The Nation's Top Region for Biosolids Land Application Now Has Its Own Advocate Organization

The newly formed Midwest Biosolids Association looks to foster education, research, and collaboration among diverse industry participants

The Nation's Top Region for Biosolids Land Application Now Has Its Own Advocate Organization

Stacia Eckenwiler

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Midwestern utilities arguably land-apply more biosolids than those in any other region of the country. So it only makes sense that the Midwest would join the ranks of regional biosolids associations.

There’s the Northeast Biosolids and Residuals Association, the Mid-Atlantic Biosolids Association, Northwest Biosolids and, as of last January, a Southeast Biosolids Association in the formative stage. Now comes the Midwest Biosolids Association.

The Midwest organization’s mission is similar to those of its counterparts: promote environmentally sound and sustainable biosolids management, foster cooperation among the various industry participants, and promote and share research results, and technical and general information about biosolids and the benefits of organics recycling.

The association recently formed through the efforts of a broad spectrum of people and organizations, representing universities, municipalities, service providers, state regulators, consultants and others involved in biosolids management. Stacia Eckenwiler, P.E., secretary of the organization and assistant administrator in the Division of Sewerage and Drainage in Columbus, Ohio, talked about the new group in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: How was this association conceived and created?

Eckenwiler: A small group of representatives from various utilities got together at the WEF/IWA Residuals and Biosolids Conference in Columbus in May 2022. We talked about the need for a regional association focused on biosolids in the Midwest. We identified the need and decided to get the boots on the ground to fill it.

TPO: For your organization’s purposes, how do you define the Midwest?

Eckenwiler: The region extends across the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, and across the upper Mississippi River valley to include Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota. We also invite the participation of other states, as well as Canadian provinces in the region. We don’t have any active participants from Canada as yet, but we want to be open to that because some provinces are adjacent to our region, and some of the other regional associations reach up into Canada.

TPO: Were you inspired by the experiences of other regional biosolids associations?

Eckenwiler: Yes. For example, the Northeast Biosolids and Residuals Association has played a significant role for 25 years in educating its member communities and shaping public policies on biosolids. Northwest Biosolids and the Mid-Atlantic Biosolids Association have also been major contributors in education and addressing policy issues in their regions.

TPO: How would you envision the makeup of the membership base?

Eckenwiler: The biggest group consists of generators and processors of biosolids, notably municipal treatment facilities and NPDES holders, but also private-sector generators. Processors include third parties that take biosolids from generators, process it and find an end use for it. They also include land-appliers. The rest will be agricultural and environmental organizations that dovetail into the industry, businesses that sell products or services to the industry, plus students, regulatory officials, scientists and others.

TPO: What factors provided the motivation to form the organization?

Eckenwiler: The impetus sprang from increasing pressures on state and federal governments for support of biosolids management. More specifically, it was the current legislative and regulatory climate around emerging contaminants, notably PFAS and the related focus on biosolids. We feel the beneficial product we all create is under attack. Maine, for example, has enacted a statewide ban on biosolids land application that is not based on sound science. We aim to be a resource for industry information, for educational tools and for research, with the aim to provide data to counteract the negativity surrounding the biosolids industry.

TPO: Would you envision doing original research or simply disseminating results of research already completed by others?

Eckenwiler: We would be looking in the future to identify research opportunities, find collaborative partners, solicit funding, and actually perform research or at least be a partner in it. And then we would take advantage of educational opportunities based on that research, or on other information drawn from subject matter experts in our industry. We would distribute information through email and our website, and eventually hold an annual conference.

TPO: What is the advantage of having regional associations as opposed to a national approach?

Eckenwiler: The Water Environment Federation has a national biosolids focus within its organization. However, regional associations also make sense because the issues around biosolids are different based on what region you’re in. For example, here in the Midwest we have lots of sprawling, flat farmland where biosolids are applied. Working regionally also enables us to collaborate more closely. The first step I take for learning what others in our industry are doing is reach out within my state, and to bordering states.

TPO: Do you see networking as an important role for this association?

Eckenwiler: Yes. We see the association serving as a collaborative network for the biosolids community to share resources, learn from one another, and bridge the gap between biosolids managers and end users, such as the farming community. We also see it providing services to  communities that otherwise might lack the necessary experience or resources to manage biosolids programs successfully.

TPO: In your opinion, how does the biosolids industry need to approach PFAS?

Eckenwiler: PFAS is everywhere. So it doesn’t make sense to set PFAS regulatory levels in biosolids, or in drinking water or wastewater effluent, that are lower than background levels that exist in everyday life and in the environment in general. A guiding message I envision coming out of our organization is that we need to be reasonable about the limits we set. We also have to work across regulatory boundaries. The clean-water industry is regulated by the EPA, the food industry by the FDA, and consumer products by other entities. There has to be collaboration, and there has to be logic applied to the limits and the goals we set as a country.

TPO: How would you summarize the key educational needs surrounding biosolids?

Eckenwiler: In the end there are three ways to handle biosolids: landfill, incineration and beneficial use. Our goal is provide information that helps educate the public, and also to educate biosolids processors on the best ways to utilize those methods and collaborate with one another. For example, we in Columbus, Ohio, might be doing what we’ve done for years. But there might be somebody in Minnesota who has developed a better way of doing what we do, or is doing something different that we have an opportunity to learn from.

TPO: Why is now a good time to form an organization like the Midwest Biosolids Association?

Eckenwiler: It is important now more than ever for people in our industry to be talking and collaborating. The water and wastewater industry is changing, and in some ways we are suffering. For one thing, we’re losing people from the baby boomer generation who are retiring, and we’re not getting an influx of new blood. So we need to be working together to find ways to run our utilities and handle our biosolids in the most efficient, economical and responsible manner. An association like ours is one way we can offer that kind of opportunity to utilities and other industries within our region. There is a huge benefit to collaborating, learning from one another, and building alliances. We need that now more than we’ve ever needed it.


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