Several dozen concerned citizens, environmental advocates and farmers packed the main hearing room at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management on Tuesday for a public hearing on the way substances called biosolids are being used as fertilizer throughout Alabama.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is the primary agency to regulate biosolids, which can often be the solid materials leftover from wastewater treatment plants or poultry processing operations. But after the infamous “poop trains” from New York in 2018 and complaints last year about poultry processing waste being dumped on farm land, Alabama chose to implement its own regulations.
The proposed rules would create additional requirements for those who spread biosolids on land as a fertilizer, but many who spoke during the public hearing believe the proposed rules aren’t strict enough or won’t be adequately enforced by the department.
Several state residents who say they were impacted by biosolids in one form or another spoke at the hearing, as well as elected officials who have heard complaints from constituents.
Etowah County Commissioner Tim Ramsey said he received complaints about odors from “about a five-mile radius” after poultry processing waste was land applied in his district.
“This product that’s being put out right now is unacceptable to the general population,” Ramsey said. “It may have its benefits, and I get that, I understand it. But it’s not acceptable to the general population.”
A second Etowah County Commissioner, Larry Payne, expressed similar concerns about poultry processing waste, and several residents and elected officials from the town of West Jefferson spoke about their ordeal with the poop train, dealing with severe odors and infestations of flies as train cars full of sewage remnants from New York and New Jersey sat in train cars waiting to be hauled by truck to a the Big Sky landfill in Adamsville.
Steven Dudley of environmental group Coosa Riverkeeper said he also received complaints about the application of biosolids in the Coosa River basin. He said those included reports of various personal hygiene products applied to the land with the sludge.
“In theory, these byproducts can be a good source of nutrients for agricultural operations,” Dudley said. “But unfortunately, the actual practice of the application of these byproducts is far from beneficial.”
ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said the purpose of the new rules is to expand on the EPA biosolids program to address the odor complaints, but admitted there were challenges.
“Odor is a difficult thing to try to regulate,” LeFleur said. “But since odor is is an elusive thing to measure and to regulate, we take the approach of we can now require best management practices, which will not completely, but in large part will control those odors.”
For example, he cited the poop train. LeFleur said ADEM can’t regulate the import of sewer sludge from out of state because that would violate interstate commerce, but it can set limits on how that waste is handled once it arrives here.
“The poop train highlighted in spades a problem where they ship the material down here and then let it sit,” LeFleur said. “And as any organic compound will do it, it degrades over time and creates an odor.
“It was poorly managed. It was coming to a landfill, and there were issues with offloading and that sort of thing.”
Under the proposed regulations, ADEM would set up a permitting and reporting process for entities that apply biosolids to land, and set requirements including buffer zones from neighboring properties.
The proposed rules are set to be voted on by the Alabama Environmental Management Commission next month, although some groups say they would like the Department to take more time and involve more interested parties before the new rules are finalized.
The Alabama Rivers Alliance, Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Coosa Riverkeeper all asked the Department to delay implementing the rules, but for now the Commission is expected to vote on Feb. 14.