Human-waste fertilizer aids farmers, worries some Ohio residents
MORRISTOWN, Ohio — Some of what people flush in Pittsburgh-area bathrooms ends up 75 miles away as fertilizer on a cattle field in eastern Ohio.
The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority has produced Alcosoil — also known as sludge or biosolids — for nearly 25 years.
The authority pays to have about 25 percent of the 120,000 tons of human waste collected at its North Side treatment facility each year hauled to farms.
Rick Young, who with his business partner, John Dutton, raises about 2,000 head of beef cattle and farms 6,000 acres of pasture and hay fields in Belmont County, Ohio, said the sludge saved his farm.
Critics, however, contend the fertilizer is loaded with toxic chemicals, pathogens and bacteria that leach into streams or are inhaled by neighbors.
“If you put a pile of cow manure here for six weeks and a pile of this here for six weeks, you wouldn't know the difference,” Young, 65, of Union Township said last week, standing in one of his fields and holding a fistful of sludge.
“All of the neighbors around here know we're stewards of the land. I want to leave it better than I found it.”
Alcosan signed an 18-month contract with Baltimore-based Synagro Technologies Inc. in May. York County residents sued the company in 2008, complaining about odors, flies and medical issues they allege are the result of sludge spread on nearby fields.
“They felt like they were prisoners in their own homes,” said Jim Hecker, environmental enforcement director at Public Justice, a Washington-based law firm representing the 34 York County residents.
Attorneys argued before the state Supreme Court in May. A decision is pending, Hecker said.
“Land-application of biosolids benefits the environment, the public and ratepayers,” Alcosan wrote in a brief filed in December in support of Synagro and the use of sludge.
In addition to the lawsuit, Alcosan officials said they were aware of Synagro's role in a bribery scandal six years ago in Detroit that sent Monica Conyers, Detroit councilwoman and wife of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, one of her aides and former Synagro employees to prison, said Jeanne Clark, an authority spokeswoman. Conyers received thousands of dollars from Synagro employees in Michigan in exchange for her vote approving a $1 billion, 25-year contract with the city.
“Synagro was completely cleared of any wrongdoing by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Detroit case after fully cooperating with the authorities in the related investigation,” Lorrie Loder, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Alcosan incinerates about 45 percent of the waste it handles, making steam to heat its plant, said Douglas A. Jackson, the authority's director of operations and maintenance. The rest becomes sludge.
Synagro hauls some of the sludge to landfills and bills Alcosan $44 a ton. The remainder goes to farms like Young's at a cost of $34 per ton.
Synagro's contract with Alcosan started in July. In the first six months, Alcosan paid the company $203,000 to haul sludge to landfills and $590,000 to take it to farms.
“We have this material coming in 24 hours a day, and we have to find a way to do something with it,” Jackson said. “If we could give it away, that would be great. To make a couple of bucks off it, that may be asking a bit much.”
The authority puts the contract out to bid every few years. It switches companies based on the lowest price, Clark said. The authority worked with Synagro when it started producing Alcosoil in the early 1990s.
Alcosan adds limestone crushed to a powder to the human waste to comply with state regulations regarding bacteria and pathogens, and to make it less attractive to flies and rodents, said Robert Martire, residuals program manager at the authority. The limestone reduces odor.
The authority tests its sludge twice a month — the state requires testing at least once a month — for compliance with state limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, arsenic, cadmium, lead, copper, zinc, mercury and other metals. Levels of most metals found in Alcosoil are above what is found in typical soil but significantly below regulatory limits, Martire said.
Sludge contains dangerous levels of industrial waste, pathogens, bacteria and viruses that can make people sick, Hecker said. The sludge in York County smelled “worse than a herd of dead animals,” he said, and it attracted swarms of flies.
Young, the Ohio cattle farmer, said he hasn't encountered those problems. Neighbors initially protested. Someone once burned 400 round bales of hay.
Dutton, 64, of Flushing, Ohio, Young's business partner, once licked a frozen piece of sludge to prove to a skeptic that it was safe.
“They were wondering what kind of ramifications there were from this sludge,” said John Spiga Jr., a Union Township trustee who said he had been leery of sludge. “But the people aren't complaining that much anymore.”
Young, who declined to address whether he pays for the sludge, said his farm has come a long way in the 20 years since he started spreading the sludge as fertilizer. The land was strip-mined in the 1960s and '70s. Only one type of grass grew on it — a type cattle don't like to eat — after the mining.
About seven different grasses grow now. Fields that once yielded 205 round bales of hay produce 625.
“My dream was to wake up one morning and see nothing but green grass and black cattle,” Young said.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986.