Q&A: Biosolids Talk with NEBRA's Ned Beecher

Over nearly two decades, Ned Beecher and NEBRA have helped elevate public debate about biosolids and bring recycling into the mainstream of farming practice.
Q&A: Biosolids Talk with NEBRA's Ned Beecher
Ned Beecher

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For almost 20 years, Ned Beecher has led the Northeast Biosolids and Residuals Association (NEBRA) as executive director. The organization has seen turbulent times, dealing with public controversy, local bans on biosolids application, and various regulatory initiatives.

Through it all, NEBRA has served its members with research, workshops, technical advice and public outreach, all aimed at gaining acceptance for recycling of biosolids and other residuals as a beneficial practice. For his role, Beecher received the 2015 Biosolids Management Award from the New England Water Environment Association.

Beecher, a native of Concord, Massachusetts, was always interested in the outdoors and environmental affairs. He earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from Amherst College and a master’s in resource management from Antioch University New England. He started work life as a teacher and naturalist with Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany, New

Hampshire, and later worked for Resource Management, a company in the same state that manages municipal biosolids programs.

NEBRA was formed in late 1997, when permitting of farm fields for land application of biosolids often led to public uprisings. Beecher became its first and only executive director in February 1998. NEBRA’s roughly 90 members include clean-water facilities, biosolids management companies, engineering firms, and some septage haulers and paper mills. Its service area includes the New England states and Canada’s Maritime Provinces and Quebec. Beecher talked about NEBRA and its accomplishments in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What was the climate like for biosolids recycling when NEBRA was formed?

Beecher: It was pretty rough. There were a lot of public issues, especially in New Hampshire where 30 or 40 towns adopted bans or very severe restrictions on biosolids use. Even in Maine, which has long recycled about 90 percent of its solids, some towns were trying to ban biosolids from use on farms. There was quite a lot of local public upset, mostly generated by odors.

TPO: How did NEBRA make an impact?

Beecher: Our biggest contribution at first was getting people in the industry to be on the same page, networking together and sharing consistent information. We held conferences and workshops that helped everyone think about how utilities could do a better job and avoid creating the upsets. We also did a lot of outreach. For example, every few years we held a set of open houses, tours and field days for the public over a week or two. Legislators, media people and others came. It helped get the word out about biosolids and what was really going on. We still do outreach in different states depending on the current need.

TPO: What would you say is NEBRA’s greatest benefit to members?

Beecher: No. 1, we keep close track of regulations and legislation and new developments in the field. No. 2, we provide a quick response if members are wrestling with an issue or have a particular question. We have quite a large library now, and we’re in touch with experts all around North America. So if somebody has a technical question, we can easily put them in touch with a person who can answer.

TPO: What would you cite as an example of a key NEBRA accomplishment?

Beecher: In the early 2000s, we were facing an upset public around land application of biosolids. We’d go into a public meeting feeling as if land application was well regulated and controlled with a lot of science behind it. But when we tried to explain that, people got really upset. It was very emotional and challenging. The Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) put out a request for proposals for a social-science look at public perceptions of biosolids. We assembled a team and met with leaders in the field of environmental conflict — people who understood the social science around the siting of environmental facilities.

TPO: What was the outcome of that exercise?

Beecher: We learned a lot. We got a good sense of why biosolids were so concerning to some people. Then we worked with WERF to put on a research symposium with diverse stakeholders, including some dedicated opponents of biosolids as well as leading researchers from around the country. Everyone debated what the research priorities should be. It was a fascinating process, working toward consensus. It wasn’t wholly successful, but it did get us talking to people rather than at people — doing a better job of communicating.

TPO: From the social-science perspective, what did you learn from all this?

Beecher: A good tagline would be: Not public relations, public relationships. You have to listen to people, figure out where they are, talk to them about their concerns, and learn from that. It’s a two-way discussion. It’s not just about educating people. It’s about building relationships, developing two-way communication and allowing public involvement in biosolids programs. I think many in this profession have learned to adapt to the needs of stakeholders and continually improve our practices. There are public utilities and biosolids managers that really get this, and others that still don’t.

TPO: Can you give an example of where NEBRA has made an impact on regulations?

Beecher: Massachusetts had an old standard from the 1980s on the level of molybdenum in biosolids applied to soil. It was based on concern about molybdenosis in cattle. It was 25 ppm, or 10 ppm if being applied to a forage crop. The standard made it impossible for Boston’s biosolids pellets — Bay State Fertilizer — to be used in the state to any great extent. In 2015, we organized a workshop involving state regulators and researchers who had done risk assessments on molybdenum. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority also weighed in and had considerable impact. The state Department of Environmental Protection has now proposed a new standard of 40 ppm that we recommended, and we expect it to be adopted later this year.

TPO: What would you say are the biggest issues facing biosolids recycling today?

Beecher: The two biggest technical issues are emerging contaminants of concern, which are trace chemicals from household products, and phosphorus. On emerging contaminants, we’ve tracked the research and provided updates, and I think we’ve helped our stakeholders see that the likelihood of any significant risk from those chemicals in biosolids is very low. These chemicals are in our daily lives at much higher concentrations than in biosolids.

TPO: What is the issue with phosphorus?

Beecher: The phosphorus issue is more challenging. Phosphorus occurs in biosolids often at levels higher than the crop needs. If you apply biosolids based on the nitrogen needs of the crop, which is the common practice, you end up applying more phosphorus than needed. Some states in our region have laws that don’t allow any phosphorus fertilizer to be applied to lawns or turf, and sometimes in agriculture, if a soil test does not show the need. That’s fine for commercial fertilizers where you can keep the phosphorus out, but with biosolids, or with compost made from food waste, phosphorus is a part of it and you can’t just delete it.

What this points to is that biosolids is unbalanced as a fertilizer, and if we can get more phosphorus out in the form of struvite at wastewater treatment plants, then we’ll end up making a more balanced product. NEBRA recently worked with the University of Massachusetts Extension to create a symposium on how best to manage phosphorus in organic residuals applied to soils.

TPO: How would you briefly sum up NEBRA’s accomplishments on behalf of members?

Beecher: I would boil it down to just being there. We’re not a big organization. There are a lot of things I wish we could do. But just being here to make our members and the public aware of issues that come up, and to speak for biosolids, has been the most valuable thing. Our members have said they appreciate our tracking and commenting on regulations and legislation for them, because they don’t always have the time.

TPO: How would you say that attitudes toward biosolids have changed in NEBRA’s nearly 20 years of existence?

Beecher: My sense is that things are better now than in the 1990s. I think more people know what biosolids are. I believe we’ve had success through NEBRA and through the work of our members and other individuals and groups around the continent. There’s a lot more understanding of biosolids among key stakeholders around the region and country, and biosolids have become an accepted part of soil amendment and fertilizer markets.

TPO: What evidence would you cite to support that belief?

Beecher: For one thing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in its new produce safety rules under an act that Congress passed in 2012, includes biosolids right along with manures and other fertilizers as standard farming practice, if applied in accordance with Part 503, the U.S. EPA regulation. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Management Code 590 also mentions biosolids as a common source of nutrients. Another indication of how biosolids use is becoming more mainstream is that when there have been legal challenges, when courts have looked hard at the technical arguments on both sides, they have found in favor of biosolids application being an appropriate farming activity. And, here in NEBRA’s region, there are fewer public upsets around biosolids land application programs.

TPO: How would you assess the importance of NEBRA and organizations like it in the years ahead?

Beecher: Biosolids management is a major expense item for public utilities, yet the attention paid to it is still low in many cases. The hassles and the costs that can come when a program doesn’t work right are significant. In the past, the EPA had a large team of people working on biosolids, but in the last 10 to 15 years, that has diminished a lot. State regulatory agencies have gone the same way in most cases.

To me, organizations like NEBRA, the National Biosolids Partnership, the California association biosolids program, Northwest Biosolids and the Mid-Atlantic Biosolids Association have become more important, as have the Water Environment Federation and National Association of Clean Water Agencies biosolids programs. Where else are people looking at policy and making sure that biosolids recycling is defended when needed, that outreach happens, and that information and expertise continue to be shared? As a profession, we can’t rely on regulatory agencies or others to speak for us.

NEBRA has been a great team effort. I give kudos to our board of directors and our past presidents who have led the organization well and helped it grow. It is really critical for an organization like ours to have a strong volunteer board and an active, engaged membership. I enjoy working with them every day — these are dedicated, thoughtful professionals. It’s an honor to work in this field.


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