Environmental Quality and the Genius of Biosolids Managers

Donna Gordon’s TED Talk from 2003, The Emergent Genius of Ant Colonies, is a must see. The ant colonies she describes have no “queen,” no loci of master intelligence, yet their members build elaborate, differentiated nests, and, when threatened with floodwaters, create a massive interlocking lattice to float away safely.

I generally tend to anthromorphize critters, ascribing human qualities to animal species, particularly pets. But Gordon’s message to me is the opposite, I now wish to ascribe to human society generally, and to my biosolids colleagues specifically, that special quality of ant colonies.

I would love to believe that human beings are building a world that reflects a kind of super-intelligence, one beyond the ken of any individual human being, but one in which we all thrive sustainably, against all sorts of challenges, like the ant colonies.

I have my serious doubts. Ants are programmed to serve the common welfare of their massive colony. What about us humans?

I doubt that humans are acting in the interest of a sustainable environmental resources, at least not today. A Global Policy Forum essay on International Trade Agreements specifically identifies the effect of a ‘“race to the bottom,’ in which the only priority is cost effective production, at the expense of workers, resources and sustainability.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement has become a target of environmentalists, among others, for this reason. Groups such as Public Citizen see the hand of “Economic-Elite Domination” in shaping agreements that seem to have such extraordinary environmental downsides.

What does the “TPP” have to do with biosolids? Well, you don’t need to hand me a beer to get me to loosen up and express my opinion that too much of the way we manage biosolids illustrates, in the phrase used to describe international trade, a “race to the bottom.” But this week I confronted just how our current regulatory and economic systems are out of whack with the urgent need to restore “ecosystem services.”

I revisited this week one of my favorite biosolids project sites – beautiful groves of hybrid poplar growing on field of deep-row entrenched biosolids at completed anthracite mines. This is a project of the American Green Corporation (a MABA member.)

After nearly three decades of engagement with biosolids, I continue to hold the opinion that reclamation of coal mine lands is a “highest and best use,” to borrow development lingo, for biosolids. The MABA region has some 600,000 acres of disturbed coal mine lands. All of them are depleted of the nutrients and organic matter which are core biosolids attributes. [BTW, it is hard to get an official estimate of total acreages; this one comes from the Appalachian Voices]. The project site that Philadelphia worked with ten years ago is a stunning model for what is possible; I wrote a summary of this program, and a broad body of journal and gray literature citations supports this work, some items are posted to the MABA website. I was back this week to witness the harvest of ten year old hybrid poplar planted into a field treated with biosolids placed in deep-row trenches. This method of biosolids use has also been studied extensively (see this paper from Maryland project site).

Yet, clearly, “facts of life” will likely have the use of biosolids in such hard-bitten landscapes just a modest slice of the region’s outlets for biosolids. Why? Well, the answer is complicated.

First, the impetus to reclaim old mine sites is not strong.

Most of the 600,000 acres cited above are “pre-act” lands, meaning no one, neither owner nor mining company, is obligated to reclaim them. Only lands disturbed by mining after passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) need to be reclaimed as a condition of obtaining mining permits. Old mines generate no revenue, so they generate no need for reclamation. SMCRA provided for public funds to fix old mines, particularly those posing dangerous conditions, but funds come from a levy on new extraction of coal, so no new mining means no funds for treatment of old mines either. Environmental impacts of historical mining activities will be felt for generations to come. Municipalities directing its biosolids payments to mine reclamation sites are among the few drivers for reclaiming old mines.

Second, the impetus to move nutrients away from overloaded agricultural districts has apparently faded.

No water quality issue in the MABA region has garnered more attention than nutrient enrichment of the Chesapeake Watershed. Central to nutrient flows is animal agriculture, and at a dominant center of animal production in this watershed is Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, bordering the Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake’s prime tributary.

The scope of animal production in Lancaster is difficult to wrap your head around. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Lancaster County has an enormous population of farm animals: 54 million chickens, 276,000 cattle, 359,000 hogs, and 7,000 sheep. This equivalent to nearly 1,500,000 animal units (the expression “animal unit” is 1,000 pounds of livestock, described here.). To put this in perspective, the animal unit equivalent of the population of the New York City, the largest city in the United States, is also 1,500,000 (that is a population of 8.4 million, average weight of 176 pounds). NYC DEP (a MABA member) has 14 wastewater plants producing 400 dry tons daily of biosolids to manage the discharge from 1.5 million animal units of human beings; the residuals of the 1.5 million animal units of livestock in Lancaster are not treated with such high technology systems. (In Pennsylvania overall, the animal unit equivalent of farm animals is 5.5 million; the equivalent of the state’s human population is 2.3 million.)

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to help encourage marketplace solutions to nutrient management, established its Nutrient Trading Credit Program. The big concept was that those folks facing steep capital and operating costs for compliance with nutrient regulations in the Chesapeake would, in essence, pay for lower cost options elsewhere, thereby reducing overall costs to both parties. Thus, municipal wastewater plants would buy regulatory compliance for reducing N and P discharges when paying farmers to reduce those nutrient losses from their farms. The trading was managed by PennVest, and started off several years back with values of roughly $1.50 per pound of N and $3.00 per pound of P. But the most recent auction was cancelled for lack of interest, as prices had fallen. Prices didn’t fall because the nutrient challenges of farmers and wastewater plants had been solved.

This is where my visit to the hybrid poplar site comes in. The environmental benefits to “pre-act” lands of restoring watersheds with residual organic matter and nutrients is overwhelmingly compelling.  Each acre could easily take on thousands of pounds each of nitrogen and phosphorus, so at a couple bucks a pound in a nutrient trade program, this could be a real part of the affordability picture for reclamation.

The site I visited is 85 miles from Lancaster County, an easy 90 minute drive down Interstate 81. Yet, the manager of the mine site said, “I looked hard at the nutrient trading program. There is just no money there. I don’t see how anybody can make it work.” I was left with the thought that, if solutions to excess nutrients in the Chesapeake have not been found when ten thousands of acres of nutrient-less lands are an hour or two drive away, then society’s commitment to a solution is not genuine.

Third, the prospect of a serious carbon credit exchange are dismal.

The hybrid poplar project near Pottsville is, even after 10 years, still in a demonstration mode. American Green continues to collect information on biomass production, nutrient uptake soil improvement, as part of its reporting to state officials. Further down Interstate 81, at Blackwood, WeCare Organics operates another reclamation site, and deep row trenching is one approach. The firm is working with Penn State University, with interest also from state regulators. All of this study will help to demonstrate, among other findings, the role of reclamation at sequestering carbon.

Remember carbon sequestration? What happened to the embrace of greenhouse gas mitigation to help reverse global climate change? Well, there again, what happened to effective political solutions in Congress and Statehouses around issues of great urgency?

Over a year ago, the New York Times printed a piece, Falling Price of Carbon Credits, illustrating how the price of carbon credits had fallen to essentially zero. During the early years of carbon trading, both voluntary locally or at government sponsored exchanges, the price being paid for credits representing a ton of CO2 equivalent was about $40 (that is about $120 per ton of elemental carbon). In 2013, it was hard to sell carbon credits at any price. The irony is that economic researchers are saying that the true value of carbon credits should be between $100 and $200 per ton; see “Cost of carbon should be 200% higher today, say economists.”

Participation of mine sites in carbon credit programs had never been officially established. But that they ought to be and one day would be seemed a plausible assumption to me, and still does. After all, the poplar site I visited this week had had about 60 tons of CO2 equivalent placed in its trenches per acre, and over the past 10 years I would guess that about 20 tons per acre of CO2 equivalent biomass had grown up in the trees. What if this “sequestered” CO2 had yielded credits worth $3,200 per acre (80 tons times $40/ton). This amount is not sufficient to cover the cost of the transport of biosolids and its placement at the mine, but at a price of $200 per ton, the price argued by the London economists, the project might indeed be covered. And, of course, the value of “ecosystem services” regained with the reclamation project extend way beyond that of climate change mitigation.

So, what happened to carbon credit exchanges? Well, what happened to the Lima Climate Change Conference in December 2014? And before that, what happened at the 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development?

Political fashion in United States seems to exclude meaningful debate about the issues of environmental quality and climate change today. Whether it is the political contrivance of “economic-elite domination,” or the failure of our news media to get beyond entertainment and politics, or the failure of the education system in our country to teach science and reasoning skills, the result seems to backsliding in our national commitment to environmental protection and ecosystem service restoration.

In the great scheme of life, biosolids is a small thing. But in some ways it is a kind of barometer indicating the direction humanity is taking in response to unprecedented growth of human population and the consequent strain on resource use. If we can’t as a species get the basics right, plowing our own wastes back into productive uses, how can we ever hope to get the really tough things right, including the very survival of our species?

My charge to biosolids managers, thereby, is to connect the daily routine of your work to the very survival of our human species. Just a modest goal. I am only asking you to be more like our co-inhabitants on Earth, the ants, and move forward with the welfare of our global colony at heart, trusting yourself to the Emergent Genius of Biosolids Managers.