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What to do with sludge?

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Some call it biosolids, others call it sludge. Whatever the euphemisms it was once poop and SLO County officials are trying to decide what to do with it. After more than a decade without a permanent answer on what to do with treated sewage material, county supervisors on April 21 did much the same as they’ve been doing and delayed a final decision.

Biosolids are the solid components left after raw sewage is treated. SLO County’s biosolid debate began in 1998 when county officials were asked for permission to allow the material to be spread on a ranch near San Miguel. A task force was formed to review potential consequences of putting sludge on farmland. By 2004 restrictions were in place to generally prevent people from putting the material on county land.

The existing temporary rules were set to expire on Feb. 28, 2010, but on April 21 county supervisors unanimously extended the deadline another four years. In the interim, county officials will work to develop a permanent solution and raise money to perform a complete Environmental Impact Report on biosolids. An EIR would cost between $150,000 and $200,000 and the county is grappling with a $30 million deficit.

Meanwhile, some people concerned about health risks want to make the rules more stringent. Sometimes biosolids are mixed with green waste and composted, and the resulting product is then used as a fertilizer. County supervisors told local health officials to review limiting or restricting the use of composted biosolids.

Although some local wastewater officials said biosolids are highly regulated and of “exceptional quality,” some worry there are things that slip through the treatment process. A large concern is whether pharmaceuticals and heavy metals often found in human waste and mostly unregulated by environmental agencies could make it into the local food and water supplies.

“This is nothing more than peddling this toxin as a cheap alternative to fertilizers for farmers,” said Lisen Bonnier, a local farmer and member of the county’s Agriculture Liaison Advisory Board.

Without permanent rules, biosolids from local treatment plants get shipped out of the county and most of the material is composted, according to Bruce Keogh of Morro Bay’s wastewater division. Morro Bay is the only city in the county that composts treated sewage and distributes it to the public.

“Without some scientific findings, we would question the limits [the county] would put in place,” he added.

For now the county is effectively waiting. It seems likely county officials will allow biosolids to be placed on ag land in the future. As Supervisor Katcho Achadjian said: “We have to deal with this sooner or later.”

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