The Legacy of Biosolids Mine Site Reclamation

Hope perfused the atmosphere of the MABA’s 2016 Summer Technical Symposium at Baltimore’s Back River Plant on July 19th and 20th. Hope that state nutrient regulations would be workable, hope that advances in digestion would improve product quality, hope that dryers and composters would continue to work, hope that new technologies would be embraced, hope that phosphorus would be reduced, hope that the workshop would be well attended (my personal hope) – these hopes lived within us at the symposium. You can relive these two days and feel the hope yourself, by reviewing the presentations posted at the MABA website, which the speakers have generously permitted us to do.

We had the privilege of honoring soon-to-be-retired, USDA scientist Dr. Rufus Chaney and having him share with us “Biosolids Regulations: The 25 Year History of Sound Science.” Dr. Chaney had hoped to retire on July 29th, but he is now looking at March 2017, committed as he is to finishing a couple of research projects.
Dr. Chaney played a BIG part in refining the Part 503 regulations some 20 years ago, where he took the initiative to convene a group of scientists that put the entire federal regulatory scheme for biosolids on a sound foundation of science. Read for yourself Dr. Chaney’s astonishing curriculum vitae.

Dr. Chaney also retold the story of a significant reclamation project, one to which Philadelphia was contributor during my term with its Water Department. This was the reclamation of 800 acres of a heavy-metal poisoned Superfund site in Palmerton, Pennsylvania. As he tells it, vegetative restoration to a damaged section of Blue Mountain was denied the area closest to the Appalachian Trail that caps the ridge-line due to some misguided concern for public contact with biosolids. But what about the concern for heavy metal exposure and for the sheer ugliness of the devastated landscape? Precisely the point of Dr. Chaney’s remarks to us in Baltimore. If “sound science” had guided policy and programs, the trail would be beautiful today.
Dr. Chaney was part of a team of scientists at work to use biosolids to correct damaged landscapes.

In the Baltimore audience listening to Dr, Chaney’s historical account was Ken Pantuck, an EPA scientist with deep historical engagement, too, with reclamation. Pantuck worked with Dr. Chaney and others, notably Dr. Lee Daniels of Virginia Tech, on a key project nearly 20 years ago, using biosolids in reclaiming metal-poisoned soil in the mineral-rich region of Upper Silesia in southwestern Poland. A series of earlier reclamation efforts had failed, but this team from EPA, USDA and Virginia Tech successfully deployed biosolids sourced from new Polish wastewater treatment plants. Results of test plots, reported in the 1998 article Reclamation of Pb/Zn Smelter Waste in Upper Silesia, Poland, showed potential for reducing metal mobility and for revegetation with grasses and native vegetation, Longer term studies on wildlife and food system safety were done with Dr. Chaney’s help and reported in Biological aspects of metal waste reclamation with biosolids.

Reviewing this research work in Poland reminded me of a workshop session of which I was part, convened by EPA in 2008 to harness the expertise of scientists experienced with residuals in large-scale landscape restoration projects. Dr. Chaney was one of the key contributors. This resulted in: “Ecological Revitalization: Turning Contaminated Properties into Community Assets.” This report, with “property managers” as the target audience, is, in my mind, an excellent tool for explaining the role of biosolids in ecological restoration.

In “googling” for the current status of Palmerton restoration, I was riveted by the work of Christopher Matthews, author of Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences. Matthews documented abandoned places across America, and Palmerton is just one among many such places. Matthews’ website contains a good history of the Palmerton site, He offers a slide show of what remains of the former New Jersey Zinc factory, at one time one of the largest U.S. producers of zinc. New Jersey Zinc is now a collection of abandoned buildings. The landscape that Dr. Chaney advised on is 2,000 acres of soilless and lifeless debris on Blue Mountain, made barren by decades of downwind toxic air emissions. Contaminant sediments flowed off the hillside into local creeks and rivers; elevated levels of lead were found in children, and a range of heavy metals were measured in wildlife. The US EPA documented the restoration program, including the use of biosolids, in its brochure EPA Abandoned Mine Lands Innovative Technology Case Study. I learned, too, from my “googling” that Palmerton Superfund reclamation work is still in progress. The current owner is working under EPA’s supervision on the most difficult unit, the “Cinder Pile,” but mushroom compost has supplanted biosolids (EPA Superfund Program: PALMERTON ZINC PILE, PALMERTON, PA).
Palmerton does not stand alone as part of “abandoned America.”

At the MABA conference, we heard of one other such site. Mike Nicholson from WeCare Organics presented reclamation work at the Blackwood mining site in Tremont, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Blackwood was home to a coal mining village in the early 1900’s. The site is still permitted for mining, but work at the site has changed focus to reclamation and beneficial-reuse. As you can learn from Nicholson’s presentation, WeCare has been part of distributing 80,000 tons of Class A product for restoring the site, including crops and, my favorite, a hybrid poplar tree plantation. WeCare is working to become a source of soil amendment for use on degraded lands beyond its Blackwood facility boundaries.

Science and experience has shown the value of biosolids in hard to treat, abandoned sites. Several projects have been spearheaded by “recycling” advocates in our industry. DC Water’s Chris Peot, under the guidance again of Virginia Tech’s Daniels, brought to the Stafford Airport (Virginia), first in 2002 and then again in 2013, its lime-stabilized biosolids for reclaiming a particularly acidic residuum exposed during construction to protect a nearby stream from sulfuric acid discharges. The story of this project is given in Biosolids rehabilitate soil at Stafford airport—again.

A more recent focus on biosolids use for land restoration comes from California, the consequence of 15 years of drought and infestation by pine bark beetles. The California Association of Sanitation Agencies has advocated for a role for biosolids in restoration of fire ravaged lands. It has promoted biosolids as a resource for building soil health, including the challenge of remediating land claimed by fires. CASA has shared a collection of research projects showing the evidence of biosolids to increase vegetation, to decrease nutrient runoff, and to hold water and soil nutrients.

Why haven’t we seen everyone jump onto the bandwagon to deploy biosolids for building healthy soils? Perhaps we haven’t effectively empowered all of our workers to stand tall and proud in their profession. To that end, I urge you to encourage enrollment at the WEFTEC Workshop 21 -- Fundamentals of Land Application and Certification of Personnel (Sunday, September 25, 2016, 8:30 am ‐ 5:00 pm).
After all, we have a compellingly effective tool for transforming landscapes that are poisonous and bleak into landscapes that are verdant and vibrant. Perhaps we need to do more to pro-actively advocate use of biosolids to those communities that are home to seriously degraded landscapes. We could show them how, by embracing biosolids as a resource, they can overcome abandonment and thereby restore not only landscapes, but Restore Hope.