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Colbert County Alabama's commissioner of agriculture said his office plans to create more stringent guidelines regarding the application of treated biosolids to farmland after complaints from residents in at least two northwest Alabama counties.
Residents in Colbert and Limestone counties have expressed concern over the long-term effects of distributing the material on farm fields and pastures.
Biosolids is a term used to describe a product created by treating the sludge left over from the wastewater treatment process. The only other way to dispose of the material is to incinerate it or bury it in a landfill.
Concern began growing after residents learned that a facility near Leighton was receiving and treating large amounts of sludge brought to northwest Alabama from New York City and elsewhere and applying it to farm and pasture land in the area.
Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said he received numerous complaints from northwest Alabama, primarily involving the odor that accompanied the application of the material.
Synagro Executive Vice President Alvin Thomas issued a response Thursday stating that Sparks was very clear in his position that the state would implement guidelines that in most cases would exceed federal guidelines.
Synagro employs 30 at the facility and has an office in Decatur. In all, they have a payroll of $1.27 million and operating expenses of $1.58 million.
The facility processes an average of 500 tons of material daily.
Residents expressed concerns about the effect the application of biosolids might have on the groundwater.
Resident Rick Banks said the material could also be hazardous if it dries and becomes airborne.
Another problem with biosolids involves toxic metals that can build up in the soil over time with repeated applications, according to a study conducted by Dr. Ellen Harrison, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute.
In her study, Harrison stated that the EPA failed to commit to health studies where people reported illness from sludge exposure and that the EPA failed to recognize serious limitations on detecting chemicals in sludge.
Harrison claims in the study that new research indicates that food crops eventually consumed by humans will absorb these toxic metals.
Synagro had been offering the treated biosolid materials to farmers.
Until recently, Synagro had been distributing the biosolids in Limestone County.
County Commission Chairman David Seibert said the commission planned on filing an injunction asking that Synagro stop applying the treated sludge in Limestone County "because of the unknowns involved."
"We had a lot of calls from people," he said. "The main thing with us were the health issues."
Before the injunction could be filed, however, Seibert said the company issued a press release stating the product would no longer be used in Limestone County.
He said pressure from the public on farmers using the product might have been a contributing factor as well.