FORT MILL TOWNSHIP — Special to the Fort Mill Times
Dave Cole says a permit that allows Charlotte sewage sludge to be spread as fertilizer in South Carolina stinks – literally.
The Chester County man is asking residents in Fort Mill and across York County to publicly oppose the renewal of a permit that allows Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities to spread sludge from its sewage plant on York County farmlands and other rural areas nearby.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control beginning Dec. 28 will be accepting public comments on the application from Charlotte’s utilities department. The application seeks renewal of a permit that allows sludge to be used as fertilizer on more than 6,600 acres in York, Chester, Lancaster and Fairfield counties.
Cole lives less than half a mile from one of the farms where the material is used. He says the stench when it is applied can be overwhelming. And he’s concerned about the impact sewage sludge has on surrounding streams and soil.
“The smell is just unbearable,” he said this week. “I know what turkey litter used as fertilizer smells like, and it stinks, but this just makes your eyes well up.”
In an email to the Fort Mill Times, Cole implores citizens to speak against the use of the substance.
“This permit allows the City of Charlotte to truck human sewage from North Carolina – trucking hazardous toxic waste through Fort Mill – and apply it on fields in South Carolina,” he says. “In addition, if your readers ever venture out of town and into the country, they might end up face-to-face with it while enjoying the outdoors.”
However, proponents of the practice contend it’s a regulated, environmentally-safe method to reuse waste.
What exactly is sludge? The material is known as a “Class B” biosolid. It is essentially leftover solid material from the sewage treatment process. Everything flushed down drains in toilets winds up at sewage plants where it is treated and recycled. Leftover solid materials are treated then disposed of via landfills, incineration or as fertilizer.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg, like many other municipalities in the Carolinas, gives a portion of the sludge to farmers free of charge. Environmental regulations allow it to be used as fertilizer for crops not intended for human consumption.
Charlotte first received its permit in 2000 and began applying the sludge to South Carolina farmlands in 2001, says Jeff deBessonet, a director of permitting at DHEC.
The original permit allowed for 3,000 acres but was amended to include more than 6,000 later on. He says that permit expired in 2010 and must now be renewed for the practice to continue. “They’re still operating right now,” he says. “If they make a timely application for renewal, then we allow them to continue through the process.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities contends that it follows all federal and local guidelines when donating the sludge as fertilizer. About 16,000 acres across the region, including the 6,600 in South Carolina, receive the sludge fertilizer from Charlotte. CMUD says the practice diverts material from landfills.
“The controlled land application of biosolids completes a natural cycle in the environment,” CMUD says in a document explaining the practice. “Recycling biosolids is good for the environment. Organic matter has been recycled for centuries to improve soil fertility and productivity.
“When properly applied and managed, biosolids can provide essential plant nutrients, improve soil structure and tilth, add organic matter, enhance moisture retention and reduce soil erosion.”
Cole disagrees. He argues that Class B sludge has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful materials or traces of materials flushed down drains. In addition to the smell when it is applied, he’s concerned runoff from the sludge could contaminate soils used for growing food or streams that supply drinking water.
DHEC says the material must be used following a strict set of parameters. Guidelines include restrictions on how long farmers must wait before planting in fields treated with the sludge. They also can’t use the material within certain distances of streams or on steep slopes.
“DHEC believes this permit reissue will protect the groundwater and comply with the current sludge disposal regulations,” DHEC says.
Most of the South Carolina farms accepting the sludge fertilizer say it is intended only to fertilize fields of fescue, a common variety of hay.
“If it’s so great and it’s so safe, then why don’t they use it on school playgrounds and parks in Charlotte? If they’re willing to use it there, then I’m OK with it being used here,” Cole says. “But they’re not. Why? That’s what I want to know.”