MidAtlantic Biosolids Association

Biosolids News You Can Use 5-29-2020

Tracking and Treating the Coronavirus in Human Waste
Michigan Tech University (5/27/20) - A research team at Michigan Tech is studying whether SARS-CoV-2 virus particles are infectious in biosolids when spread on agricultural land. “The research team has proposed spiking biosolids with another virus that shares many properties with SARS-CoV-2, but does not cause serious illness in humans. By exposing the biosolids to different combinations of temperature, sunlight and moisture, and by measuring the levels of this other virus in the biosolids over time, the researchers should be able to predict the survival of the coronavirus under a wide range of conditions.”
Sewage Sludge Can Be an Early Warning of Coronavirus

Using waste to grow wonders
San Francisco, CA  (5/27/20) - In a study from this year, researchers combined high-quality biosolids with other urban waste, including food and yard waste, sawdust, and nut shells. They tested the mixtures for how well they supported the germination and growth of plants and a group of volunteers evaluated their appearance and odor. 

Firefighting Foam Manufacturer Says Most Wells Tested So Far Turned Up No Trace Of PFAS
Marinette County , WI (5/20/20) - The majority of more than 250 drinking water wells Tyco has tested in Marinette County turned up with no trace of PFAS. Even with that good news regulators say it's too early to tell the scope of PFAS contamination within drinking water in the area. “Tyco, which is part of Johnson Controls International, said in a May 14 update that 69 percent or 185 wells had no detectable levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. There were 247 out of 269 wells tested in the Town of Peshtigo and near farm fields in Porterfield that had PFAS levels below the federal health advisory level (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).”

House Bill Would Ban Sale, Production of PFAS in North Carolina
NC (5/14/20) - Under the newly proposed, House Bill 1109, companies will not be allowed to manufacture PFAS in North Carolina. The bill would also allow DEQ to assess civil penalties for first and second offenses up to $200,000 per month and appropriate $100,000 in one-time money for additional monitoring and enforcement.

Safety Closure for Construction Work at City Wastewater Treatment Plant
Marysville, WA (5/15/2020) - Work is starting on the City of Marysville 2020 Biosolids Removal and Reuse project. This project will involve removing 15,100 dry tons of stored biosolids from the wastewater treatment plant’s aeration cells and lagoons. The biosolids will then be dredged, screened and dewatered on the biosolids processing pad at the south end of the lagoons. Finally, the biosolids will be sent to the Department of Ecology-approved Beneficial Use Facility for application on agricultural croplands. 

Hong Kong Systematically Expands Resource Recovery Capacity, Invests in Integrated Reuse Infrastructure
Hong Kong (5/20/20) - The Drainage Services Department (DSD) of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has selected Black & Veatch to conduct a three-year investigation into upgrading the Tai Po Sewage Treatment Works (STW). Two goals of the upgrade are to increase the capacity of sewage treatment, biosolids management, energy recovery, and sewage discharge disposal to support the needs of the Tai Po District and to provide facilities to receive and digest sludge from the sewage treatment works in eastern New Territories for co-digestion with pre-treated food waste.

Biosolids Considered for Fuel at LaFarge Plant in Richmond
Richmond, BC, Canada - LaFarge plans to burn 3,5000 metric tons of biosolids pellets per year originating from Vancouver Island, at its Richmond plant.


SPOTLIGHT on Biosolids Users

Our commitment to RESOURCE RECOVERY is only as genuine as we have people out in the field using our biosolids products for soil improvement and plant growth. The May SPOTLIGHT is on these "customers" of biosolids who every day are working on projects to put biosolids to good use. Four profiles are offered below, but we hope to have many more in the future.


Strong client relations and premium compost are two key ingredients to Rodney Hopkins’s success with Innovative Turf Application and Consulting (ITAC), a company he founded outside of Richmond, Virginia. ITAC is a premiere turf company, with a highly trained staff, offering services tailored to turf demands of athletic fields.  ITAC has had success with its use of McGill SoilBuilder Premium Compost in sports field management.  According to Hopkins, the biosolids-based compost positively impacts soil structure which in turn improves moisture retention, producing a result that both ITAC and its customers quickly realized as a major benefit and positive alternative to synthetic products. ITAC counts some of the best athletic fields in Virginia as its clients, with a strong focus on building and maintaining the best athletic fields, utilizing biosolids based product as a key part of that success.


Peter Price, raised on a beef and veal farm in rural Bradford County, Pennsylvania, is the ultimate biosolids guy. He is a big biosolids user, with his father and siblings moving the family farm operation from that of hay purchaser to that of hay seller, through the great yields afforded by biosolids pellets.  He is also a biosolids expert, serving as Technical Services Manager for Synagro in Maryland and Pennsylvania, where he and his team (Corinne Darragh, Daniel Rohe, Amy Welker and Kevin Smeltz) are responsible for land base management, permit and registration processing, regulatory compliance, and community relations.  In his spare time, Peter keeps bees, scuba dives, and works toward his private pilot license. He resides in East Coventry, Chester County, with his wife Natasha and their three sons – Rowan, Peyton and Braeden.   



Leroy Zimmerman is owner of Custom Ag Service, LLC, a company out of Marietta, PA, that applies lime and manure for farmers in Pennsylvania.  Importantly for the biosolids profession, Leroy has applied biosolids to farms in eastern Pennsylvania for well over 30 years. He has recently been spreading heat-dried biosolids pellets, using equipment of his own design that reduces dust release.  He has been a key part of the distribution program for the Clean & Green Recycling Corporation, a merchant dryer operation in Lindenhurst, Long Island, NY. Leroy has been providing pellets to farmers in the northeastern quadrant of Pennsylvania, which is not as over-supplied with manure as is the southcentral region. He works with biosolids specialist, Diane Garvey, Garvey Resources, Inc, under a distribution program authorized by PADEP General Permit 7 for Exceptional Quality Biosolids. Diane provides Leroy support with compliance with nutrient management, notification, recordkeeping and reporting requirements.


Mark Younkins connects the anaerobically digested cake produced by Capital Region Water AWTF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with farmers such as Mahlon Lapp, in Lancaster County. Although the son of health care professionals in State College, Mark was instead inspired to seek a career that offered time in the outdoors and in agriculture, and thereby completed a soil science option in the Environmental Resource Management program at Penn State. Mark found a great match with the biosolids services offered by his employer, Material Matters, Inc. Mark’s role is to provide the logistics of matching the farmer’s windows of  landspreading opportunity with truck deliveries, WRRF cake production with field staging or on‐farm storage. He also oversees biosolids spreading at the farm sites under Pennsylvania’s General Permit, flagging of field setback boundaries, setting biosolids application rates, and complying with recordkeeping and regulatory requirements. In a real sense, Mark makes the connection between biosolids and soil.



Managing Existential Risks of Our Biosolids Programs

“Existential Risk.” Just a few short weeks ago I had only a vague notion what that phrase might mean, and it was not the coronavirus pandemic alone that causes this phrase to be “front of mind.”  A lifetime ago, actually back on April 9, U.K. moral philosopher Toby Ord was interviewed for the Ezra Klein podcast (“Toby Ord on existential risk, Donald Trump, and thinking in probabilities”) discussing Ord’s exercise of framing the total scope of risks confronting the existence of humanity. No small questions on Dr. Ord’s mind. Spoiler alert, he opines that humanity’s existential risks, the ones that give us a combined chance of 1 in 6 of not reaching 2100, arise from “unaligned” artificial intelligence and from engineered pandemic viruses, not climate change and global habitat destruction, as I had expected. But he arrives at this conclusion from a rigorous, objective analysis of probabilities of risk. That approach had me download to my Kindle his book, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity.  The book is half appendices; Ord gets deep in the weeds on his methods of comparing and overlaying risks. These methods are relevant to biosolids management.

I am wide open today to learning about risks. A colleague sent The New York Times opinion piece on risk, Embracing the Uncertainties, and this directed me to another article,  The Pandemic Isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System. “Black swan” is a concept of another “big thinker,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who co-authored a prescient article in January “Systemic Risk of Pandemic via Novel Pathogens—Coronavirus: A Note (1/26/2020).” Taleb is also author of the 2012 book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, which I also downloaded to my Kindle

The common thread of these two books is the argument that existential risks of global proportion require that humanity has governance systems able to quickly deploy rigorous science and compel global mutual action. Ord argues that the coronavirus may cause humanity to forge new global responses.  Taleb explains that “antifragility” is a concept where “errors create benefits… gene pools take advantage of shocks to enhance its fitness.” Today, humanity is fragile and is not set up for global response. Our national and local leaders focus on the front of a risk curve, rather than the far end of the curve.

Coronavirus may be the lever that causes humanity to develop effective responses beyond the pandemic to global climate change. Maybe not. The article, “After the Coronavirus, Two Sharply Divergent Paths on Climate,” presents both cases. The path toward climate action is not foreclosed, and that is my hopeful view, a view I learned in another podcast I share with Bill Gates.

Risks in the years ahead arising from fragility of our economy and environment are huge, even beyond the risks posed by the coronavirus. Our economic system is fragile: America’s (Still) Committing Economic Suicide: Why America is Facing Unprecedented Economic Disaster. Our food system is fragile: How resilient is the United States’ food system to pandemics? and Coronavirus Exposes Our Food System's Crisis, The coronavirus outbreak may be in part a result of environmental destruction (Coronavirus Pandemic Linked to Destruction of Wildlife and World's Ecosystems).  We have experienced the fragility of our health care delivery system, here in the U.S. and globally: The Curve Is Not Flat Enough.  And we see, too, the fragility of education and communication systems that have given short shrift to, and undermined the prestige of, science: Communicating uncertainty about facts, numbers and science

Our biosolids treatment and use programs are fragile. Ord’s The Precipice underscores the weakness of groupthink that hides risks and fragility from clear view and diverts our attention to risks that are not most important.  Our profession has a predictable perspective on risks that is revealed in the topics we cover in conferences, professional papers and research. Our attention has been commanded recently by PFAS and other persistent organic micropollutants: PFAS get the updates at the NEBRA PFAS webpage; and, pharmaceutical and personal care products, receives extensive review articles and cutting edge research.  Our attention is given to microbes and pathogens, with a search for new indicator organisms (including viruses) and for risks to workers and the public from potential exposures during land application.  Our attention is on technology solutions purported to lower risks, as with sustainable, low carbon footprint “Class A EQ products.”  We have given attention to odors as a health risk, showing that the risk is low, and we have learned that odor is a community nuisance issue, because our attention is grabbed by angry neighbors who are a risk to our programs. Our attention has been grabbed by naysayers who argue there is a risk from adverse effects of biosolids on soil quality, and we responded by having our national and international research organizations demonstrate biosolids pose low risks and offer significant benefits.

Our biosolids programs remain at risk, and we ought to figure out how to describe those risks. Toby Ord deploys a method of risk calculation that has a strong historical component. For example, he asks, over the 200,000 year of modern human species, has disease wiped out our species? No, in the worst known event, 30% of regional populations were lost to the plague in Europe in 1347, which, while horrible, does not rise to existential risk to humanity. He deploys scientific estimation. For example, even at “fat-tail” of risk projections, climate change raises sea level 250 feet and average global temperatures 14-degree F. At this fat-tail of climate change risks, human civilization will persist somewhere on Earth, though much further north. Existential risk to humanity is for keeps, and the ability of humanity to understand this risk and respond effectively is vital for humanity’s survival.

Have we as a professional practice missed opportunities to better understand risks in biosolids management?  First, following Toby Ord’s approach, we can ask the question, what kinds of risks have caused significant failures in biosolids programs over the past 50 years (using Earth Day as the starting point)? Second, we can ask the other question that Ord uses, and to which he ascribes significant risk, and that is what role may be played by “unknown risks?” As a thought experiment, Ord would have us ask experts in 1920 what are the greatest risks to humanity? They would have understandably answer that warring global powers and flu pandemic were top risks, and, also understandably, they would not point to nuclear weapons, climate change nor artificial intelligence. Third, we can ask Taleb’s question, are our systems designed to be unbreakable, which is good but not great, or are they designed to be adaptive and flexible, a better place to be, and thereby antifragile?

In our biosolids management systems, what might be the experience of historical risks, hidden risks, and fragility? I am now going to draw on my 30 years of biosolids experience at Philadelphia Water Department, rather than on an objective consensus of science and colleagues, which is really what we should one day seek. Here it goes. For microconstituents, I have lived through pesticides, PCBs, flame retardants, dioxin, radioactivity and triclosan; no one compound has caused the industry to stop in its tracks, or be seriously slowed, except in specific cases (see below). I have managed biosolids that has, on occasion, resulted in extraordinary plumes of odorous air, seriously upsetting neighbors and regulators alike, but we “managed” the nuisance, and “met our targets.” Our workers were afraid of bacteria and endotoxins, and had high hopes for “hazard pay,” but 20 years of medical monitoring of over 100 operators and annual industrial toxicology review of their records showed no ill-health among these “highly exposed individuals.” We took a deep breath, and sponsored soil health research by a skeptic at  Penn State, and the findings were mostly benign (On‐Farm Assessment of Biosolids Effects on Soil and Crop Tissue Quality). I had my challenges working down the seemingly never-ending list of risks, ones that are commonly cited as risks in our biosolids planning studies, but none of these categories rose to a level of existential risk for my biosolids program.

Philadelphia’s real risks were not the common ones, but rather in the “fat-tail” of probabilities. The “game-changing” events that seriously impacted its biosolids program are worth taking a quick look at. The first event was the risk of technology failure. Philadelphia participated in a federal grant for innovative technology that had the city build the largest static-pile, negative aeration, open-air biosolids composting facility, the first full-scale facility of its kind along a principal transportation corridor. Intractable odors caused it to close suspend operations after 18 years of struggle. The second event was sudden releases of toxic contamination. On two occasions, point source discharges of gigantic quantities of contaminants occurred, first DDT compounds and second PCBs, creating a nightmare of testing, tracking and quarantining that makes the nightmare of coronavirus feel familiar, with years of game-changing consequences. The third event was a fire caused by employee negligence. The fire caused by careless welding resulted in a total loss of the city’s compost mixing building due to fire. Technology failure, toxic releases, and worker negligence -- these categories do not typically show up in biosolids master planning, triple bottom line evaluations, life cycle assessment or the other tools for developing biosolids programs.

This brings us to the “unforesee-ability” of the pandemic. MABA surveyed its membership in early April on risks to biosolids programs posed by coronavirus. The highest reported risk is one that is, yes, novel. Solid waste shipments to landfills have dropped significantly, a result of a sharply reduced economy, and thus solid waste deliveries are insufficient for adequate commingling with biosolids, thereby causing shutdown of biosolids deliveries. This is a risk factor unforeseen and unforeseeable in biosolids management plans.

Ord and Taleb both point to an approach for unforeseeable, novel risks. They say we need governance systems that are fact-based, vigilant, responsive, flexible, and, importantly, collaborative across societies, or, in our case, across the entire biosolids profession. In reading this recommendation, I recall the example of the Center for Army Lessons Learned, and see it as an “antifragile”  system for responding to unforeseeable risks, This Center is committed to “forward thinking, aligning resources..., fostering readiness... and informing the future,” building “antifragility” into a system otherwise prone to being a top-down, hardened infrastructure environment, which characterizes not only the U.S. Army, but also many biosolids programs.

Biosolids programs, by their nature, manifest an array of risks, from technological, operational, regulatory, political, and contractual. We may latch on to actions mistaken for solutions to such risks on the front end of the probability curve. But the greater risks at the far end of the risk probability curves may not be solvable, say, by “class A technology,” by “energy efficiency solutions,” by “improved odor reduction,” and such well-understood options.  The greater risks may be beyond our ability to describe and assess with current “go-to” solutions. Strength in managing biosolids risks may instead be in the quality of the training and communication we foster both within our agencies and across our profession and in new collaborations that can readily respond to unforeseen risks in timely, intelligent, collaborative and fact-based ways, much like we hope scientists, epidemiologists, public health officials and doctors will achieve in the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.  The viral pandemic has revealed that our global health and economic systems are surprisingly fragile, and in this revelation, there is a warning for us to heed in our own fragile programs.  We need to manage biosolids existential risk.  

Research Updates by Sally Brown, University of Washington

Benefits of Research in Biosolids Benefits

Sometimes it is good to remind yourself of what you get when you invest in research and researchers.  As Northwest Biosolids is coming up to its annual budget process, this seems like a good time to see where those research dollars have gone.  It also helps that I’ve had a good year in terms of publications.  The library this month is all about benefits associated with use of biosolids.  The two main things that all of the publications have in common is that they present work supported in part by Northwest Biosolids and that I’m one of the authors.  You will also note there are no mentions of COVID-19 or PFAS.

One of the things that I’ve focused on over the years is the carbon balance for different uses of biosolids.  The first paper (Greener gas?  Impact of biosolids on carbon intensity of switchgrass ethanol) presents data from a multi-year field trial where we compared biosolids and synthetic fertilizers for growing switchgrass.  Switchgrass has been touted as a ‘green’ source of feedstocks for ethanol.  Several papers have shown that corn-based ethanol is not the answer, as it has high nutrient, water and energy requirements to make fuel.  Switchgrass, as a perennial crop with lower nutrient requirements, can be used to produce ethanol with a much lower carbon intensity.  Put this in your engine and you can really feel good.  An aside here: this research was started before anyone knew who Elon Musk was and before the Model S Tesla had been released.  We tested biosolids to see if we could make that ethanol even greener.  We measured plant yield, chemical composition and potential ethanol yield per acre.  We also measured nitrous oxide emissions, the potential Achilles heel due to the high CO2e of N2O.  The answer is biosolids worked great, much better than using synthetic fertilizers.  So, if you are looking for a non-food chain crop for your bioenergy, here is one option. 

The 2nd paper (Carbon accounting for compost use in urban areas) also focuses on carbon accounting.  Here we are going in the opposite direction of non-food chain crop; we are going toward urban uses of biosolids composts.  There are lots of ways to use composts in cities.  In this paper we considered using the biosolids composts for growing grass, trees and vegetables.  We also considered the less glamorous but also important use of compost to control erosion and flooding on roadside right of ways.  If you land apply your biosolids, carbon accounting is a way to show how you are doing good for the planet, whether your crop is switchgrass or not.  Composting with use by your actual ratepayers has its own benefits.  If you have ever used biosolids compost to grow fruits or flowers, you know what I mean.  The question is, do you still sequester carbon?  The short answer is yes; the longer answer is that how much carbon you sequester depends on who and how it is being used.  It turns out that your most loyal customer, the one who regularly comes and picks up their own compost, applies it to their lovingly-tended lawn, gives you the least benefit.  The new developer, who gets it delivered by the truckload and puts it on the soil they nearly destroyed building those townhouses, will give you the most.  An easy to read version of this article is also available in BioCycle Magazine (https://www.biocycle.net/2020/03/17/urban-compost-math-calculating-carbon-offsets/).


Taking urban use one step further, the third article (Creating topsoils and soil conditioners from biosolids and urban residuals) reports on the work by Ryan Batjiaka who used biosolids from San Francisco and a range of residuals-based materials from the Bay Area to make different biosolid-based potting soils and topdress products.  Class A biosolids are great but are typically not the product you want to distribute locally in a ‘cake’ form.  Modeling his work on the success of Tacoma’s TAGRO program, Ryan set to making his mixes.  He had panelists look and smell the mixes.  He tested a range of soil chemical properties.  He tried to germinate seedlings.  And he grew petunias.   Some of those petunias were lovely, others not so much.

He generally found that mixing the biosolids 50:50 by volume with a range of urban wood waste gave you a product that smelled good, looked good and grew pretty flowers.  The woody material he used was low in contaminants, something that had been a big concern.  A range of chars were too strong in the quantities he tested, up to 25% by volume.  But these materials have potential for use at lower rates and even for making composts.  Again- a version of this paper is also out in BioCycle Magazine (https://www.biocycle.net/2020/05/05/connections-whats-cooking/).

The last two papers are more general, focusing on the benefits of biosolids.  There was a special issue of a journal coming out with a focus on biosolids.  Rolf Halden, University of Arizona professor and not a known fan of the material, was the editor.  Somehow, we managed to get two papers in there.  The first (Municipal biosolids — A resource for sustainable communities) is a general article on benefits of biosolids with a focus on use in the U.S.  We talk about biosolids for agronomic crops and urban uses.  It is a good, short, summary of benefits.  The final paper (Biosolids and ecosystem services: Making the connection explicit) takes a broader look at benefits.  It considers biosolids and global sanitation in the context of the wide range of ecosystem services.  We talk about soil health and how fundamental using wastes such as biosolids is to restoring soil health and the range of ecosystem services that provides. 

I love what I do and really appreciate the support from Northwest Biosolids and other agencies.  I hope you will love some of what that support gets you. 


Symposiums & Presentations

2019 Summer Symposium

2018 Annual Meeting & Symposium

2018 Summer Symposium

2017 Annual Meeting & Symposium

2017 Summer Symposium

2017 NJWEA Workshop

2016 Annual Meeting & Symposium

2016 Summer Symposium

2016 NJWEA Workshop