Biosolids Top Soil Getting our Feet on the Ground

Facebook delivered the awful news.  I am accustomed to daily upsets from Facebook, but not this kind of upset. I re-read it to be sure. Terry J. Logan, 1943 – 2017.


I clicked on the link to  I skimmed through: “... passed away unexpectedly... loving spouse Billie Lindsay, …grandchildren… Caroline Snyder [oooh!]...Ohio State... N-Viro... retired professor of soil science... judged science fair competitions… author of several published works of fiction” [what??!!, N.B., they are available on Amazon].

Crap!!... Deprived of the chance for a face-to-face "thanks for all you did...," I made the modern gesture; I "messaged" Billie with condolences.  Twenty years ago (can you believe time has flown), I stayed with Billie and Terry when I traveled to Columbus, Ohio, for Terry’s by-products conference, the one at which I offered OJ Simpson inspired jingles to sell biosolids: “Biosolids: good for the dirt. Grows big plants. It doesn’t hurt.”

Terry had been a leader in the science of biosolids-soil interactions. He had several key roles in the Part 503 regulations. Terry and Billie kept the big picture in mind. I recall Terry reminding the biosolids communities that quantities of coal ash, foundry sand and animal manures were so much more vast than biosolids, and we needed to join forces (note: we still do).  They had a topsoil product focus. Billie, with Terry’s support, developed a model for formulating manufactured soil from a mix of residual products. I used this model to assist our marketing agent with sales of Philadelphia’s biosolids compost.

The problem and challenge of biosolids-based top soil blends is still with us, and I wish Terry were around for the new challenges. Just after Labor Day, I received this note from Virginia’s chief biosolids regulator: “Virginia DEQ and DC Water have negotiated draft permit terms for a distribution and marketing permit for their Exceptional Quality biosolids cake produced by the CAMBI system. The public comment period on the DC Water distribution and marketing permit for Bloom began Friday, August 25, and will run through September 25.” That is 2017; DC Water has been up and running nearly 2 years with Cambi.

Significantly, this draft permit seemingly imparts to biosolids-based soil blends every requirement for processing, testing, nutrient management, and recordkeeping that applies typically to Class B biosolids cake. My gut response is UGGGGH!

Blended biosolids products are the very form of biosolids which regulators ought to be promoting, not shackling with regulations. I worry about a seriously chilling effect on what ought to have been a “blooming” of market options.  My highest hope for the DC Water product had been for a vast unleashing of entrepreneurial spirit from within Metro DC’s gardening community in crafting soils for urban uses; now I fear we will have a vast enshrouding of that spirit.

Before this VA DEQ announcement, I had been feeling quite positive about biosolids-based top soils.  MABA members received the wonderful blurb in August 2017 prepared by University of Washington’s Sally Brown: Manufactured Top Soil .   Our own MABA Technical Symposium in July had a presentation by Charles Duprey, Naturcycle, on the use of biosolids products in soils designed for green infrastructure: “Lessons Taught by the Soil Product Marketplace.”  WEF’s Webinar on Communications, Opportunities for Biosolids Communications Webcast, largely focused on the positive aspects of biosolids products in fostering public understanding and support.  

I had also been excited by the broadening conversation about soil health, so sure am I that biosolids top soil blends will be revealed superior.  The Soil Health Institute has an “Action Plan,” and, although only two years old, this group had a July 2017 conference, summarized in Powering Up Our Soils, and released its Soil Health Research Landscape Tool.  The September 2017 volume of CSA News had a short article Digging Deeper into Soil Health  reporting on the Soil Health Institute’s research report: Statistics, Scoring Functions, and Regional Analysis of a Comprehensive Soil Health Database.   

I have reason to believe that shifting the conversation to soil health and away from soil contamination could be a breakthrough for biosolids-based top soils. We have the pro-biosolids Association of Compost Producers in California staking its ground in the tagline: “We Build Healthy Soil”.  Even Al Gore seems to have our back, with his campaign putting out the publication RIGHT UNDER YOUR FEET: Soil Health and the Climate Crisis. Soil health is all the rage!

We have reason to be optimistic that biosolids-based products could be a key segment of the healthy soil awakening.  The current WE&RF research project of which I am part,  High Quality Biosolids (HQB) from Wastewater NTRY7R15, intends to set criteria for blended products, such as those with value in urban / suburban settings. Charlie White, soil researcher at Penn State, presented at the July MABA meeting  “Measuring the effects of organic amendments on soil health,” reaffirming the central role of organic matter of the kind provided by biosolids as a practicable correlate to several attributes of soil health. One of our region’s main soil scientists, Virginia Tech’s Greg Evanylo (also a HQB researcher), has a bunch of relevant publications linking biosolids to healthy soils, for instance: Soil and water environmental effects of fertilizer-, manure-, and compost-based fertility practices in an organic vegetable cropping system ;   The Effects of Long-term Application of Organic Amendments on Soil Organic Carbon Accumulation; and, Compost practices for improving soil properties and turfgrass establishment and quality on a disturbed urban soil.

I believe the focus of biosolids in top soil production can come none too soon, nor too fast. Market development for biosolids-based top soils is an urgent need, as I worry that traditional agricultural outlets for biosolids may be closing. 

Why have I turned to this dark thought? My first dark thought arises with the recent Chesapeake Bay Foundation Report: Farm Manure in Pennsylvania Counties Causing Extensive Bay Pollution, based on a consultant evaluation Unsustainable Agriculture: Pennsylvania’s Manure Hot Spots and their Impact on Local Water Quality and the Chesapeake Bay. This report asserts that “manure, synthetic fertilizer, and biosolids (treated human waste)” are applied at rates more akin to disposal than fertilization. Yup, we are there with manure in the cross hairs.

High soil phosphorus build-up in soils in the Chesapeake is a problem that is not easily or quickly solved. Andrew Sharpley, formerly Penn State and now University of Arkansas, has a body of reports on phosphorus that underscore what will be a multi-generational and multi-pronged effort to unwind a hundred years of environmentally damaging practices. For example, his paper, Phosphorus Legacy: Overcoming the Effects of Past Management Practices to Mitigate Future Water Quality Impairment, points to several problematic farm practices, notably repeated surface applications of high-P fertilizer on no-till farm fields, which is a common biosolids practice.

My second dark thought comes from the growing embrace of “sustainable agriculture.” I dearly wish biosolids could be embraced by sustainable agriculture, but I fear its imbalance of the N to P ratio reasonably forecloses that possibility, despite many other soil benefits of biosolids. Unless the concomitant development of phosphorus extraction technology at treatment plants proves wildly successful and N and P become “balanced,” biosolids-borne phosphorus presents to sustainable farming operators an issue that counts as a negative on their sustainability checklist.

Do I think farming in the mid-Atlantic region will be turning toward “sustainability” in a way that affects biosolids programs in the near future? 

I can’t be sure of this, but I was very surprised to find the agricultural industry moving at lightning speed toward an embrace of sustainable agricultural programs, with new standards, certification programs and audits.

So much exciting development has been underway over the past several years. The agricultural industry founded Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, with its National Indicators Report and its Fieldprint Calculator for self-assessment of sustainability performance and operational efficiency.  The Agronomy, Crop and Soils societies have collaborated on a Certified Crop Adviser program (CCAs), recently expanded to include a Sustainability Specialty (SSp) certification. SSp advisers deploy a calculator that has “farmers measure and document new strategies they implement” which is hoped will “postpone or eliminate the need for additional regulation.”

Another CCA program is the 4R NMP Specialty Certification. 4R NMP is a project of The Fertilizer Institute, through its 4R Nutrient Stewardship  The 4Rs are: 1) RIGHT SOURCE Matches fertilizer type to crop needs; 2)RIGHT RATE Matches amount of fertilizer to crop need; 3) RIGHT TIME Makes nutrients available when crops needs them; 4) RIGHT PLACE: Keep nutrients where crops can use them. You can sense from the 4Rs our vulnerability with biosolids as a nutrient source.  Certified Crop Advisers with a 4R NMP (nutrient management planning) specialty certification are available to audit farm nutrient programs for conformance with 4R stewardship principles.

And that’s not all. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)  seeks to support the sustainability efforts of small, family farms with education programs, including Growing Opportunity: A Guide to USDA Sustainable Farming Programs.  At the world scale, but with a U.S. office as well, Global GAP is setting “GoodAgricultural Practices,” and farmers' implementation of “GAPs” are certified by The GLOBALG.A.P. Farm Assurers.  And, after farm products have been sent off to processors, The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) takes over to certify food product manufacturing, packaging, and distribution.

At every step, Tthe agricultural “value-chain” has sustainability objectives, audits, and certifications at every step. Might we be able to step in and be the "close-the-circle" partner in their sustainability programs? How is it that, after an early start with the Biosolids EMS, our profession seems to now be in a comparatively slow embrace of high standard setting, verification and certification?  Yet, with non-agronomically balanced phosphorus levels in biosolids, can we reasonably expect “sustainable farms” to find a place for biosolids? May be we need to set our sights elsewhere.

I say top soil manufactured with biosolids is where we set our sights. Let's go back to those soil blends that Terry Logan and Billie were designing twenty years ago, and let's jump onto those blends that Greg Evanylo has been testing over the past two years through his WE&RF High Quality Biosolids research. That is where biosolids lends its best features, particularly its phosphorus, where biosolids offers the most value, and where biosolids is “tops.” Let’s focus our biosolids programs on the manufacture of a Top Sustainable Top Soil.