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Biosolids editorial fails to tell both sides

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By The Staff

While last week’s editorial on biosolids allowed that there are “two sides to this story,” the writer then proceeded to tell only one side—the one opposed to the recycling of biosolids as a fertilizer and soil amendment for farms and forestlands.

The editorial cited only sections of a recent Associated Press story to raise alarm about the land application of biosolids, while ignoring other sections, other court decisions and years of scientific research and experience that demonstrate the safety and benefits of biosolids recycling.

Your readers deserve better.

The editorial claimed that a recent ruling by a federal court judge in Georgia “is likely to further call into question the use of the product and the government's stamp of approval on it.” Left out, however, was the fact that the application of biosolids in question ended in 1990, 18 years ago, and three years before the implementation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Part 503 Rule,” which safely regulates the land application of biosolids throughout U.S. and Virginia.

The writer indicated the judge awarded “compensation.” He did not. This was a judicial review of a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had turned down an application for a “prevented planting federal farm subsidy” (our tax dollars), based on a highly disputed claim of harm from biosolids. The judge determined that the USDA did not give adequate weight to information provided by the claimant and ruled that he was eligible for the subsidy.

The biosolids community was not a party to this suit and was not called on to present any evidence.

The record shows that the local USDA committee, composed of local farmers, had earlier decided the claims were unjustified and recommended against the subsidy. It should also be noted that many local farmers in the area long ago made their own decisions about the validity of the claims and have continued to land apply biosolids on their fields.

The editorial also failed to inform readers that the EPA and the University of Georgia had performed extensive tests on the soil that had received biosolids from the Augusta, Georgia, wastewater treatment plant and tested the hay and grass grown on the land. These scientific studies determined that the land and the crops were safe and did not have toxic levels of heavy metals. Veterinary experts from Auburn University and the University of Georgia determined that the cows in question were suffering Johne’s disease, a common disease resulting from poor dairy herd management.

The editorial omitted quotes from the AP story by Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA's assistant administrator for water programs, “who said that the judge's order underscored the significance of what he called strong national standards on sludge rather than undercutting the giveaway program.”

The editorial left out the statement by William Miller, the University of Georgia soil scientist who co-authored the 2003 study, who said he “stands by the conclusions” of the study. The study appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Quality. There has been no scientific challenge to the study’s conclusions.

The editorial claimed the “ruling of the federal judge was based in large part upon the government's failure to actee” The public record demonstrates that this is absolutely false. The City of Augusta, the EPA and the scientific community responded swiftly and thoroughly to the claims. The claimants, however, never accepted the results.

The editorial writer then quoted an Pennsylvania township supervisor as claiming that biosolids are “deadly,” a statement that has no scientific basis from someone with no scientific credentials. It should be noted that the Attorney General of Pennsylvania is suing this township (East Brunswick Township, pop. 1,600) because it passed an unconstitutional ordinance banning biosolids. This ordinance is similar to the unconstitutional ordinance proposed by biosolids opponents in Bedford last year, which was wisely rejected by Bedford County Supervisors.

A little more research by the editorial writer, and others opposed to land application, would have revealed a number of significant federal court decisions supporting the safety of biosolids.

The most recent was in California, in Los Angeles vs. Kern County. In that decision, U.S. District Judge Gary Alan Feess ruled against a ban on biosolids and said the following:

“In short, while applying sewage sludge to agricultural land may provoke a visceral response in lay observers, the available evidence suggests that the practice has been undertaken safely throughout the United States without any indication of detrimental environmental or health impacts, and indeed is the most environmentally sound method of managing the material.”

The farmers of Bedford County and the members of the biosolids community throughout Virginia and the nation have the science and the practical experience to demonstrate the safety and benefits of biosolids. All we ask is fair treatment from this paper and an honest effort to present “two sides to this story.”