elsewhere if Whitcomb can’t use the full amount or for any reason has to stop receiving the material.

Any biosolids that Whitcomb does not need or cannot handle can be dewatered and delivered as cake at 25 percent solids to other farms permitted for land application. It can also be composted at a nearby facility operated by Casella Organics, a company based in Portland, Maine, that specializes in beneficial use and recycling of organic and mineral resources.

Meeting the standards

Because Vermont’s standards for biosolids quality and runoff from farmland are even more stringent than U.S. EPA regulations, the state standards have primacy, Jutras says. The Essex Junction facility consistently meets or beats those standards, and Whitcomb does as well. “Our digester process is very efficient, and we beat all those standards with ease,” says Jutras. Although the Essex Junction product exceeds the criteria for Class B biosolids, that is the top rating the plant can get due to the process used.

Operators remain vigilant about the quality of both biosolids and plant effluent because “both of our products can impact the lake.” Nutrient runoff reaching Lake Champlain remains under close scrutiny by the EPA and Vermont officials. In August, the EPA issued a draft report setting new Total Maximum Daily Load standards for phosphorus in 12 segments of Vermont’s Lake Champlain shoreline.

Although their region will have to reduce releases of phosphorus, Jutras says Essex Junction and the Whitcomb farm will feel little impact from the new standards. Working through a local solid waste management district, Whitcomb and Essex Junction contract with Casella Organics to monitor biosolids application on the farm. “They are in charge of all of the permitting,” says Jutras. “They do all the testing of our soils and monitor the groundwater through test wells.”

The monitoring has found no problems arising from Whitcomb’s injection of the biosolids on his permitted 200 acres (out of 460 total acres). Jutras is not surprised: “Both of us were pretty proactive. Lorenzo even did some early work on anaerobic digestion of manure before applying it to his land.”

Keeping the neighbors informed

When dairy farmer Lorenzo Whitcomb decided to resume applying Essex Junction biosolids to his fields, he took a proactive approach to dealing with his residential neighbors. He sent them a letter outlining his plans and describing the precautions and the testing involved in the biosolids recycling. The letter read:

To: Our Essex Neighbors
From: Whitcomb Family Farm
Date: Aug. 20, 2009
Re: Use of Local Biosolids as Fertilizer

We are writing to share some information about our dairy farm and the proposed use of biosolids as fertilizer to grow livestock feed. About six years ago, we approached Jim Jutras of the Essex Junction Wastewater Treatment Plant about using Essex biosolids as fertilizer on our farm.

At the time, the biosolids were being trucked to Canada.

We currently farm in two locations, Essex Junction and North Williston. Our milking herd is in Williston and our young stock in Essex. The cows at our Essex Farm don’t make enough manure to fertilize all the crops. We are currently relying on commercial fertilizer to supply our additional needs.

The idea of using a safe, locally produced fertilizer is very appealing both economically and as a community service. Keeping any farm sustainable involves keeping the soil nutrients at optimum levels and not depleting the nutrient levels of the soil. We have the experience and equipment to handle the biosolids in a timely and environmentally safe way.

Whitcomb Farm has previously used biosolids with very good results. The biosolids would be used for cow crops only. The biosolids and groundwater will be tested by the Village of Essex Junction, and the soil testing will be done by Whitcomb Farm’s private crop consultant.

Since Whitcomb Farm will be applying the biosolids, we will adhere to all setbacks and site criteria. Biosolids would be tilled into the soil after application. Biosolids will come exclu-sively from the Essex Junction Wastewater Treatment Plant. In no way should treated biosolids be mistaken as raw sewage.

Lorenzo Whitcomb

Whitcomb says the reaction to his letter was generally positive. James Jutras, water quality superintendent for Essex Junction, agrees that keeping people informed is the best way to maintain public confidence. “Our job has always been to protect public health,” Jutras says. “Environmental groups often look at us as polluters, but our job is taking pollution out.”

He says education of the public about the biggest sources of pollution in local waters and Lake Champlain often falls to him and his colleagues in stormwater and wastewater treatment: “Half of what we have to do is educate people about how professional water quality operators improve the water we recycle back into the environment.”


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