A rural rebellion is brewing over Charlotte’s plan to expand its exports of sewage sludge to fertilize farm fields east of the city.
For the second time in two years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities is stirring anger among residents dead set against a decades-old practice that state and federal authorities say is safe.
Opponents in Cabarrus and Rowan counties, where CMUD wants to add 1,300 acres of farmland to its sludge territory, envision undetected contaminants poisoning fields and groundwater.
That prospect has prompted boisterous community meetings and set kin against kin in a region along the Cabarrus-Rowan border where many are related.
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“This is not something that makes anything all pretty and green and natural,” said Myra Neal Morrison, 73, petite inside her massive John Deere combine as she paused from harvesting soybeans this week.
Morrison has farmed since the mid-1960s and now grows row crops, hay, cattle and sheep on 1,000 acres a few miles north of Mount Pleasant.
Sludge is a byproduct of sewage and water treatment. It’s properly called “biosolids” when processed for land application by killing bacteria and other disease-carrying microbes. Charlotte-Mecklenburg plans to spend $100 million over the next six years to totally eliminate pathogens, making its sludge clean enough to sell to retail customers.
Morrison doesn’t worry about germs.
“My biggest concern is PCBs, arsenic, heavy metals – all the kinds of things that they can’t check for,” she said. “If one bit of PCBs or mercury hits the fields, it’s basically there forever.”
PCBs are the latest entry into the sludge debate.
In February, the likely carcinogen was detected at a Charlotte sewage treatment plant after being illegally dumped into a grocery store’s grease trap. The chemicals were found at a second treatment plant in April. CMUD has spent millions of dollars to dispose of it, decontaminate tanks and step up its detection protocols.
CMUD believes no PCB-contaminated sludge was spread on fields but increased its testing to detect future contamination. The utility adopted a 10 parts per million limit for PCBs in sludge, which it says is the strictest in the nation.
The expansion in Iredell, Rowan and Cabarrus counties, to a total of more than 12,000 acres in 10 North Carolina counties, is intended to keep a surplus of farm sites available, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities director Barry Gullet said.
It’s also to answer farmers’ demand for sludge, he said.
“This is a very popular program with the agricultural community,” Gullet said. “This is not something that we’re trying to push on anybody.”
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources expects to hold a public hearing on the expansion but has not yet scheduled one.
South Carolina residents last year packed meetings by the hundreds to protest renewal of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s sludge-spreading permit in that state.
Utilities say much of the growing opposition to sludge results from suburbs pushing into farmland. But much of the heat in Rowan and Cabarrus counties came from families entrenched on the land for generations.
“Farmers can do what they want on their own property,” said property owner Clement Hammill, whose logging company has cut trees for the same sawmill for nearly a century. “The problem is that what they’re putting on their property is going to end up on our property or under our property.”
The Environmental Protection Agency regulates sludge based on standards adopted in 1993, including testing for disease-spreading microbes and nine metals that can be toxic in high doses.
EPA quotes the National Academy of Sciences as concluding that proper use of sludge “presents negligible risk to the consumer, to crop production and to the environment.”
Jeffrey White, a N.C. State University soil scientist, said there’s good reason to make use of the fertilizer – with caution.
White said there’s little evidence of harm from metals in sludge since the EPA adopted its standards. Industries have to pre-treat metal laden wastes and are sometimes prohibited from sending it to treatment plants.
But the EPA has also found pharmaceuticals, antibacterial chemicals, hormonal products and fire retardants in sludge – chemicals for which utilities aren’t required to test.
“Essentially everything that goes down a drain could turn up in biosolids,” White said. Most of the chemicals don’t appear in concentrations that are likely to hurt people, he said, and they’re further diluted when sludge is spread.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. Everyone should be concerned that biosolids are being put on the land, largely because they could hold contaminants that they’re not aware of. But there’s been little or no proven evidence of harm.”
CMUD operations chief Jackie Jarrell said the utility’s contaminant test results come in well below federal limits. Pre-treatment of wastewater by industries helps, she said.
Charlotte resident Lance Riley is unpersuaded. Riley has vested interests: a doctorate in aquatic science and parents who live next to Rowan County farmland vying for sludge.
“My primary objection is all the unknowns,” he said. “They only test for a handful of things. My objection is what’s not tested for, and pathogens and the potential for the development of superbugs.”
The region’s thin, fissured soils, Riley added, provide a ready conduit underground. “I know it’s going to get to groundwater,” he said. “I just know it.”
South Carolina, in renewing CMUD’s sludge permit last year, required the utility to monitor groundwater for contaminants.
Gullet said he “would expect a similar requirement” in North Carolina.
Eliminating pathogens in Charlotte’s sludge, called Class A standards, will give the utility more avenues to get rid of its sludge – to fertilizer makers, for instance. It’s also expected to eventually reduce the volume of sludge by two-thirds.
“Our real goal here is to diversify our options,” Gullet said.
Cabarrus County, meanwhile, decided years ago that spreading sludge on farmland was a bad idea as suburbs spread. The county’s water and sewer authority instead incinerates its sludge and landfills the ash.
The authority cranked up a new, $20 million power plant fueled by sludge that’s processed to burn readily, in late October.
“We are actively seeking participants in importing biosolids to us,” said executive director Coleman Keeter. “We would actively welcome sludge from Charlotte if they would be so inclined and they could get it up to (the standards) we need.”
Gullet said CMUD has evaluated the incinerator but decided against it.
The facility can’t capture airborne PCBs, he said, and some members of the public dislike incinerators the way others hate sludge. Because Cabarrus would charge Charlotte to burn its sludge, he said, the economics don’t work.
“We want to be sure we’re protecting the environment and public health,” Gullet said. “We’re not opposed to those things; we just want to be reasonable about it.”