Biosolids Battle: Quasar Talks Lessons Learned in New York

Unexpected opposition to land-applied Class B biosolids forced Quasar Energy Group to re-examine its public relations efforts. What can other wastewater plants learn from the experience?

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In environmentally sensitive western New York, biosolids land application has turned into a tough sell for Quasar Energy Group. The company, which produces renewable energy from municipal waste, is involved in a legal battle centered on its right to land apply equate, its house brand of Class B biosolids.

In 2012, Quasar received approval to operate in the Town of Wheatfield. The company built an anaerobic digester, which converts food waste and municipal sludge into methane gas, and made an agreement with local Milleville Brothers Farm to land apply the biosolids. All state permits were granted, and Quasar was set to apply equate in 10 fields.

But the company quickly met resistance from citizens concerned about the safety of spreading biosolids on fields.

“They refer to biosolids as ‘toxic sludge,’” says Nathan Carr, Quasar’s biomass account executive. “We felt like we were doing all of the right things. We followed all of their rules, we answered all of their questions and we secured all of the permits and invested millions of dollars to build the project. We even hired local employees to run the facility.”

But Wheatfield is a region already scarred by environmental disaster, and emotions run deep. The town lies in the shadow of Love Canal, which is considered one of the biggest environmental disasters in history.

“They’ve managed to manipulate the genuine fear and emotion associated with the Love Canal tragedy and are applying it to an unrelated, benign topic,” Carr says. “There’s a history of pollution in the area — several sites with nuclear waste — and they’ve sort of built on that background.”

Carr says the greatest concern from Wheatfield residents has centered on pathogens, emerging contaminants, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and runoff potential. That concern and opposition became so great the town passed a law on July 28, 2014, banning the use, storage or application of biosolids — even for those with state permits.

In response, Quasar recently filed a lawsuit in Erie County’s State Supreme Court against the town’s law, which will be heard on Jan. 14.

Lessons learned
Despite having a solid public relations campaign, proper state permits and working relationships with several farmers in the area, Quasar still encountered resistance. The company was forced to examine how it approached the public and what type of information it needed to present.

“The opposition that we received was really a surprise for us,” Carr says. “Once that opposition emerged we held a series of informational meetings and attended numerous town board meetings. We’ve tried to address those questions with sound scientific research.”

Quasar brought in an Ohio State University expert to field questions and invited town board members, residents and opposition leaders to its facility. The company hit social media with fact-based biosolids information and invited town representatives to view a land application.

“What we’ve seen is the vocal opposition tends to make a snap decision,” Carr says. “They go to the Internet and they only look for information that supports their fears instead of looking at the body of scientific research that supports the safety and benefit of biosolids. You end up with a really passionate, vocal minority, and they’re unlikely to waiver once they make a decision. So, our focus has been on educating the rest of the residents about the scientific truth and benefits of anaerobic digestion.”

Carr explains that in a community so rich in environmental tragedy, outreach is imperative and should be done early — before opposition emerges. He also says Quasar discovered what others in the industry know all too well: Biosolids need a public relations facelift.

“If we took a couple of people off the street and asked them a couple of questions, most people wouldn't know much about biosolids,” he says. “Where’s the disconnect? Why does everyone know that manure is a nutrient-rich supplement, but hardly anyone sees biosolids that way? Most folks don’t even know what happens at a treatment plant. It would be great if people understood the structure and the treatment process.”

Whatever happens on the legal front, one thing is certain: Education is necessary and biosolids will continue to encounter resistance where it’s misunderstood.

"With so many communities focused on 'zero waste,' the opportunity is ripe for biosolids education," Carr says. "Through a thoughful and educational outreach program, biosolids recycling can be next."


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