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S.C. renews Charlotte sludge permit

South Carolina has renewed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department’s permit to spread sewage sludge on farmland south of Charlotte, but with new conditions including monitoring of groundwater.

The city will have to test groundwater at the five South Carolina farms that got the largest amounts of Charlotte sludge in the past five years. Nearly two-thirds of the 81,000 wet tons the city produces each year is shipped to four South Carolina counties.

The permit renewed Monday by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control includes few other measures residents had sought, including advance public notice of sludge applications.

The new permit was issued as Charlotte-Mecklenburg nears the end of a yearlong, $667,000 study of alternatives to spreading the stuff on distant farms.

A byproduct of sewage treatment, nutrient-rich sludge is free fertilizer to farmers. Some neighbors say it stinks, and they worry about other elements of sludge, including metals and chemicals, that could hurt their health.

A crowd of 300 packed a February hearing on renewal of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s permit. The new permit allows the city’s contractor to spread it on 6,439 acres in Chester, York, Lancaster and Fairfield counties.

“There is nothing in this permit that talks about human health,” said Dave Cole, a Chester County data analyst who has badgered DHEC to hold Charlotte to a higher standard.

“We’re reviewing it and we’re going to make a determination what to do next. We are not satisfied with this permit.”

Cole says sludge triggers his wife’s asthma attacks. A University of North Carolina study published in March found evidence that sludge can cause health symptoms up to a mile away.

“DHEC’s overarching conclusion, which is consistent with (the Environmental Protection Agency’s) conclusion, is that there are no proven health risks associated with sludge application,” the agency wrote in renewing the permit.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg says it’s been a victim of mistaken identity in South Carolina. Despite the packed hearing, DHEC says no complaints have been filed about Charlotte’s sludge in five years.

Rock Hill has acknowledged odor complaints about its land applications in the area and now incinerates its sludge.

In addition to the groundwater study, the new permit requires Charlotte-Mecklenburg to write a plan setting out dates to apply sludge based on the crops it fertilizes.

“We’re going to have to sit down with our contractor (Synagro) and talk about changing some management strategies,” said Jean Creech, the city’s residuals technical services manager. “It will take some advance thinking about when to apply.”

South Carolina also reserved the right to revisit the 10-year permit after five years.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg, meanwhile, is reviewing its sludge-handling options for the first time in some 20 years. It’s expected to go to Charlotte City Council in the next month or two.

Incineration hasn’t been discussed, Creech said, because that would raise air-quality issues and Charlotte has ready takers for its sludge. The study will assess processing the city’s sludge to higher “Class A” standards, meaning it carries no disease-causing agents and can be sold directly to the public, she said.

Henderson: 704-358-5051;Twitter: @bhender
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