PA Legislative Finance Committee Biosolids Land Application Review Findings and Recommendation

State Rep. Joe Emrick, R-Northampton authored a resolution – House Resolution 60 -  asking the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) to review the beneficial use of sewage sludge on land. In June 2016, the PA House of Representatives passed House Resolution 60. The resolution directed the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) to “review the Commonwealth’s program for the beneficial use of sewage sludge by land application, including the methods currently used for biosolids use and disposal, the costs involved with these methods, and alternatives to the current use and disposal methods.” The resolution also called for the LBFC to review the methods the Department of Environmental Protection uses to administer and enforce the program.
Summary of Recommendations
The key recommendation made in the report was “the DEP modify its General Operating Permit requirements to require biosolids generators to develop odor management plans”. Specifically, the report suggests generators of biosolids establish and implement an odor management plan that incorporates appropriate best practices, taking facility size into consideration, regarding both the treatment process and how the biosolids are stored and applied at receiving sites. 
Find the full report here. 

Below is the list of findings from the report. 

Summary of Findings

Pennsylvania sends more of its biosolids to landfills than most states.

Almost half (about 46 percent) of Pennsylvania biosolids are sent to landfills, with land application—typically on agricultural land—accounting for about 38 percent, and incineration about 15 percent. Nationally, about 60 percent of biosolids are land applied, 20 percent landfilled, and 20 percent incinerated.

No biosolids management method is risk-free.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others have concluded that the risk of land application of biosolids, if done properly, is minimal, some risk may still exist. For example, a 2002 report conducted by the National Academy of Sciences1 found that additional scientific work is needed “to reduce persistent uncertainty about the potential for adverse human health effects from exposure to biosolids.” In response to this report, the EPA has undertaken additional studies to ensure that the chemical and pathogen standards it developed in 1993 are supported by current scientific data and risk-assessment methods. Several of these studies are still on-going. EPA is also required to collect and analyze data at least every two years for the purpose of identifying new pollutants that may need to be regulated. Risks and negative environmental impacts also exist if biosolids are landfilled (landfilling is land intensive and creates the risk of rainfall runoff and possible leaching) or incinerated (releases carbon dioxide and possibly other volatile pollutants into the atmosphere).

Pennsylvania biosolids are classified as either EQ (Exceptional Quality) or non-EQ.

EQ biosolids must meet strict pollution requirements; be treated to have very low pathogen levels, typically through the application of high heat; and have reduced levels of compounds that attract vectors (e.g., insects and rodents). EQ biosolids may be bagged and sold to residential property owners with no restrictions on how the product can be used. Non-EQ biosolids, which comprise over 80 percent of the land-applied biosolids in Pennsylvania, have less strident pollution limits; are treated to reduce pathogens but at levels significantly higher that allowed for EQ biosolids; and have less stringent vector reduction requirements. Non-EQ biosolids are typically supplied to farmers at no cost, but are subject to multiple siting and use restrictions. Farmers can only apply biosolids up to the agronomic rate for nitrogen of the crop being grown.

Land application of biosolids is the least expensive use/disposal method.

While costs can vary widely depending on factors such as the volume of material handled at the treatment facility, the distance between a treatment facility and landfill, and landfill tipping fees, a 2007 report conducted for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that, for large facilities, land application costs an average of $145 per dry ton versus $260 per dry ton for landfill and $290 per dry ton for incineration. The cost difference is less for small facilities, $252 per dry ton for land application verses $280 per dry ton to landfill. Also, landfill costs vary greatly across the state, with significantly higher tipping fees in the eastern part of Pennsylvania. The Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Biosolids Association estimated that, transportation costs being equal, it typically costs large facilities about $45 more per wet ton to landfill biosolids than it does to apply them to land. This too, however, can vary across the state. Based on the information in the Center for Rural Pennsylvania report, total costs for disposing and land application of biosolids generated in Pennsylvania amounted to approximately $70 million in 2007 ($37 million for landfilling, $19 million for land application, and $13 million for incineration).

Biosolids reduce fertilizer costs to farmers.

Biosolids contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and various micronutrients that are beneficial to plant growth. The organic matter in biosolids also reduces surface runoff, reduces erosion, and improves the water- and nutrient-holding capacity of the soil. Additionally, some farmers receive a modest cash payment to offset the cost for spreading non-EQ biosolids. Biosolids have also been used in abandoned mine reclamation efforts in Dauphin, Centre, Clearfield, and Schuylkill Counties.

The use of biosolids is protected under the Right to Farm Act.

The health effects of applying biosolids on farm fields (cited as burning eyes, sore throats, coughing, headaches, and nausea) was a central issue in Gilbert v. Synagro. The complainants also cited odors so bad they could not leave their homes on many occasions. In December 2015, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the ruling of the lower court that the use of biosolids as fertilizer is a “normal agricultural practice” and is, therefore, protected under Pennsylvania’s Right to Farm Act.

Public concern over offensive odors has been cited as the biggest threat to the beneficial use of biosolids.

The odor emanating from biosolids can vary from barely noticeable to highly objectionable, depending on the characteristics of the raw material and how the material is processed and handled. Steps treatment plants can take to reduce odors include adding iron and/or lime and ensuring the material has fully completed the aerobic or anaerobic digestion process. Avoiding land application when wind, humidity, and precipitation conditions are unfavorable and avoiding spreading near residential and commercial properties if the material is unusually odiferous are also steps that can be taken to avoid odor complaints. Negative health effects from breathing biosolids emissions have also been cited, but the EPA reports that the cause of such health complaints is poorly understood and requires additional research.

DEP’s regulation of the land application of biosolids focuses primarily on nitrogen concerns.

If biosolids are applied at a higher amount than a plant’s agronomic rate, excess nitrogen or phosphorus can move into surface water or groundwater DEP, therefore, includes in its general permit an application rate under which the biosolids may be used. The application rate is based on the nitrogen needs of the crop receiving the biosolids. DEP has also expressed concern that biosolids are being applied at rates that exceed plant phosphorus requirements. If
DEP begins to place greater emphasis on excess phosphorous, and depending on how it interprets its regulations, it could significantly reduce the amount of biosolids allowed to be applied on farm land.

DEP only conducts periodic inspections of biosolids land application sites.

DEP’s regulations state that DEP “intends” to conduct an administrative inspection of both biosolids generating facilities and the farms that spread biosolids “at least once a year.” DEP guidelines further state that land application sites should be inspected “periodically” when the site is actively receiving biosolids. We reviewed DEP records for 12 facilities and 36 application sites (6 sampled from each DEP region) for the three-year period 2014-2016. None of the 12 facilities had a DEP inspection pertaining to its biosolids operations (one had an inspection, but it was not related to its biosolids permit). Of the 36 application sites we reviewed, an “intended” administrative file review was conducted on only 30 percent of sites and a routine/complete inspection (not a requirement) was conducted at 9 percent of the
sites.

Pennsylvania’s regulations regarding the beneficial use of biosolids appears to be generally in line with the requirements in other states.

All states must, at a minimum, comply with federal regulations when generating and applying biosolids. States may, however, enact stricter standards at their discretion. We reviewed requirements in several other states with regard to setbacks from water sources, setbacks from occupied dwellings, and requirements for notification to nearby landholders. It was difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons because states use different criteria (e.g., setbacks from occupied dwellings vs. setbacks from property boundaries). Pennsylvania’s requirements were less strict in some instances and stricter in others. Overall, however, Pennsylvania’s regulatory requirements regarding the land application of biosolids appeared to be roughly comparable
to the regulations in the comparison states.

Many new technologies are being developed to improve how biosolids are processed and to create alternative beneficial uses.

Many of these efforts focus on maximizing the energy (primarily methane) stored in sewage sludge to generate heat for the production of steam or electricity. Several Pennsylvania sewage treatment plants already burn the methane produced by anaerobic digesters to provide heat and create electricity for on-site use. Other efforts focus on reducing the amount of energy required in the aeration and drying steps. One of these new technologies is the OmniProcessor, which can use fecal sludge to generate drinkable water, electricity, and a pathogen-free ash. The OmniProcessor has been successfully demonstrated at a test facility in Seattle and at a larger facility in Dakar, Senegal, but there are no full-scale facilities in the United States. A Maine company is seeking to obtain DEP and PUC approval to import dry sewage sludge, in the form of pellets, into Pennsylvania to be used as an innovative alternative fuel at coal-powered power plants. Dried biosolids can also be used as fuel in the kilns used for cement making.