Biosolids Pioneer Talks About Changes Over 40-Year Career

U.S. EPA’s Robert Bastian shares insights from four decades on the forefront of encouraging and regulating beneficial use of biosolids.
Biosolids Pioneer Talks About Changes Over 40-Year Career
Robert Bastian, senior environmental scientist for the U.S. EPA Office of Wastewater Management

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When the Clean Water Act started a wave of wastewater treatment plant construction and upgrades, one problem facing utilities and regulators was how to deal with solids that would be generated.

For four decades, Robert Bastian has helped develop and implement solutions. As a senior environmental scientist in the U.S. EPA Office of Wastewater Management, Bastian has been involved in crafting regulations that allow beneficial use of biosolids and in actively promoting beneficial practices through his agency’s guidance materials.

He has seen recycling of biosolids (formerly called sewage sludge) through times of uncertainty and controversy right up to today’s world, in which the material in various forms is widely (though not universally) accepted for its value as a soil amendment and its restorative power when applied to distressed land.

Bastian grew up on a farm in northwestern Ohio and “was used to putting manure on the ground and dealing with agriculture from a very young age.” He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, mathematics and environmental sciences from Bowling Green State University in his home state. He joined the EPA in 1975, after three years of active duty in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where his assignments included overseeing a major wastewater spray application project in Muskegon, Michigan, during final construction.

With the EPA in Washington, D.C., Bastian started as a member of a technical group supporting the Construction Grants Program that funded wastewater treatment plant projects across the nation. He evolved into his role as an EPA authority on biosolids management. For his contributions to the Water Environment Federation, of which he has been a member since the late 1970s, Bastian was named a 2016 WEF Fellow. He reflected on his career and the progress of biosolids recycling in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: How did the EPA deal with biosolids in the early years?

Bastian: From the late 1960s to the late 1980s there was extensive research and development. Under the Construction Grants Program we had to come up with technical assistance and guidance on what projects would be fundable, and there was an effort to develop federal policy encouraging recycling of wastes. Sewage sludge ended up being a piece of that. Then there was the 40 CFR Part 257 rule under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that comprised the initial round of regulations putting restrictions on what could be done with the material. There was an effort to build state programs to manage how the material was handled.

TPO: How did the biosolids program evolve from those initial phases?

Bastian: In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was the National Sewage Sludge Survey, an effort to assess the quality of sewage sludge at that point in time. Technical regulations under 40 CFR Part 503 were completed in the late 1980s, dealing with land application, surface disposal and incineration. There was active federal oversight and encouragement of recycling where it could be done, and there was a lot of coordination with the state programs and external groups.

TPO: What came next?

Bastian: From the early 1990s into the 2000s, there was significant coordination with state programs to encourage them to take delegation, because they were on the front line and could deal with recycling projects a lot easier than EPA could. There was less active EPA oversight but continued support for recycling. Around that time the Environmental Management Systems concept was developed to help deal with odor and other issues that weren’t part of the federal regulations. The EPA provided funding to the National Biosolids Partnership to support that. There were also efforts to address dioxins, radiation, bioaerosols and emerging contaminants and to look at bioassay as a way of screening for potential contaminants.

TPO: What have been the major developments in the past decade or so?

Bastian: Since the early 2000s, there has been continued work with state programs, monitoring state enforcement activity and the practices various agencies use for tracking information on permittees. There’s an effort now to convert data collection to electronic discharge monitoring reports. From the time the 503 rules were issued, permittees have been sending in paper reports.

TPO: Despite progress in public acceptance of biosolids over the past decades, why do we still see public controversies around beneficial use projects?

Bastian: It’s a combination of things. There are materials like Milwaukee’s Milorganite, which has been sold for more than 70 years, but Milwaukee received discharges from breweries and food processors that made for a nice product. Other treatment plants received more industrial discharges with high levels of contaminants. And there’s the idea that if you treat wastewater and make it safe, the contaminants tend to concentrate in the solids.

The other side is that EPA’s regulations don’t necessarily address the control of odors and other nuisance conditions. Some operations do the minimum level of treatment and can create odor and nuisance issues that can bother neighbors. Most of the opposition tends to focus on that. Then there is the issue of certified organic products. When the USDA set up their standards, they excluded the use of sewage sludge and some other materials. It wasn’t based on science and technology. It was based mainly on opposition they received to the idea of growing food crops on soil with human waste applied to it.

TPO: What has been the impact of industrial pretreatment?

Bastian: Cadmium, lead and mercury were focused on as part of the 503 rulemaking. Before the industrial pretreatment program was in place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some materials had pretty high levels of these metals. For example, Chicago biosolids at one time had over 300 ppm of cadmium. They are now down under 10 ppm through industrial pretreatment controls.

TPO: How does the prevalence of beneficial use in Europe, Canada and elsewhere compare with the United States?

Bastian: We are pretty much on the same level as in the European Union. Australia also recycles a lot of its biosolids. From what I’ve seen, both here and in those places, there is a movement toward more Class A and Class A EQ products. However, if plenty of land is available to put the material on, such as to reclaim land that was grossly disturbed through mining, it might make more sense to do that than to invest in more processing so you can sell it as a product.

TPO: How would you assess the future of biogas as a more universal renewable fuel?

Bastian: The issue of energy recovery and in some cases making wastewater plants energy self-sufficient or even net energy producers is getting a fair amount of attention. The underlying problem is that it takes an anaerobic digester to produce biogas. And among plants that have anaerobic digesters, well over half are just flaring the gas. Many are just using the gas to heat the digesters or for other heating needs. There is a growing interest in combined heat and power, but that takes capital investment.

TPO: Is anything happening to help facilities get over that financial hurdle?

Bastian: There is growth in private sector investment money being made available. Private entities are working with treatment plants to do energy recovery inside the fence. Power purchase agreements are just one of many financing possibilities.

TPO: What is EPA doing now to promote more beneficial use of biosolids?

Bastian: There is the broad issue of recycling to reduce the amounts of organics going to landfills. That’s the big item on the promotion side. On the funding side, we have the State Revolving Fund programs. In addition, Congress has created the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to help with infrastructure reinvestment, and projects that involve beneficial use of biosolids are eligible. A couple of other programs are in development.

TPO: What events in your career involving biosolids are the most personally satisfying?

Bastian: Research has found that biosolids have worked well on contaminated sites. In one case, on a Superfund site where plants wouldn’t grow, they could actually get vegetation established, and reduce the uptake of contaminants by plants, by using the biosolids as a soil amendment. The concept of using the material on those sites, reducing the bioavailability of contaminants, and vegetating steep slopes with contaminants on them that would otherwise run off into surface waters is a pretty dramatic development.

TPO: What advice would you give to clean-water agencies today that may be struggling with some aspect of beneficial use?

Bastian: They need to involve the people who raise the questions so they can see the benefits first-hand. Public education programs and demonstration projects have been effective where authorities have put some effort into them.

TPO: Looking ahead 10 years from now, where do you see beneficial use headed?

Bastian: In California, they’re now using biosolids to help close landfills rather than fill landfills. Some treatment plants are becoming energy self-sufficient and even marketing excess energy. They’re taking in other residuals like food waste and adding those to the digesters to generate more biogas and turn themselves into power generators. The whole idea of converting wastewater treatment into resource recovery seems to have a positive message.


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