Biosolids Truth MABA Annual Symposium Recap

Happy Thanksgiving! My favorite national holiday of all!

We now have a word for it!

I read in the Washington Post (11/16/2016) that the Oxford Dictionaries recorded a 2000% increase in this word’s usage between 2015 and 2016, with the Brexit referendum in the UK and the Trump-Clinton campaign in the U.S.   Oxford’s international word of the year for 2016 is: “post-truth.”

Oxford defines post-truth as: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Oxford explains that the ‘post-‘ prefix doesn't mean ‘after’ so much as it implies an atmosphere in which a notion is irrelevant.” It further notes that “post-truth” captures the “ethos, mood or preoccupations of [2016].”

Facts are irrelevant?  I don’t need to get into a political debate to explain to all of you biosolids practitioners what post-truth feels like. We experience post-truth frequently in debates over recovering resource value from our biosolids. I feel I will be using “post-truth” frequently going forward, perhaps more to myself than to our critics.

That is why the MABA annual symposium in Wilmington, Delaware, provided so great a respite from post-truth in its many manifestations, when we were treated to the truth-telling of 15 experts on a wide range of biosolids truth. I want to review half of these truth-telling presentations this week, and the rest in the subsequent News.

I don’t think anyone attending the symposium wasn’t blown away by the magic of Dr. Jeffrey Buyer’s presentation (The role of microbes on soil health and questions for biosolids research) on soil microbes. For me, one of the very astonishing slides, one that still has my head shaking, involved graphical representations of the microbial population diversity in human waste versus the microbial communities in the sewage in sewer pipe versus the communities in biosolids. The microbial profiles were entirely different!  The biosolids truth: microbial populations we flush to the sewer bear almost no similarity to those in biosolids.  Who knew?

Another point I took away from Dr. Buyer’s presentation was the resilience of soil microbial ecosystems. They preserve their characteristic microbial biome structure through drought, cultivation, fertilization and biosolids. There is one caveat, drawn from manure research, that repeated biosolids applications, over time, might be altering soil microbial communities. I find this a reassuring notion, for some reason, and one we can hope to support with future research.  Check out Dr. Buyer’s presentation, and see for yourself this biosolids truth: biosolids constitutes a microbiome, the effects of which on soil are unexplored.

We experimented with teleconferencing speakers from remote locations. One prize presentation (Results of the National Sewage Sludge Repository at Arizona State University: Contaminant Prioritization, Human Health Implications and Opportunities for Resource Recovery) was from a newly minted PhD at Arizona State University, Dr. Venkatesan. He presented the work he has done over the past 5 years, along with Dr. Rolf Halden, on the National Sewage Sludge Repository. The repository is the collections of representative biosolids sample taken during the several rounds of testing by the US EPA some 15 years ago. Dr Venkatesan analyzed these for persistent organic pollutants.  We celebrated with him the removal by the FDA of triclocan and triclocarban from consumer products this past year.  We learned this biosolids truth: FDA’s ban of triclosan and triclocarban will eliminate 60 % of persistent pollutant loadings in biosolids.

Dr Venkatesan had a bold proposal for us. He asserts that biosolids is very much like the human being, in that it contains lipids that capture from daily exposure lipophilic contaminants in food, water and consumer products. Biosolids could be an early warning material for exposures to pollutants, one that is more immediate than a post mortem evaluation of you or me. The biosolids truth: biosolids contains a large array of chemicals that are markers of human exposure.

Phosphorus was a VERY BIG DEAL in the two-day symposium.  Trudy Johnston had arranged participation by regulators from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, each states with phosphorus contributions to the Chesapeake Bay and with programs to reduce flows of phosphorus to the Bay.  Dr. Herschell Elliott of Penn State University provided in his presentation (Will phosphorus scuttle biosolids land application? ) the scientific basis for a nuanced approaches to the effects of soil phosphorus loadings. But to place the issue in the context of the politics of inter-state management, Synagro’s John Uzupis described  (An agronomic review of phosphorus in biosolids and how it relates to the Chesapeake Bay States of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia ) the likely regulatory path. The biosolids truth: regulation of phosphorus at wastewater plants continues to be the easier path for regulators than control of farmland losses.

For me the bottom line is the faster we embrace technologies to extract P from wastewater influent or from sludge solids, the better we will be from a biosolids application standpoint.  This point circles back to Dr. Venkatesan’s presentation, when he tells this biosolids truth: biosolids is a valuable source of phosphorus and deserves recovery.  Dr. Venkatesan reported on the work of his ASU colleague, Paul Westerhoff, on calculating the value of biosolids (Characterization, Recovery Opportunities, and Valuation of Metals in Municipal Sludges from U.S. Wastewater Treatment Plants Nationwide). This study gives a high commodity value to P among a large array of other elements.  Though the crisis is not yet upon us, at least not nearly as closely as climate change, the threat of future global P shortages genuinely warrant action today.

Yes, biosolids can be complicated, with a swirl of issues, such as persistent pollutants and phosphorus, yet science holds out, with hope and vigor, the possibility of TRUTH.  This will be the only way we can get beyond biosolids post-truth, with relentless commitment to Biosolids Truth.